Monday, February 28, 2011

a stroll

If I had to pick one area in London for a mainstream afternoon out, for something easy and unchallengingly pleasant that can be quite exciting if one is in the right state of mind, I'd go for the area between Long Acre and the Seven Dials. Without attractions or landmarks, the humble backside of Covent Garden, far removed from the glitter of the Royal Opera House or the Savoy, is nevertheless perfect for yuppies and unadventurous tourists on the look for something special.

Over the last few years, the area has become a tightly focused shopping hot spot. There are the ubiquitous corporate monsters like Banana Republic or H&M, but they're rather small and certainly not dominant because the interesting places are interspersed between them. There's a tiny cupcake baker whose display window is filled with pieces of pop-art colored way beyond the imagination of any rainbow. Next door to a dark hole tastefully decorated in velvet, latex and leather, is the boutique of an independent designer of retro fashion. There are the esoterica of Neal Street and the coffee at Monmouth. And on the other end is Stanfords, where I started out my ambling.

Stanfords is a travel bookstore of some renown. They used to be the first stop for adventurers off into the unknown. In a time before the internet and instant information, they were in the know - and they could provide at short notice a map of nearly any place on earth. Today, the store is much more conventional, but still sharply focused. Three vast floors house unimaginable quantities of travel writing, guidebooks, phase books and maps.

Out in the streets, it's a pleasant walk. There's hardly any traffic and the few cars that bravely venture among the pedestrians are clearly at a disadvantage. The buildings lining the streets are four-story warehouses for the most part, survivors of the late 19th century, when commerce meant bringing the world to England. Now they stand tastefully refurbished. Of their erstwhile purpose, only the brick-chic of their facades and the odd third-floor hoist remain. On the ground level are now restaurants and retailers and higher up expensive penthouse apartments.

Near Cambridge Circus is one of very few branches of Fopp, a Scottish music retailer with a story to tell. From humble origins on a street market in Glasgow a national chain rose in the 90s that deluded itself into thinking it could take on the giants of the trade. The rise was fast, the success vertiginous but the whole operation unsustainable. It was a time of violent upheaval in the recorded music business and probably a time a good as any to overthrow the status quo, but Fopp didn't do business much different from any of its competitors. Except they overreached, overstretched and broke. They went out of business even before Zavvi, the national number two, folded a couple of Christmases back. (HMV, the number one, is still hanging on, but only just if the ringing of their tills is any indicator.)

Fopp went bust and most of its stores closed, but the brand remained and found new life with a new owner. It has now been reinvented as a purveyor of lifestyle through music, much as Puma is a purveyor of lifestyle through sporting goods. Both seem to be doing all right. Every time I set foot in it, the Fopp is heaving. The store isn’t particularly large but the shelves form a dense maze that’s nearly impossible to navigate. Anyone stopped for browsing forms an obstacle that’s hard to circumnavigate. Disks are piled on every available surface.

At prices of a permanent going-out-of-business sale, with DVDs starting from two pounds and CDs from three, it’s hard to see who’s making any money, but somehow it works – or it wouldn’t continue. Are the invidious forces of cross-promotion at work? I don't see it. But free, and also nearly free, can be highly profitable, if Chris Anderson is to be believed. Wired editor and previously bestselling author of The Long Tail, he also authored Free, a book about the economics of not charging. I had download the audio version of this book a while ago (legally for free – how could it be any other way?) and starting listening to it on my walk to work the other day. Halfway though, it still couldn't see where Fopp's profits were coming from. With a book and two CDs, I left the store.

Across Shaftesbury Av is a rare treat in London – a good coffee shop that's not crowded. Big windows face the street, and a raised gallery of tables and seats give a great view of the bustle outside. The coffee is good and the pastries, well, you don’t expect much of pastries in London, do you? They even advertise wireless, another rarity in this city, believe it or not, but it’s not working for me. I pulled out my little Eee, just to test it, but there was no connection. As there’s also no CD drive in my netbook, I can’t check out the music I just bought a few minutes ago. But it's getting dark and I'm on my way home anyway. It was a pleasant afternoon.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

beer at home

Manchester played Marseille tonight, Champions League. I thought I'd watch the game and went to my local pub. The Goose is just across the street, a true neighborhood pub without pretensions or frivolous aspirations. It sells pints for about two quid and big meals for a fiver. Most food is reheated, but some of the specials are tasty and everything is incredibly good value. The game wasn't any good, though, and I had all the time in the world to contemplate the pub in the context of contemporary British society.

The Goose is the kind of place where, if you enter with a weary look on your face and two Tesco bags full of unknown items in your hands and take a seat near the fire to warm up from a longish walk through the biting cold, people will approach you with genuine concern in the eyes, asking whether you're all right and could they buy you a drink. Maybe they assume you carry all your possessions in these two bags and want to do their share to help you through tough times. Maybe they do this to all strangers because it's that kind of place. In any case, you sit down and feel at home already, the desire to make it to your planned destination and get on with cooking, dinner and a movie dissipating with every breath you take of the stale air. It doesn't smell all that bad, considering the pub is carpeted throughout.

The carpet is an indicator that you've entered a traditional pub of the authentic kind. This is not the kind that has been painstakingly refurbished to look like it did in 1757 when King George came by to have a pint, where the floorboards have been cut from railroad ties reclaimed from branch lines gone out of business in the early eighties, floorboards that are glossed every morning before the pub opens to give it that rustic feeling of a living past.

The Goose doesn't have a past to be proud of. It just is. But it is in the way it has always been. Nothing has been refurbished or dolled up. The fittings show their age and there's a patina of dried sweat and alcoholic vapor on the dark wood panels. The mirrors on the wall are dull in the corners not because some interior designer decided this little details would add quite a bit of atmosphere but because no one can be bothered to polish them. The Goose is old-school, in other words, and as such it is a rarity of the rarest kind.

Pubs are struggling in the UK. They're still at nearly every corner in every city and there's at least one in every village, but they're dying at an alarming rate. The Economist wrote an obituary in last year's Christmas issue, but that seems a bit premature to me. There are still more pubs than your liver and pancreas could ever want you to visit, but they feel the stiff wind of economic challenge. Most have responded by specializing, and pubs these days can be broadly divided in three categories.

Rather common is the historic pub, often with a blue English Heritage plaque outside and some claim to fame. There are a dozen oldest pubs in London, some where Shakespeare drank and others patronized by Cromwell. Often long on appearance and short on substance, especially in areas popular with tourists, they are wildly popular with tourists. They play to the hazy notions of Good Old England that feature in every guidebook to the country. I wouldn't go into a historic pub in central London but in smaller towns or in the countryside, they can be lovely.

A rather different kind of establishment are gastro-pubs. They arose in the 90s from the realization that beer alone doesn't balance the accounts. People who come for a pint and watch two hours of football aren't good business. So managers started to think about good food and created a refined dining experience that was unlike a restaurant's because the essence of the pub was retained. Gastro-pubs are expensive and don't have TVs. They are popular with yuppies and self-styled urbanists. I love the Havelock Tavern in Olympia and the Cumberland Arms up the road.

The rest of the pubs doesn't fit into either category. They're a place to meet friends and have a beer. Some are great at this and often heaving – standing room only near universities and office buildings – while others are drab: nondescript sports bars with more screens than patrons, wanna-be gastro-pubs with rotten food, and locals that don't succeed at their most important function of being a community hub.

Pubs have always been important for socializing. When industrialization and urbanization washed streams of impoverished peasants into anonymous cities, pubs became retreats from the crowding of tiny, squalid flats. To this day, people are vastly more likely to celebrate birthdays in a pub than invite friends into their homes, but they don't feel the need to go every night. Homes are bigger now and nicer and equipped with big-screen TVs and premium cable subscriptions. The off-license down the road supplies cheap beer, and all of a sudden, the pub loses appeal.

The Goose manages to hang on and stand out. The landlord has drawn ales all his life and knows the regulars by name. He was probably chosen to run the pub by local residents convinced of his upright character, as was tradition. The menu has been expanded over the years to go beyond steak-and-ale pie and fish and chips but has remained simple and affordable. The wall-to-wall carpet in bordeaux and beige makes it clear that this is a living-room. A clientèle of middle-aged locals knows that and comes back, night after night.

The game's over; there hasn't been a goal. I finish my drink, get up, nod a tentative good-bye and get out. Time to go to the bedroom.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

getting closer

This year has started well. I've gotten out – much more than last year. Looking over the numbers and calculating current totals and averages, I feel good. Lack of training won't be a valid excuse if I don't do well this year. In January, I ran 186 km, six per day, more than in the first two months of last year combined. It helped that there was no snow, hardly any rain and even some sun sometimes. It was never too cold for comfort.

And so I've built a solid base. Last week was the end of this first part of the season. A long run took my up the river to the area where the Thames Path peters out in the maze of proud industrial heritage at Brentford, and then back. An hour and forty-five minutes, a bit more than 20k, an endurance test for the traditional season opener at Roding Valley that's coming up next Sunday.

Earlier this week, I've changed gears. Long slow runs won't do anymore. Now speed needs to be built and toughness developed. On Wednesday, I did a serious interval session around the Round Pond at Kensington Gardens. I did ten laps of three quarters around at full speed and one quarter easy, basting my way through lunch walkers, gaping tourists and bird feeders, frantically flapping wings surrounding me like the applause of an enthusiastic audience. A helicopter hovered overhead, inexplicably. Every now and then, I couldn't avoid kicking a gluttonous pigeon that didn't get out of the way fast enough. Around the swans, more menacing than majestic from close up, I swerved widely. Their wrath is better avoided – as is the Queen's, whose property they are.

Today I got to the lab around lunchtime, out of opportunism rather than eagerness or even habit. I had a prep lined up that needed quick working, and on weekends most equipment sits unused and ready. I was by myself. While my protein contently eluted off a big column, I wanted to go to the park for another run, the last serious effort before next Sunday's half marathon. My resolve wasn't lacking, and yet I'm still sitting here. What happened?

Trying to get out of the building, all decked out for a good run, music in ear and laces tied, I couldn't. My swipe card didn't trigger the encouraging beep in the reader nor the expected action. The front door remained stubbornly looked. The guard on duty at the front desk would have let me out, but how could I have got back in? He would certainly not be in our building all Sunday.

I went back up to test some more readers, identifying more doors that used to be open to me but were now closed. Imperial's security, by the way, is onerously paranoid. Card readers are everywhere, making most of the university out of bounds to most people working or studying there. I work in Biochemistry, yet can't get into the Chemistry department, just across the hall, not even to lug up supplies that are delivered to the shared stockroom. Our lab has internal doors that are looked in the evenings and on weekends, for crying out loud. Google probably has laxer policies, and their headquarters is ten minutes from Apple. An open and collaborative academic environment this is not.

Anyway, I found a way in and around, mostly because all the swipe reader still accepted my card. Only the newfangled touch readers refused to cooperate. I even found a way in and out of the building – through the back door of the goods elevator. What I didn't manage was get into the neighboring building where the shower is housed. No shower, no run, obviously. And so I'm still here, sitting on my desk instead of having fun in the park, writing and working instead of running, and looking out of the window every once in a while.

It's a grim sight, by the way. The sky has liquefied. Clouds have merged into a dense soup and drawn close. Yahoo tells me that it's just about 40, but with not even a memory of the sun in the sky, without even a sky to be honest, it would feel much colder. I'm coming to see the defective card readers as an unexpected gift, an injection of joy against the gloominess outside. I would have liked to polish my early-season form ahead of next Sunday's race, but the pinnacle of the season, the London Marathon, is still two months away, and who wants to peak early?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

steps on the way

The other day, in a conversation that might have far-reaching consequences, I was asked, out of the blue, why I change topics so frequently when I write. I was perplexed as first; it hadn't occurred to me. But after a few moments of consideration, I had to agree. Sets of posts tend to come in bursts, dealing with issues that burn in me, issues that are irrepressibly on my mind. Once what needed telling has been told, I happily move on to the next obsession. In my opinion, this is how blogging should be. It's my blog and yet, I had to justify my actions. Not wanting to give the impression of being easily bored, scatter-brained (even constructively) or unsteady, I stammered about being interested in new things, always observing, questioning and analyzing. I doubt I sounded overly convincing.

The other night I finished reading Travels with Herodotus, the last book by the late Polish journalist, reporter, and traveler Ryszard Kapuściński, which was published in 2007, the year of his death. Ever since stepping outside the confines of the Iron Curtain in 1956, Kapuściński wrote copiously about different parts of the world. For years, he was the Polish Press Agency's only foreign correspondent. He was serious about news, diving into places of unrest with scant regard for personal safety. According to a review in Time (Time? Why Time? Since moving homes more than a year ago, I haven't been anywhere near this execrable magazine. But the linked piece gives a good introduction to the book and the man.), Kapuściński was "jailed 40 times, witnessed 27 coups and revolutions, survived four death sentences, contracted tuberculosis, cerebral malaria and blood poisoning, and was once doused with benzene and nearly set ablaze".

Having never read any Kapuściński, I was quite excited about the book, which fell into my hands at the Oxfam on Marylebone High Street a few weeks back, but I was disappointed. Instead of recapitulating his adventures across the world, Kapuściński travels back in time and reads Herodotus' The Histories, the world's first work of fictionalized non-fiction. He got a copy from his boss when he was sent on his first assignment and clearly loves the book. Throughout his career, he reads and rereads it. At the end of his life, he wants to share the love. So over the course of 300 pages he quotes extensively and ponders the implications. Places in Kapuściński's own travels are only ever mentioned in passing, without much depth or detail, and they don't come to life. I found it a rather dull read. (But you can judge for yourself: The New Yorker's abridged version of the first few chapters is freely available online.)

However, on the third to last page was the following remarkable paragraph describing Herodotus:

Creatures like him are insatiable, spongelike organisms, absorbing everything easily and just as easily parting with it. They do not keep anything inside for long, and because nature abhors a vacuum, they constantly need to ingest something new, replenish themselves, multiply, augment. Herodotus's mind is incapable of stopping at one event or one country. Something always propels him forward, drives him on without rest. A fact that he discovered and ascertained today no longer fascinates him tomorrow, and so he must walk (or ride) elsewhere, further away.

I'm no Herodotus, no full-time traveler, no writer, but I can see certain aspects of my own personality in this description. Had I finished the book a few days earlier than I did, I would have had a much better line of argument in the conversation mentioned above, only subtly different from what I had said and certainly related in spirit, but much clearer presented.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

blessed day

I'm going out on a limb here, but the connections in this little story are just too good to ignore. I hope not everything I write will be proven complete rubbish by people more knowledgeable than me. Here it goes.

One of the basic concepts of Arabic syntax is the idafa, which literally means addition but should rather be translated as genitive (or even possessive) construction. When, in a succession of two nouns, the first belongs to the second, only the second gets a definite article. The first one is formally indefinite but becomes definite by association. Whereas in English one says the book of the boy, in Arabic it literally translates to book the boy. Short and sweet, and not nearly as confusing as it sounds.

Let me try to elucidate the concept by contrasting it with similar but different constructs. Al-youm is the day, al being the definite article. Mubarak means blessed or the blessed one. You can probably guess where I'm headed, but indulge me kindly.

I can come up with four ways of combining these two words. Youm al-mubarak – the day of the blessed one. This is the idafa I mentioned earlier. If one strips the single definite article, one is left with youm mubarak – a blessed day. Nothing special here. Saturating the phrase with articles, one gets al-youm al-mubarak – the blessed day. Note the counterintuitive article duplication. The final permutation in this set is al-youm mubarak – the day is blessed. The verb to be is implied.

If you're really creative, you could come up with a fifth way of combining these two words, but only if I tell you that the second word in an idafa doesn't get a definite article if it's a word that just doesn't do articles. That's names for the most part. Youm Mubarak could thus also be the day of Mubarak. Except, today it wasn't. It's probably too early to count blessings but Mubarak's day it certainly wasn't.

For the last three weeks, I've been following the development in Egypt with amazement and incredulity. When Tunisians gave their dictator the boot, it was already beyond imagination. But who would have thought that the political system of the most populous Arabic country, a system tuned over decades for efficient oppression, would fall without much of a fight and despite unquestioning support from the US and European countries?

One person could have told us. Vaclav Havel, a Czech hero who went from dissident to president, once said that the power of the powerful derives from the resignation of the powerless. Oppression is a contract that requires both sides to stick to it. When the powerless rise up, there's no holding them back. All it takes is a change of the collective mind. In East Germany in 1989, the floodgates burst when people took to the streets with the simple slogan We are the people, which was deadly because the country was nominally a democracy.

In Egypt, the dynamics feel very similar. A large majority of the people had enough and wants change. A few pithy demands galvanized them. The state of emergency must go. Mubarak must go. After a few weeks of doing little more than courageously loitering on the impossible to pronounce Tahrir square, the people got what they wanted. Where they're going from now, where the country is headed, is anyone's guess. The idea of democracy is sailing joyfully at the moment, but the will of the people is not sufficient for that if the underpinnings haven't been developed, as Gaza has shown. Similarly and in contrast to what the US likes to think, free elections don't bring about democracy. On the contrary, free elections can only work when democratic structures are established, when speech and the press are free, when parties argue honestly, when losing is seen as a valid option.

Anyway, it's early days, and there's reason to be excited, enthusiastic even. The will of the people has rid two countries of grim autocrats. There are many more to go in the region, but for Tunisia (which faded from the headlines faster than it got in) and Egypt, the future looks auspicious. Today might turn out to be a blessed day after all. Youm mubarak.

Friday, February 04, 2011


Creative writing hinges on characters. Stories rise and fall with them. More than clarity of language, more than the fire of the plot, more than the description of the setting, it is the credibility of the characters that makes or breaks a story. There are some basic tenets of how to illustrate characters – by their own thoughts and words, in monolog and dialog; by the words of other characters; by objects and behaviors ascribed to the character; by conflict that arises; by plain narrative.

But the compelling drawing of a character is not only in direct words, and a character rests not only in what the writer consciously commits to paper. It is in innuendo and allusion, in possibilities of a future and in the imagination of a past. Most of that happens in the mind of the reader. It can be argued that the reader will only pick up what has been put before him, that he can only read what has existed in the writer's mind.

On the other hand, there's the concept of the death of the author, rather dear to me in its subversive logic. It is said that each piece of writing only comes into existence through the reader, that each reader turns a piece of writing into something highly individual, interpreting, judging, feeling. Each reader makes the material his own. This implied supremacy of the reader, at least what regards to the enjoying of a piece of writing, doesn't excuse the writer because only a successful writer can die. Only with successful writing is the reader willing, even enthusiastic, to take the piece beyond what's in the words.

Successful in this context means good, which takes us back to the first point: the character must be compelling. It must be consistent, even in its contradictions, and powerful, even when it is weak. It doesn't have to be comprehensive, but it has to be convincing. The reader likes, even demands, to imagine, to refine the character, to personalize it, to make it his own. If the character is convincing as a person, the reader is willing to accept flaws in its design, though the writer couldn't do worse than take this as an excuse for shortcuts.

No matter how one see's the position of the writer, the character in all its details must exist in the writer's imagination before the process of writing can begin. At the beginning of a novel, a scaffold is fine, a sketch of a person, the roughest of outlines, because as the plot advances, the blanks will be filled, the character be refined and the picture become more convincing.
In a short story, especially if it is only a few pages long, all the characters must be completely preformatted. There is no room for improvisation. They must have names and professions, builds, hair color and ages, histories, dreams and ambitions. They wear clothes that help define them, have quirks that give them sharpness and depth. Even if none of this is mentioned, even if the characters are nameless and poorly described, their names and descriptions must exist in the writer's conception.

The writer must know his characters inside out and identify with them. Even if action and reaction will only later convey characteristics, these characteristics must be established at the outset in the writer’s mind. Otherwise no believable character will result. The writer must care, from the beginning, even if he passionately loathes the character because otherwise, again, the character won't progress beyond one-dimensionality, contours and silhouettes.

Good writers are thus deeply compassionate, people's people if you will, or passionate misanthropes, noticing every annoying detail of a persona and building characters from that. If the writer's imagination isn't clear and concrete, the descriptions will ring hollow and fake and the suggested actions and behaviors lack in justification. The characters won't go beyond simple caricature and appear inconsistent, artificial, ridiculous.

For me, the creation of character is the biggest step to make in creative writing, the highest barrier to break. If find it frankly daunting. One cannot simply sit down and start writing, seeing in astonished disbelief how the story unfolds – as I frequently do on this blog. Instead, one has to have a plan, one needs to know the characters. On the blog I know the character as well. It is a version of me that I choose to project. A story is different.

I am not a dreamer, I don't concoct fantasy worlds from which I can pluck the most bizarre or most banal figures to turn into characters and populate stories with. So how do I do it? Creativity doesn't exist in a void. Nothing is new, nothing comes from nowhere. Everything is a permutation of something that was. I go through life with open eyes and ears, pick up oddities and conjecture background and dreams of people I encounter.

It's impossible that there wouldn't be enough material, but the next step is still hard, appearing insurmountably steep: Combining these fragments, these shreds of invention into composites that I can believe in and that I can then, in turn, ask the reader to believe. Three months ago, I suggested a tag for all writing that owed more to creative doodling than to the exploits of my public persona. This tag found use exactly five times and then disappeared, in line with my withering enthusiasm and confidence at the creative writing workshop.

Over the last few weeks, instruction has become much more structured than it was before, analyzing conflict and character in way that I outlined above. Thinking through this, as I've just done, fills me with a faint hope that I'll manage to finish a little story – it would be a first – by next week, as I promised Ronnie, the irrepressible teacher, who's quite a character himself.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

morning news

Every morning, Britain wakes up to Radio 4. The Today program features news read in soothing voices, hard-assed interviews and the world's most laconic weather forecasts ("the weather today, miserable"), never more than two adjectives and never a temperature. The show starts shortly after the Shipping Forecast (which deserves its own post for sure) and continues right until 9 when even the latest sleeper will have got up and put the kettle on for the morning tea.

According to the most recent audience figures, more than six million listeners tune into the Today program every morning at one point or another. That's about ten percent of the population, an incredible number for a radio show that doesn't feature music and isn't particularly funny. But it tells you what's going on in Britain and the world, and when the philosophico-religious Thought for the Day comes on, you know it's ten to eight and you'd better get up.

The main draw, though, must be the interviews. When John Humphrys goes after the prime minister or the shadow chancellor like a ferocious bulldog, biting though verbal stuffing for ten to twelve relentless minutes, the heart of anyone interested in the fine art of public discourse must soar. It soars even higher when the two jarring parties, sweating and exhausted, verbally shake hands after the duel: "Thank you for the interview, Prime Minister." – "Thanks for having me on the air, John."

John Humphrys was the subject of a recent interview himself and told about his hatred of alarms. He has to get up before 4am and has a battery of cheap beepers to force him out of bed, each one set to erupt a minute after the one before. Humphrys said that he always gets up at the first beep and angrily turns off all alarms before he can hear the second.

I found this story very inspiring and decided, a good two weeks ago, to give this technique a try. Up to then, I had got up to Radio 4, listening to current affairs, sports and news without much sense of time, usually getting up only an hour after the radio had come on in the first place. What a waste of time, I thought one night as I sat my alarm for 7:58. The next morning I surprised myself by leaping out of bed at the first buzz and being in the kitchen ready to hear the 8 o'clock news on the radio there, the kettle hissing in the background. I felt fresh, full of energy. Since then, this has become a habit. There was one lapse one day, but now I can't imagine it any other way. I even set the alarm progressively earlier.

This morning I was at the institute at 8. Red-and-white tape greeted me, strapped across the back entrance, blocking the door to the goods elevator. I thought of clambering over it but reason prevailed and I went to the main entrance. Same sight there, same tape, but also a guard, standing motionless. I approached with a question mark on my face. "The Biochemistry building is closed today. There has been major flooding overnight." He pointed up the glass façade, indicating faint streaks of water. "The pipe to one of the storage tanks on the roof burst, flooding the top three floors. You can't go inside."

I didn't have any urgent business inside, nor any reason to argue with the poor fellow standing in the cold squalls without much protection. I went to the Library café instead, in search of official word on the situation and feebly damning my poor luck for getting up so early. What were the options? After reading the first emails trickling in from frazzled building and facilities managers and an invigorating macchiato, there was nothing else to do but go back home. By the time I made it, the Today program was over.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

the idiocy of water

Before pleasure comes pain. That's often the case, but when traveling it's almost inevitable. Distant shores beckon, delights on the plate, the sun, the good life. But in order to get there, one has to survive transportation. This is best, i.e. with least pain, done on a train. Walk up to the station, get on the train, sit down, relax. Car is good too, though one of the traveling party has to do the work and congestion can seriously darken the experience. The worst mode of traveling, though unavoidable for long distances, is the plane. It's not only that it's the most cramped by far, the most cattle-train-like, the most dehumanizing. It's all of this, but most of all, it's the surreal theater that serves as security that has to be survived before starting the journey. I've written about this before. I have to write again.

On Friday afternoon, I made my way to Stansted in a good mood. I was with a friend. He was going back to Belfast after a week of work in London; I went down to Marseille for the weekend. Our flights departed within minutes from one another. It was a happy coincidence. The banter of friends that see each other too infrequently bridged the time on the train to the airport and then in line for the security examination effortlessly. We unloaded our bags, coats, laptops and liquids onto trays on the conveyor belt and stepped through the X-rays. All was good, there was no alarm. Watches, belts, cell phones and wallets were not on us for the moment, traveling on their own through much stronger X-rays. We avoided being patted down lovingly.

Then a screener with a tired face approached me, holding in his hands my bag of liquids: "Are these your liquids, sir?"

"What's wrong?" I asked. "The bottles are less than 100ml each."

"Your bag is too big," the fellow said. "It must only measure eight inches by eight inches. Do you have a pound?"

He told me I would need to be escorted back outside the secure zone to purchase a plastic bag of the approved size, stash the liquids in there, come back through security, and continue my migration to the gate as if nothing had happened.

"Is anything wrong with the liquids," I asked.

"No," he said, "your liquids are fine. It's the bag that's the problem."

This was news to me. When had the humble plastic bag become a crucial weapon in the fight against terrorism or, I was wondering with increasing confusion, in the terrorists' arsenal? I didn't ask; the man was just following procedure. He didn't confiscate the bag and destroy it. In fact, he kept me from taking the liquids out. "Sir, these need to stay in there until you get a smaller bag." The pain of nonsense was throbbing through my brain. Was there a security problem or not?

"You need to get a smaller bag, sir."

"Can I just put the liquids into my backpack and go to the gate?" I asked.

"Most certainly not," he said, with the shock of the unthinkable in his face. "The liquids need to be screened in an approved bag."

"But you said the liquids were ok."

"We have to complete the screening procedure, sir."

"Can keep the old bag?" I asked.

"Of course, but you can't carry liquids in it."

So the bag wasn't dangerous, and the liquids weren't dangerous. It was the liquids in the bag that were dangerous. They were so dangerous that I wasn't permitted to continue my journey with them. Curiously, though, they were safe enough for me to return with them to the screening lines where several hundred people were packed tightly, slowly making their way to the metal detectors. Was it something inside the airport, maybe the duty-free shop or even the plane itself, that would react violently with the liquids in the bag to cause trouble? And why was I then not allowed to simply take the liquids out of their bag and put them back into my pack, which is what I did later anyway, after waiting in the same security line for another pointless examination?

But it wasn't even an issue of liquids in a bag, it was an issue of liquids in a bag inside the X-ray scanner. No one would have later kept me from transferring the liquids from the compliant bag back into the original bag that was considered too big. Did the liquids keep the memory of the bag they had been in for a few brief minutes? Or was it really only an issue with the scanner? But shouldn't security be concerned with airplanes and airports and not with scanners? If the liquids were just a problem inside the scanner, we could simply do away with the scanner and carry liquids onto planes as we've always done.

This was obviously not about security. This was simply about protocol, to be followed without thinking or questioning, and it doesn't make me feel secure in the least. I would prefer if screeners were trained to spot dangers and act accordingly, if they examined people and judged their behavior, if they effectively prevented breaches of security instead of ticking boxes. This would go a long way towards ensuring the safety of air travel. As screening is done currently it's unfortunately not about weapons or explosives. They're what caused the stiffer security procedures initially. But the screeners aren't looking for them. They simply take out liquids and pastes – water, soda pop, Nutella and cosmetics – that are beyond the allowance, just like customs that would confiscate booze beyond the two liters one is allowed to bring into the European Union. Screening for liquids has gone from security concern to volume management.

Maybe humor and hyperbole are inappropriate with regards to liquids and airplanes. It's an explosive combination. In August of 2006, a plot to blow up planes or duty-free shops or airport toilets with a homemade mix of clear liquids of unknown destructive potential was exposed and foiled. It is worth noticing that that wasn't thanks to airport security. British intelligence and police collaborated to detain suspects long before any damage could be done.

If that was an act of terrorism liable to be repeated (and why else would there be restrictions at all?), why is it still legal to carry clear liquids of unknown destructive power onto airplanes at all? Why the arbitrary limit of five containers of 100ml each? Would it take a liter to blow up a plane? Would it take ten liters? If so, what keeps twenty people from going to the toilets and pooling their liquid allocations into one big dangerous bucket. The liquids are not being checked upon getting on the plane.

It would make me feel so much safer if I saw at least a trace of logic in the proceedings that are acted out in front of weary travelers. As it is, I don't need this theater. On the other hand, as long as I can get worked up about idiocy and spend my time on the plane writing about it, the journey passes more quickly than it otherwise would. Before I've converted all my exasperation into coherent thoughts, I'm reminded by a terse flight attendant that my seat must now be put in the upright position, the tray table folded back, and all battery-operated electronic devices turned off. Touchdown in Marseille is only ten minutes away.