Sunday, September 30, 2012


At the airport – a topic more thoroughly beaten to death than any Pony Express mare but nevertheless offering crumbs of novelty anytime I go there – things might have looked normal, but I had no eyes. I had booked with British Airways and made my way to Terminal 5 without thinking. The shiny new terminal, the early embarrassment and now justified pride of the British flag carrier, is the point of departure for all their long-distance flights, but I was whipping towards the elevators, away from the action.

The night before, I had got as far as choosing a seat but wasn't able to finish check-in. "Check the errors below", admonished a warning in red, but the only thing I could find further down was the content-free remark that "This trip cannot be completed as booked" and a Check in now button that sent me back to the warning at the top.

I wasn't particularly disturbed. I had to check luggage anyway and didn't expect to be in much of a rush. Plus, I remained hopeful that at least my choice of seat would have registered with the system and I would be able to fly in the comfort and safety of the fourth-to-last row even if I showed up at the airport without documents to prove my case.

Just a few days ago, I had read about a 727 stuffed full of dummies that was deliberately crashed into the harsh sands of the Sonoran desert for the sake of science (of the popular kind, instigated by documentary makers). The results of this unusual experiment are rather amusing in a macabre way. All of the first-class passengers would have perished. There was no doubt. Further back in the plane, survival rates rose dramatically, averaging three quarters on the cheap seats and all but guaranteeing worry-free travel in the last ten rows where I had thus picked my seat.

Thus I went to Terminal 5, but the check-in troubles continued. As far as I could tell – more than half of the information screens showed nothing but an apology for being broken – my flight wasn't on the departures list. The check-in kiosk rejected my passport and advised me to contact a human for help. I got in line and five minutes later the mystery was resolved: While I had booked with British Airway, the flight was operated by American Airlines who despite the hallowed "special relationship" didn't deserve the privilege of top-notch surroundings. I would have to make my way to Terminal 3.

Heathrow is a patchwork of solutions to a permanence of problems. Designed in quieter times, the airport had to grow with rising passenger numbers over the decades and be rather inventive in their ways of dealing with challenges, finding resources from within as local residents are fiercely opposed to any expansion. There are five terminals, but only the first three of them are properly interconnected. Terminal 5 is a bit of a world to itself. I was getting worried and started to run.

Down at the trains into central London that stopped at Terminals 1-3 on the way, the express had just left and the wait for the next one was 15 minutes. Next door at the tube, the picture wasn't encouraging either. Next train in 9 minutes, the platform indicators showed. There is no dedicated shuttle. My departure was less than ninety minutes away but instead of fretting and rushing and trying my hardest to avoid the worst, I had to sit and wait and try to breath calmly.

Zen is not my forte. Having to let things happen frazzles me. When the doors of the tube opened after a journey of physically painful inactivity, I exploded into action and let it rip down the tunnels under the original terminals. I ran my heart out, battering shoulders though shocked travelers and plowing my duffel through legs too slow to get out of the way. It was a most un-British thing to do.

When the American Airlines counters beckoned, the first thing I noticed was a warning that "Check-in closes 60 minutes before the scheduled departure". The second thing I saw was a clock. I was three minutes early.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

open house

This weekend was the 20th anniversary of London Open House, the city's annual showcase of architecture. I had attended for the first time five years ago and been more or less faithful to the idea over the years. Open House, a charity, strives to educate the public on architecture, on buildings new and old in the city, by opening doors to offices, private homes and past industrial glory that would normally be locked.

Some landmark buildings – the Gherkin, the Bank of England, Llyod's – get all the attention, but it is the unexpected treasures on the way that make the Open House weekends so satisfying. Being Open House veterans, we had picked a number of more obscure targets. Unfortunately, the early examples of urban sanitation that have always featured prominently on my private wish list – King George V Pumping Station, Markfield Beam Engine and especially Crossness Pumping Station – once again didn't make it because they're too far out.

We didn't get off to a good start. Our first calling point, artists' studios near Barons Court station were only open on Sunday. It would have helped to read the directions properly. At least we had all the time in the world to leisurely travel to Waterloo for the next stop. The 1901 Arts Club is a Victorian schoolmaster's home transformed into an intimate performance space resembling a turn-of-the-century salon. The building itself was an unexpected delight and the short flute and piano recital the best possible advertisement for their concerts. Go there!

This highlight of the day was followed by two duds. We didn't find Marlborough House and ended up in the Royal Society, and then missed out on the Caledonian Club, a private club for gentlemen in skirts, because, again, it was only open on Sunday. Who did the planning here? The day ended on an upward trajectory with visits to 1508, a luxury design studio with rather decadent projects for oligarchs and petro-royalty, and the Channel 4 headquarters.

On Sunday, we wanted to see the Gherkin. The ballot that used to be on that building had been lifted this year. We expected a wait but weren't prepared for what we found. People queued down the road and around the block. There was no hope. We went to a nearby church instead where the tour guide claimed the wait for the Gherkin was five hours. With rain falling harder outside, our decision had been right.

The church was St. Helen's, a rather curious and quite charming Church of England outfit. The church arose from two medieval buildings erected side by side with a shared wall, a footprint I hadn't encountered before. Today, it serves a far-flung community of City workers, economic mercenaries and students. The tour guide matched the vibe after the service: positive, inclusive and happy.

Our next stop was few minutes east, near Liverpool St station. 30 Crown Place is an office tower just outside the city and proudly the mightiest building in the adjacent borough of Hackney. An associate of the building's architect and an employee of the building's tenant, a law firm, gave a tour of the top-floor client reception area and the mid-level cafeteria. How come richly remunerated corporate lawyers pay less for their lunches than postdocs slaving away at Imperial?

We lost our focus somewhat after this visit. There were a few places we didn't find (smartphone, anyone?) and some time we spent wandering around the wet pavements of Brick Lane. As the hours passed, so did our options. A surprising highlight remained. Not far from Kensington Olympia station and right along the tracks is an architect's wet-dream-turned-reality, a modern home hidden at the end of a crumbling mews.

The architect himself was at hand to show off his home, and what a place it was: a psychedelic LED dance floor next to an indoor basement fish pond, a sauna with a glass door and mood lighting, a kitchen whose ingeniously hidden appliances were offset by the 16-foot-long golden sofa, kids' bedrooms that looked like Japanese pod hotel rooms...

The house was staggering in size, especially given the unassuming entrance door, and awesome in its details, but when my initial amazement had worn off I had to admit that I was glad not to live there. Everything – and I mean every little thing in the house – was designed to be in its place. Nothing could be moved, presumably because doing do would go against the architect's vision. Furniture was bolted down, sunk into the floor or extruded from walls. Anything of use was hidden behind clinically white sliding doors.

In stark contrast to these strong currents of enforced minimalism were the dance floor and the light, which periodically changed from pink to light blue but always remained artificial and neon. It looked like a party hub with a flat added as an afterthought. Living there I'd go mad quickly, I think. But when do you get a chance to see such a folly? Only in Open House.

Monday, September 17, 2012

book launch

What I didn't say in the two earlier posts is how ironically timely the violence is. It can, with only slight mischief, be seen as fireworks for a most unusual anniversary, heralding an array of activities whose culmination will be tomorrow. If the rioters knew what they were celebrating, they'd pack up their sticks and go home in a second.

A good twenty-four years ago, Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses and got believers' knickers in a twist the world over, much like they are now. A few months later, on Valentine's Day of 1989, the chief spiritual hooligan of Iran called for the murder of the author who went into hiding and lived under police protection for the following decade. (The hiding is long over now, the ayatollah has died, and Rushdie lives freely and continues to write. This is all you really need to know about god and free speech.)

Rushdie has now written his memoir of those years, to be published tomorrow. The propaganda around it is quite extraordinary. The New Yorker, for example, carries a long excerpt that should probably be called paid advertisement, and short comments here and (possibly soon) there. Radio 4 has abridged the book into five episodes that will constitute this week's Book of the Week. Earlier already, Andrew Marr sat down to interview Rushdie for Start the Week, which broadcast today. To round off the publicity blitz, the BBC will show a documentary on Rushdie's years with the fatwa on Thursday.

I've listened to the interview and will probably have Joseph Anton put me to sleep this week because I don't know exactly what to make of Salman Rushdie. I've had my share of his prose, having read Midnight's Children (initial breathtaking literary beauty petering out towards the end) and The Moor's Last Sigh (not nearly as good and also too long). There is no doubt that he his an exceptionally talented and creative writer and a very courageous man. But there are also no fewer than four broken marriages and trophy girls paraded around celebrities' parties in New York.

None of the current interviews, articles and documentaries are probably any useful for getting any closer to the man. There's more available online (interviews for Desert Island Discs when he was just the author of Midnight's Children and for Book Club nine years ago when memories were fresher, for example), but the key to Rushdie is probably the careful reading of his defining work.

I've had the The Satanic Verses on my bookshelf for a few years now, but I've been hesitant to dive into it, afraid of not understanding or enjoying it without at least a master's degree in Religious Apocryphology. But in the current times, with the fear of offending increasingly dominating over the freedom to offend, I will make it my next read – and how I wish I commuted to work on the tube.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

calm down

This week's madness continues undiminished. The United States is withdrawing most of the staff from its embassies in Sudan and Tunisia. It's like a Facebook party gone wrong or, more to the point, a carefully choreographed flash mob. Sheep drunk on aggravation and the energy of the crowd throw their anger at anything in their way. Fire, stones and sticks are hurled to give meaning to apoplectic shouts of honor dignity.

The German embassy in Khartoum was one of the targets yesterday. There wasn't at first any concrete reason for that. Neither the ethnic Egyptian that's responsible for the movie nor youtube, where extracts were posted, nor any of the Arabic TV stations that fanned the flames by showing snippets is German. This wouldn't do, a minor German party with xenophobic inclinations thought and promptly announced that it would show the film in full, in public, in Berlin – and in retrospective vindication of the violence.

From the extract on the web it is hard to see how anyone could possibly want to attend besides – in an endless ping-pong of action and reaction – mortally offended protesters. And this is the crux of it. What plays out on global TV, what keeps analysts and pundits up all night and newspaper circulation high is a tightly orchestrated tug-of-war between clearly defined groups of conflicting interests.

At first I was tempted to see in what's going on the rape of free speech because it came along in a red miniskirt of provocation. But the filmmakers didn't go for an innocent stroll in the park with their idea. They developed and executed it to bring about maximal damage. They didn't want to provoke (an acceptable thing in my rulebook) but incite violence.

It's not that the streets are filled with demonstrators voicing ire and indignation at an acute insult. No, anger and dissatisfaction that have long accumulated are now being stoked and exploited for political gain by outside forces. On both sides are fanatic fringes that would like to enter the political mainstream, either by presenting themselves as immutable defenders of the faith against the onslaught of infidels or as antipoles to senseless violence and rage, precursors to international terrorism no doubt.

The few voices of reason that persist drown in screams of fury and deafening explosions. But that doesn't matter. Like the riots in London last August (where trigger and causes were similarly unrelated), the current violence will peter out soon enough, independent of any external actions once the built-up tension has been worked off. Calm will return – until the next trigger finds the tinderbox of public resentment recharged.

(with apologies for the metaphor overkill)

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Fires are burning again in various parts of the world that have a curious predisposition for fires of this kind. Much damage has been caused, material and political, and lives have been lost. The cause/excuse is the same as last time: Something to do with religious sensitivities and offense, neither of which I fully understand. What I see in the news reports are brainwashed masses deliberately taking offense and running with it, much like schoolkids in the corner shop take sweets without paying, enjoying a little bit of thrill and the belief that they can get away with it.

Who are these demonstrators? Some just shout their hearts out, others injure and destroy. The BBC sees Islamist extremists in the latter. I prefer to call them marauding lunatics or raving fanatics or manipulated idiots (though idiots wouldn't do full justice to what's going on). What they really are, if you need to bring religion into this, is devil worshipers. The ransacking of embassies, torching of cars and killing of proxies is clearly the work of the devil.

What hasn't got much exposure, ironically, is the content of the offending movie itself. It wasn't too easy to find initially because none of the news sites carries the link. I dug deep and found something that could easily be it, but before you click be forewarned: The content is offensive to good taste and intelligence. What a load of crap! How this can be taken seriously I don't know.

Despite my best intentions (to be fully informed and able to participate in the discussion) I only lasted halfway through the third minute. Painful bluescreen action and vitriolic language can have no other purpose than to drive those so inclined to take offense. A devilish ploy, and it worked like a charm. The connection between Islam and violence has been strengthened in the eyes of the world.

Are both sides in this devils' duel equally at fault? Absolutely not! If I had to pick between lunatics, I'd take the ones that make atrocious movies over those that ruin and slay any day of the week. But I wish the filmmakers would stop uploading their crap to youtube as much as I wish the easily offended would stop watching it.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

polo in London

Over the last few months, pretty much since the beginning of this year, this blog has suffered from attrition. Time invested in its upkeep has been cut and the number of posts has dwindled. There are a number of reasons for this, most significantly the fact that my mind isn't in it anymore.

I've been in London for more than five years and the enthusiasm and wide-eyed amazement of the first few years has suffered. When I push through the crowds around Leicester Square or hang out in a bar overlooking the Thames, I'm still buzzed with excitement and feel like pinching myself to see whether this is real, but I don't feel like sharing anymore. You've heard it all a hundred times.

Things still happen as they always have. How could they not? London is a crazy place, full of life, full of diversity, full of people from different worlds. I'm in the middle of it, watching, interacting, participating. But when it comes to reporting, to reflecting the day onto a screen, my energy dissipates quicker than I can log on to Blogger.

Yesterday, for example, I spent a day with a friend who had flown in to see Paralympic athletics, a triple-special birthday treat from his wife. My friend would get to see the Greatest Games Ever™, spend time with a mate of many years and be relieved of his paternal duties for a day.

After watching sports on Friday and a night out in Soho afterwards, we took advantage of the brilliant late-summer day straight from a Visit London commercial to stroll along the Thames, from Richmond to the lock at Teddington. It's a stretch of river with infinite charm, lined first with the perfect pubs and residences of a posh borough and later the dense bushes and ungroomed meadows of rural England. The metropolis feels far away, though one is well within the orbit of London.

I had done this walk before – it is among my favorites – and I know the area a bit. I know, for example, that there is a strong German presence there, almost a German community, though I find it odd seeing these two words together. But there's a big German school, a beer garden much like in Bavaria, the bakery that makes the best bread in all of London and a little deli of many delights.

I also know that there's a famous polo club nearby. For some reason, my mom is fascinated with polo and nearly every week when we talk on the phone, she broaches the topic. I, being here, am supposed to check it out as her proxy. "Have gone to see the polo?", she keeps asking. Only yesterday did her quest came to a successful end.

As my friend and I were raiding a blackberry hedge, we noticed strange goings-on beyond. An event of some sort was taking place, spectators, an announcer – could it be? Further down, there was a gap in the hedge: Polo was being played on a large green. Our access was blocked by a low farm gate, closed and topped with barbed wire, but the view was great. When we realized that the gate wasn't locked, we hesitantly made our way through to get a closer look. It turned out that the spectators were far more interesting than the action.

Requiring horses, polo is a sport for the upper class. It is also a place to mingle for the same crowd, and we clearly didn't fit. The women all wore flowing dresses, heels and careful hairdos. The men were in chinos and button-down shirts in pink, violet and assorted pastels. It's likely that the posher you are, the bolder the color of your dress. One gentleman strutted by in a navy blazer and yellow slacks. In our T-shirts and jeans, we stood out like pimples on a prom queen's face.

Everyone can fake dress, I guess, but adopting the correct behavior is more difficult. The picnics on the sideline spoke volumes. Big tables stood heavy with food and champagne, cigar smokers sat in wooden folding chairs and the ladies lingered in canopies to keep their skin pale. It was unclear how all the kit got there; there were no cars. But no detail had been missed. In the back, I saw smaller tables with seconds protected from insects with little mesh structures.

The game itself was not much to behold. I was intrigued to note that, much as in poorly played pick-up football, everyone was charging after the ball at the same time, galloping horses overshooting their target and long-handled mallets windmilling about. "Spread the game!", I wanted to shout, revealing my ignorance, and "Pass the ball!", but then our escape wouldn't have been so smooth.

The day continued for many sunny hours, with beers by the river and dinner al fresco, a slice of London that hasn't got much exposure on this blog. Yet, when I had put my friend on a train to Gatwick and got myself back home, writing was the last thing I wanted to do. With my mind occupied in many other ways – work, job search, the future – there just isn't the drive to babble about London.

In addition, I find myself in and around Marseille more frequently and begin to see my life there. It isn't yet, and as I can't even tell whether it will be, I can't write about it as if I lived there. What you get instead from time to time are ill-composed travel pieces, mostly relating to time spent at airports or otherwise in transit, that I can't imagine you enjoy reading any more than I enjoy writing them.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that I am neither here nor there at the moment. My two half-lives don't fully add up. This is not exactly a new situation, but it's becoming increasingly draining. The good news is, it's going to end. My contract at Imperial ends in October – this time for sure – and I'll move away from London. After that, the frequency of posts will surely pick up again.