October 21, 2011
“Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, that I love London town.” As it ‘appens, I’m not one, but I find myself cheerily humming that tune whenever I come up to the capital. To be fair, I am a quarter Cockney by blood, my grandfather was born in the Borough of Bow itself and certainly he would have got a good ear-full of the partitioning parish church bells, the carry of which defines the true domain of the Eastend Pearly King and Queen, but probably I hum because it’s good to be back home, or going abroad, one of which is always the case when Im in town these days. But there is something I like about London and some happy little features really stood out after five months in Africa; nostalgic trivialities such as lemon-pine pub toilet freshener, double-decker buses, detached houses in leafy suburbs, girls in miniskirts, massive vanity construction projects (OK they have those in Africa too) and, my favourite, 24-hour CCTV. Yes, some things have changed in recent years but surveillance is all for our protection. So we can live untroubled by the inconvenient social aberrations of others. Every time I am biometrically scanned I feel profoundly reassured. After all, my personal aberrations have not yet placed me on an actionable database. Maybe just on a non-actionable one. So I must be at least sort of OK. They will be able, in the near future, to resurrect phrenology and, on the basis of deviant cranial dimensions, detect bad apples before they actually do anything bad. Best check your head.
It also felt profoundly reassuring to spend £3 on a cappuccino. Such affluence in this land, with all these clever people making enough money to do that every morning. I indulged in a pig-free English breakfast and caught the last ten minutes of the big game, as is my way. In this case, England losing to France in the rugby world cup which seemed only fair to my inner, but very real, auto-Scot mental complex. I had a second coffee and drifted into a reverie. I imagined myself in one of those Hounslow houses mowing the back lawn on a sunny afternoon; the ordained destination of middle age for smart middle-class boys. But I remembered how I never did become a doctor, quit my horse midstream and now just float around, everywhere a bit of an outsider, owning an modest, inherited suburban house (though it lacks the ivy on the wall) but usually feeling disconnected from it and all the other bourgeois trappings. It was a bit disconcerting. Where was my place in this world? In this new Britain? What would I do if I came back to live here? Get a decent job? I think I may have drifted into unemployability. This anxiety had me rethinking my plan to go to South America for a $5 an hour teaching job and the chance to do my painting in an exotic location. A sudden, unexpected rekindling of the socoi-genetic urge to ‘make it’ according to somebody else’s expectations. The lemon-pine toilet freshener just made it all the more poignant.
It was, at least, good to be in a country where you get your change right away. I mean coins, not social progress. Social progress takes time and great struggle of the people against tyranical forces of oppression and ignorance but in Africa, getting your balance back at a bar can be a great struggle too. Even if youve only had one. In many countries, cash money is in short supply. Probably the IMF shut down the mint. Cashiers tell you to come back later, they’ve run out of coins, but it slips the mind, this being absolutely the intended outcome of these corrupt bar tenders who prey on vulnerable, intoxicated tourists. The apparently easy, if temporary, lassez-faire solution to lifes troubles – getting a beer, which then ends up costing far more than planned due to inattention, is highly analogous to the way the IMF makes indenturing loans to Third World countries when nobody is looking. Coincidence? Maybe. Mimicking the corruption of leaders? Perhaps. Or could it be these bar staff are agents of the great international financial institutions, planting memes in the populace like televisions, accustoming them to new, corrupt satus quos as if broadcasting the violence innuring Cops or inequality glamorising Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous straight from The States! Fortunately this is not an issue back in good old Blighty. Not yet, anyway. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s prescient genius in refusing to join the Euro zone, the coinage of the realm remains in healthy abundance. Sometimes all the pound coins get a little heavy in your pocket but, hey, we are heading towards a fully moniterable cashless society so progress will address that prolem. But the day may yet come when you or I will be refused service in a British pub as part of a World Bank enforced austerity measure. The logical progression is already there.
Inside King’s Cross station the CCTV and security announcements repeat endlessly on a two minute loop, with occasional interjections to actually tell you about a train. It never shuts up. It must be designed to drive you into the street or… a pub. Ah, well, if that was what they wanted. It was 12 o’clock and I knew the bar would have change, even for the first customer of the day. The Fellows Bar around the corner had tasty Cornish Ale for less than £4 a pint. Who could argue with that? After all, it’s fully 22 fluid ounces of hand-crafted ambrosia in this country which comes with a worn, wooden floor, old brass fittings and a post-modern food menu. Continuity and tradition embraces a world of globalised expectation. Outside the window, under cozy grey skies, I watched the slow stream of morning-fresh Asian girls and weary looking youths emerging limp from hangovers like wet moths from a chrysalis. It was so novel for me and yet touchingly familiar. I fell into another reverie and imagined these young lads, fresh from driving a stolen sedan through a jewellers shop window, getting pounced on by the local constabulary. Just as the cuffs are about to lock the cops point to the nearby CCTV and trumpet to the boys: “Look lads, you’re on “Candid Camera””, and everyone just laughs and laughs.
It was a long way from Zanzibar paradise beach to be here. 12 hours on the plane with a 7 hour break in the middle in Doha, Qatar. 6 more to come on the train to Scotland. Doha Airport is about the most international (and shiniest) place I have ever seen, located as it is near the geographic centre of the world’s land-masses. Being back at King’s Cross felt like I had moved to the edge. One day the Greenwich Meridian will be transferred to Peking or Delhi or Doha.
The hermetically sealed intercity 125 wooshed northward at high speed (up to 125mph funnily enough), plunging under Victorian overpasses, skitting alongside fields and finely wooded borders tinged with incipient autumn, and rushing by the saggy, drizzly cloud which obscured the belching tops of power stations. The bucolic English landscape unrolled like a green, wet blanket, but not so fast that you got whiplash injury trying to visually track a cow, as happened to me on the Japanese bullet train. Just right. Not to fast, not to slow, we crossed the Scottish border. There are perceptable geo-energetic shifts there. Scotland is even more at home in the dark and damp than England. Actually, London is virtually sub-tropical in comparison. Scotland is all worn, gothic monuments of slick, mossy stone, and public parks that you might mistake for moors. It thrives like this and folk go around in T-shirts. They used to wear wellies too but now most Scots are far too fashion conscious. I was vaguely surprised to remember that the people are actually quite friendly with their chirpy “hiya”s and politely informal service. It’s an admirable effort against the odds; under a cloud but hanging on to a sunbeam. Old Caledonia is not a bad place really, unless you are trapped in some hellacious, sterile new town devoid of history, then it’s just depressing. The historical stuff is depressing too but at least it has some dark soul to it. Nonetheless, I was pretty keen to make an escape after a few days. Then I got sort of used to it, like going numb. Two weeks of October in Scotland (the first two) brought half an hour of sun and single digit temperatures. I had already missed the two day Indian summer at the beginning of October, which was the best summer they had. We watched the national football team being knocked out the Euros by sunny Spain which just added to the familiar, creeping sense of futility. I was lodged again with my biological mother and her husband, a slightly strange but pleasant and fortuitous circumstance, having a sort of replacement family after my parents passed away, with my half-sister, brother, nieces and nephews all in the vicinity. I made the most of the internet and did some serious reading. The Bible was wearing thin so I moved on to Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, but that was almost equally opaque. Nick Hornby unglazed my eyes with his penetrating and straightforward yet ironically nuanced humour. I couldn’t go outside much lacking the requisite wellies.
I was about to get an expensive one-way ticket to California when I realised that a return ticket is half the price, even from Glasgow. Go figure that one out. Non-cancellable but you can get back the tax and surcharges which comprise 60% of the total. If you wait until the last minute to cancel, you can also reduce global warming by leaving a seat empty. The day of my departure dawned cold but under perfect blue skies. The bad weather must have been my fault, much like results of any football game I watch with an interest. It was scenic flying down the more rugged west side of the country from Glasgow to Heathrow; another angle on the textured agricultural skin of Britain which was punctuated by occasional rocky teeth and ragged remnants of native forest hanging on like stubs of torn cloth. I arrived at the vast, new and controversial Heathrow terminal five, site of a rousing protest camp during its development and quite a bit of runway invasion. They should resurrect 1970’s style streaking when they do that, then the authorities can’t say they thought it was a suicide bomber. On the BBC news, extensive live coverage was being given to the eviction of another huge community of travellers (politically active neo-hippies) from their ten-year old, illegal community at Dale Farm. The police went in great numbers with tasers and even the newscasters seemed to feel sorry for the habitually victimised crusties who are down by law in this crowded country. In London, the rector of St Paul’s Cathedral had given his blessing to the ongoing, anti-capitalist tent encampment on the steps of England’s most famous church with the result that the police there couldn’t lay their itchy hands on the protesters. Of course, this Occupy wave all started on the other side of the big pond and has spread like body-piercing to become a global phenomenon despite all the negative coverage. Even Doha-based Al Jazeera, covering this issue, called up a rabid rightwing Daily Mail pundit and, to counter the former’s insufficiently purist free marketeer credentials, a young associate from the American Enterprise Institute. This to cover the activities of, as they said, naive at best new age lefties who could be no more than ‘useful idiots’ for failing to see the beauty of untaxed, private markets for everything. As if the perfect world would be a bunch of investment banks testing their comparative advantage through corporate militias armed with biological weapons from Monsanto. I was saddened and had to use up all the heavy change I had collected in Britain so I went to the bar. It was intriguingly loaded with tasty American micro-brews. Two pints later and it was on to a new world, but an old one, in the belly of a bulbous 747, with wings so wide they stretched away like grey plains, which spat me out into the streets of my old alma mater, San Francisco, after a two hour hold up having my green card irrevokably revoked by Homeland Security, to see if I could find my heart where I left it still beating eight years ago, on the floor of a taqueria at 16th and Mission.