England


As a big-time Anglophile making a trip to England for the very second time and also a big fan of English humor, it was only inevitable that I would go to see the area of London where the movie Shaun of the Dead was filmed. Well, I guess it wasn’t inevitable, seeing as how I didn’t go to Wells (where Hot Fuzz was set). I have to thank Dara O’Reilly from snopes for taking me here and being kind enough to stand back and just look embarrassed when I acted like a total tourist.

This is the outside of Shaun’s house. From what Dara said, right after the filming wrapped, the person who owned this house did some remodelling. Therefore, you can tell that this is THE house because it looks absolutely nothing like the movie.

This is the top floor, which I’m pretty sure you didn’t see at all in the movie. Still, I just like how it looked and I own a digital camera.

And here we have the sidewalk out in front of the house where the kid played keepy-uppy and, later, where a hung-over Shaun stumbled past the zombie version of said kid and the zombie spare change asker. This will be mother-f’ing AWESOME in 50 years. AWESOME.

Here’s the 4-way intersection right down the road from the house. One thing I like about this neighborhood is that everything’s right next to each other. In the movie the newsagent, which you can see just behind the tree in this picture, was a 20-second walk from the house. That’s right about accurate. It would have been a bummer if it was like 4 blocks away, but it’s not.

Okay, this was my major geek moment. I have to apologize again to Dara for this. I walked in here and started taking photos like I was a big fat paparazzi. I love how the place is laid out like *exactly* the same as how it was laid out in the movie. Granted, there are only so many ways you can lay out a newsagent’s but still… you’ve got the Coke machine halfway down (I bought a Diet Coke for nostalgia’s sake but did not keep the can because I’m not THAT bad) and the ice cream machine right up front. The whole entire thing’s set up just right for a zombie-fied owner to be hanging out in the back while you whip out a pop and early morning ice cream and then deposit some change on the counter.

A close-up of the Coke machine (see the Coke cans midway down) and the ice cream machine. You know, in places like this in Seattle (we don’t call them newsagents but I’d be darned if I know the American equivalent – convenience stores?) they *still* have Sleepless In Seattle T-shirts available. 20 years after that movie came out. In areas nowhere near where Tom Hanks lived. I will grant you, London is a much larger city than Seattle and therefore not liable to devote like 7392762398% of its tourist capital to the fact that one time Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan made a movie that was sort of here and named after us also. That being said, Crouch End is just one little borough of London, and Shaun was a paean to Crouch End to a much, much larger extent than Sleepless cared at all about the city of Seattle, other than how the words alliterate. You’d think there’d have been some button or gewgaw you could buy.

This is a look down the street. Obviously. Dara insists that this is like a symbolic image of England, all the houses in a row. I had to object that I’ve seen a thousand streets that look just like this in the USA. Granted, maybe US streets look like this precisely *because* they want to imitate England, but that still doesn’t differentiate Old Blighty with the New World or whatever nickname you want to ascribe to the US of A. I am particularly tempted to quote the theme song from Weeds: “Little houses, little houses, little houses made of ticky tacky, little houses etc. and they all look just the same.” But I will not give into that temptation.

This is the little green space where the zombie ate the pigeon while Shaun watched from across the street. Then a bus went by and he disappeared. It really is right across the street from the flower shop. Sadly, I got there too late in the day to actually go in there and make a fool of Dara in two locations instead of one.

And here’s the pub. No, it’s not actually the pub that’s in the movie. Apparently this was the one piece of continuity that Simon Pegg and co. had to break with. I guess the Queen’s Arms was considered too dark. Besides, how do you make a “Q” with your hands? Anyway, it’s kind of a moot point where exactly the pub is because they recreated the interior out in a movie studio way over to the west of this area.

The interior was much, much different than the studio as well. Instead of feasting on pork rinds (or whatever they call them in England) and warm beer, I had… well, warmish beer again since this is England (actually, the beer’s not that warm; it stays in cool cellars. It’s just not ice-cold like crappy American lager) and bangers and mash, which is what they call sausages and mashed potatoes. Sausages and mashed potatoes are a major English pub food. And I have to say, they are delicious. Dara’s sister also joined us at this point and drank something that was approximately half rasberry juice and half Guinness. I don’t know which country claims that concoction.

Thanks again, Dara!

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Enclosed is a longish discussion of what I did this time around. I’ll get into most of this stuff in more detail later but for now, here is the gist…

As an aside, this was *not* my first trip to London. I went here this past April/May for 10 days and while I thought it was amazing I was a little overwhelmed and didn’t experience everything I wanted to. Speaking of which, you’ll probably find that I kept a rather frenetic pace, faster than what most people may want to take. In some cases, it really wasn’t *that* fast – walking down a London street sometimes becomes a tourist experience even if all you were doing was aimlessly wandering – but overall, yes, I am a mid-30s male travelling alone and as such was not tied down with “commitment” or “anything resembling a social life I needed to keep up”.

So, bottom line: if this inspires you to go to old Blighty and you find you can’t keep up, don’t feel bad. You probably weren’t able to keep up because you are cooler than I am.

Friday

Got in at about noon and boy, was I tiiiired. I hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep the couple weeks previously and was kind of hoping that this would have the effect of allowing me to sleep on the plane but no, that’s not how the world works. Took the Pecadilly tube all the way from Heathrow Terminal 5 to the Pembury Hotel, which frankly is a dump but that isn’t a totally bad thing – after all, I wasn’t in London to hang out in my lodgings.

Made two very, very big mistakes the first day. First was trying a doner kebab. I was later told by English friends that they are, in fact, awful, and this particular one was probably bad even for a doner kebab (I say “probably” because I did not try one again on the trip). The heat lamp for the spit hadn’t been turned on until I came in, which right there told me I probably should have chose something else. It was dry, the chili sauce barely made a dent into the cardboardy taste, and in the end there was just too much of it. I’m lucky I didn’t give myself food poisoning!

The other big mistake, the one that cut the day short, was that I decided to take a little nap at around 4. I figured I’d get up at 6 or so and go on out to Leicester Square or somewhere similarly nighty to experience that aspect of London culture. Yeah. I woke up at 11:30, tried in vain for a few hours to use the hotel’s wi-fi, and took a pill to get back to bed at 2.

Saturday

My first real day in! I decided to take the DLR down to Greenwich, only to find that the DLR was closed all weekend. A lesser person would have decided that the entire city was conspiring against them and hole up in their awful, awful hotel, but not me! I took the alternate bus service instead – complete with Greenwich-area traffic jam at 9 in the morning – and managed to take in the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. Since I got there before those places opened I stopped in at a local pub to get some breakfast, which was interesting in its own right if you’re interested in the “little things”.

First up, English breakfast. What is your peoples’ fascination with beans? Eggs I get, sausages I completely understand, the mushroom I can figure out, even chips I can justify because they’re not too far off from hash browns, but… beans? I don’t wish to cast aspersions but perhaps this is why you folk are so regaled for your “ironic” sense of humor: just as you can never really tell whether an Englishman is taking the piss, you can also never tell whether he is about to let out a breakfast fart.

Second, it was again 9 in the morning and I counted more than one person in said pub relaxing with a fine ale. I don’t know what you call that in old Blighty but in the States that is known as “alcoholism”.

Anyway, the Maritime Museum and the Observatory were both very fine. The MM features a very large propellor from a (obviously) much larger boat that slowly turns and turns as though it were about to fall off and kill you. It also houses a 1930s era speedboat which is apparently famous for losing to a faster American boat (AHAHAHA WE WIN AGAIN LIMEYTOWN) and a good bit of memorabilia surrounding the Thames and, of course, England’s history of naval warfare. Oh, also the outfit that Horatio Nelson wore when he was shot at the Battle of Trafalgar. You can even see the hole in the jacket where the bullet punctured, although the dried blood on his socks is, I am told, from his secretary.

The Royal Observatory was, for me, even cooler, probably because I am a first-class nerd. Seeing all the clocks that were used to try and solve the question of how to figure out longitude was a very educational experience. Longitude is one of many things that we take for granted now but when you think about it, it’s not so easy to figure out when you don’t have a GPS or onboard digital clock (which you can cross-reference with at noon to figure out where, exactly, you are). Because I like to buy stupid touristy things, I got a couple of maps of London at the Observatory – one from the Tudor era, the other from 1902.

It was only around 1 even after I spent about an hour at a local Internet cafe so I took a bus down to the south end of the city to experience the Imperial War Museum. The IWR is a fantastic place, maybe the best museum in all of London (I have to give the British Museum negative marks for stealing so much of their stuff from other, poorer countries). There’s a good deal of very intricate coverage of the two World Wars, so if you’re a fan of that period you’ll likely go gaga over seeing so many relics in person.

If you’re not, it may behoove you to do a teeny bit of research for your own personal enjoyment. It’s not that the exhibits are not well-documented – if there is one thing the English know how to do, it’s make a museum – but I have found that you tend to reach a point of saturation when reading museum murals, after which point you start looking at a 1940s era Serbian Army uniform and saying to yourself, “yep, that’s a uniform all right. Just like that English one I just saw. Where is the exit?” Museums can be great places to learn but IMO they aren’t really there for first-level learning. It’s because humans generally find true understanding after experiencing a subject in a number of ways. Just as book-learning will give you an incomplete sense of a subject, so will learning only by looking at artifacts. If you remember only what you learned in high school, I’d go so far as to recommend you read a good, gripping non-fiction book about the conflicts before entering the War Museum. Stephen Ambrose’s “Citizen Soldier”, for example, has been reviled for its plagiarism and sometimes loose association with the facts, but it would not receive that sort of publicity if it were not also very, very good in its own right.

That’s about the extent of what I did on Saturday and I’ve already prattled on enough about this day too much. Next!

Sunday

On the bus ride on Saturday I’d spoken to an old friend from high school who had recently moved out to the City That Is Named London and we decided to get together this afternoon. I had the morning, then, all to myself. I strolled down Picadilly Street from the Circus towards Green Park. There are a good many places that are primarily shopping places for the rich that have become famous in their own right. The biggest example of this is The Ritz hotel, the place where the old song says that angels dine as well as the inspiration for the 1980s Taco hit “Puttin’ On The Ritz” (yes, I’m aware that it was a cover and perhaps the worst cover of “Puttin’ On The Ritz” ever). There’s also Fortnum and Mason, who sell impossibly expensive lunches and have a store facade that looks like they’re selling mermaids and dreams, and the arcades, covered avenues where you can purchase $600 sweaters.

I met up with Kaytie and her husband at Covent Garden, which we used primarily as a meeting-point but which is a sight to see in its own right. It’s a bit like Pike Place Market in Seattle, only older and a lot more dignified. It doesn’t have quite as much of the hippie anything-goes aura around it; it’s more of a place to antiques and clothing than organic food and left-wing news. Still, it does have its fair share of street performers and buskers and the facade is in and of itself reason to pick this place out.

They were torn between Spitalfields Market and Kew Gardens, so I elected to break the deadlock with Kew. Nothing against Spitalfields (which I never did get to see) but I know what an open-air market looks like and can see that sort of thing all I want at home. Kew Gardens, though… how does one best describe it? It’s like a zoo, only for plants. I was here in autumn so the leaves were beginning to change, which is a stunning effect with a park the size of Kew. There were greenhouses and little walking sections devoted to just about every climate that holds plant life in the world, from the American Southwest and its cacti (a location where children seem to enjoy running around at full speed – do they not have Road Runner cartoons in England?) to the Middle East to the South Pacific to Siberia. Some of the proceeds earned from the Gardens go towards a project that is dedicated to collecting the seeds of every plant on the planet. This is so that they can be replanted if they ever go extinct in the wild. Apparently this action has already saved at least one species that was destroyed in the Australia dust storms and fires this summer.

One minor bummerino: there is a very awesome area in Kew Gardens known as the Forest Walk where you get to walk around at the level of the treetops and experience the forest canopy. This, well, should have been a wondrous experience but I was in for a bit of a rude shock. When I was younger I was deathly afraid of heights. Anything over oh, around 20 feet in the air made my heart beat about twice as fast as normal and made me want to sit down right where I was. This fear seemed to have gone away with childhood but up at the top of the Walk I felt it all coming back. It didn’t help that the Walk swayed with the wind, or that they made it with corrugated steel where you could look down and see the ground far, far below.

That evening I got together with a couple of English friends I know from the series of tubes. We engaged in that most English of pastimes: kicking back a few pints and conversating. This was at a place near Turnpike Road; when I asked the station agent at Finsbury Park how much it was going to cost to get out there, we had this exchange:

Agent: (baffled) Why are you going out *there*?
Me: To meet a couple of friends.
Agent: Well, don’t be out there too long.

What was funny about this (and apparently hilarious to my drinking mates) was that Finsbury Park is not particularly well known as a posh, low-crime area.

What I knew about the British Museum before this trip was essentially that it had lost all of its charm for the person who wrote the song “A Foggy Day”. I never did get around to seeing if there were really angels dining at the Ritz or if a nightingale sang in Berkley Square, but I was intrigued enough by a place that had enough charm to lose it in 1940s popular music to go here. Also, I’m a history buff and would be a total museum type if we had museums worth a darn in Seattle.

How long did I wonder could this thing last?

How long did I wonder could this thing last?

From the outside, this place evokes a sense of grandeur that I’ve only seen reflected in America by government buildings (disclaimer: I have not been to Washington, DC or New York City). The British Museum was the first of its kind, a museum for the people rather than a hoard of treasure made by nobles or the clergy for the benefit of themselves and themselves alone. It’s probably surprising to few that it the current building “only” dates to the Victorian Era – really, anything in England that’s this far over the top can only be considered to come from that time – but the museum itself dates back to the collection of Hans Sloane, a physician and naturalist who died in 1753. This concludes this edition of “Stuff I Learned From Wikipedia”.

In The Republic, the ancient Greek philospher Plato imagines a group of prisoners chained up inside a cave and positioned so that they have nothing to look at but a wall. Behind them there is a fire and when somebody or something passes between them and the fire they can see its shadow. Over time, these men begin to believe that the flickering shadows are, in fact, reality. The allegory here is that what we perceive as reality is in and of itself just a flickering shadow of what the gods have created in their perfect form. It’s not that much of an overstatement to say that the British Museum is to other museums what Plato’s shadows are to real life. All public museums aspire in some way to just equal the BM and all fall short in some way or other. If you’re at all a fan of ancient history, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed just walking up the steps to this place, and the feelings do not subside when you walk through its doors.

Close-up on the frieze, center

Close-up on the frieze, center

Frieze, left side

Frieze, left side

Frieze, right side

Frieze, right side

As you can see from these pictures, it’s not just the size that makes this grand. Like a medieval cathedral built by hundreds of men who each desired to make their own mark on the place, the British Museum is nearly as intricate as it is large. I think there is a bit of unintended irony in the addition of Greek gods in the rooftop of the place, given that one of its most precious treasures are the murals from the Parthenon. Nonetheless, the use of brass as a highlight amidst the stone catches your eye and you feel like the museum is saying to you, “Enter into my bad assness, young mortal. In a couple hundred years I will probably steal your culture and put it in here, too.”

No, buildings don’t speak to me very often. Occasionally at night but that happens to pretty much everyone, right?

I have no idea what this is.

I have no idea what this is.

Knowing that I have a couple of actual bona fide English people who read this blog on occasion… anybody have any idea what this thing is? It looks kind of like a washbasin. I mean, it definitely appears to be designed to collect some sort of liquid substance. That being said, the idea that the Museum ever made people wash their grubby hands before looking at the pristine artifacts strikes me as a bit snobbish, even for Old Blighty. Perhaps it is an offering holder, where one can slice open a vein and get a little bit of good luck from the gods on the roof?

I put a small child in here but did not feel especially lucky.

I put a small child in here but did not feel especially lucky.

BAM!

BAM!

Here is where my meager photography skills really, I think, give you a sense of how awesome this place is. A more skilled picture taker would probably have found a way to keep the Great Court from washing out. But… it really does look like that when you walk in. I know you’re coming in from the outside and all but on a sunny day, I swear, it actually does look like you’re walking into the Pearly Gates or some similar abode inhabited by the deity of your choice. The entrance still has a few marvelous busts of people done up in ancient Greek finery – I don’t remember whether they were actual ancient Greeks or stylized images of former curators of the BM. I would not put these people past that. Still, compared to the magnificence of the Great Court, this area is downright dull.

Looking up at the Circular Reading Room

Looking up at the Circular Reading Room

As you can see from the close-up on the roof, this effect is manufactured by sunlight, which a. means that it’s probably a bit muted on a rainy day (I was lucky to have great weather for most of my first trip), and b. it’s probably really, really creepy at night. Anyway, this room is as much a pleasure to be in as it is to look into. The Round Reading Room sits in the center and dates back to when the British Museum was also the British Library. Now the RRR has a big British Museum store at its base where you can buy all kinds of books and Museum-related souvenirs. Yes, I totally bought stuff from here, most notably a big, thick book that talks about each and every single item in the BM collection. Perhaps not every *single* one but it’s a good 500 pages and I prefer to think of the cost I paid for it in pounds because that makes it sound like I didn’t spend an entire day’s worth of food money on it. There’s a cafeteria at the far end and the RRR is surrounded by a number of pieces of modern art.

This is what happens when you serve a very large man a burrito.

This is what happens when you serve a very large man a burrito.

I bought one of these at Radio Shack before I left.

I bought one of these at Radio Shack before I left.

Now, I am not a big modern art person; as the song goes, if I had a million dollars, I would buy a Picasso or a Garfunkel. There is some seriously cool-looking stuff in the Great Court. The thing in the left in particular looks like a giant wadded-up piece of tin foil, but the artist really picked up on how awesome (I am overusing this particular 1980s slang exclamation, I know, but if I start to say “tubular” or “dino rhino” I am going to get hate mail)(from myself) wadded up tin foil looks on a sunny day. Imagine how it would look if you were a chicken or a small dog. That’s the place this sculpture takes you to.

This artifact will teach you how to speak Spanish in 21 days.

This artifact will teach you how to speak Spanish in 21 days.

I’m going to end this episode (blogisode? If I am blogging about England, do I get to make up my own words?) with the first thing that you see when you walk into the museum portion of the British Museum. Not coincidentally, it’s also perhaps the most important piece they have. The Rosetta Stone is not just an expensive yet effective piece of language software, or a turn of phrase meaning a device that unlocks a clue to understanding something else. Basically it’s a big declaration that temple priests didn’t have to pay taxes. Yes, even in ancient times it seems that churches were exempt. That’s not the important bit, though. The important bit is that this decree was written in classical Greek (the language of the Ptolemaic Empire, who controlled Egypt at the time of the inscribing of the Stone), a version of ancient Egyptian called Demotic that used something similar to the alphabet used by the Greeks, and hieroglyphics, which I am sure you know as the funny little pictures on the insides of the Pyramids. At the time of the finding of the Stone, hieroglyphics were considered indecipherable: the people who knew how to read them died centuries before, and they weren’t, apparently, laid out in a way at all similar to any of the known written languages. A lot of ancient writing, you can look at the current languages that are derived from it and sort of backtrack your way to understanding. There’s nothing that descends from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics like that. I don’t think there’s anything that descends directly from Demotic either, but Demotic was close enough to ancient Greek that they were able to decipher it, and once linguists figured out Demotic they could use that to figure out hieroglyphics. As you can see, without this exact piece of writing, with all three languages spelling out the exact same thing, hieroglyphics might remain undeciphered to this day.

I probably shouldn’t assume this, public school history being what it is, so I’ll say it straight out: Napoleon was a big-time dictator who came to power in France at the tail end of the French Revolution, which came about 15 years after the American one and was, compared to the American one, anyway, really, really bloody. We had some pitched battles over here but at no point did we ever round up all the nobles we could find and chop their heads off. The guillotine saw its first widepread use during the French Revolution. It was designed as a way to make beheadings, already considered one of the more humane ways of executing criminals in that you didn’t actually torture them in the process of kiling them, an even quicker process for the condemned (before the guillotine, an axe was used; there are reports of some less-skilled executioners or guys working with a dull blade requiring several whacks to completely dislocate the head from the body). Quickness can be an advantage for the executioner as well as the executed; it’s estimated that as many as 40,000 people were put to death in this manner during the Reign of Terror.

Allow the pretty picture to distract you from the boring history!

Allow the pretty picture to distract you from the boring history!

Like a lot of revolutions that lead to periods of bloody anarchy, the French Revolution eventually gave way to a new dictatorship led by one Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon would eventually come to rule almost all of Europe and a big chunk of North Africa, and the only reason Germany, Spain, and so on are not speaking French to this day is that his army was completely wiped out by the Russian winter. In the late 1790s he was busy taking over Egypt when his scientists found the Stone. They cut it out and probably were fixing to take it back to France but England got their first and either stole it or otherwise forced the French scholars to part with it.

So it’s in English hands now. It should not surprise you to know that Egypt would kind of like it back, seeing as it’s theirs and all. And if you know anything about British arrogance, you know they don’t plan on giving it back any time soon. After all, they took it from the French, not the Egyptians. The Egyptians should talk to France if anybody about getting it back. Plus, it’s now as much a symbol of British pride, given that British scientists were the ones who used it to unlock hieroglyphics. Finally, knowing those Egyptians they’d probably just put it in some museum somewhere, whereas the Brits, they know how to keep track of these things. But it’s okay, Egyptians! Here is a replica of the stone for you to display! It’s reasonably accurate.

It’s often said that to understand a man, you should look to his father. Making a parallel to countries, if you don’t understand where the USA gets this idea that it is answerable to nobody but gets to dictate its policies to the rest of the world (see: Kyoto), you should look no further than America’s dad, Great Britain.

I’ll get back to the rest of Hyde Park in a jiff. In the mean time, I wanted to discuss possibly the most aWesome aspect of aWesome London: Speaker’s Corner. For those who are not aware of this place, it’s up in the northeastern corner of Hyde Park, and every Sunday it turns into mass of arguing humanity. As someone who worked in talk radio for five years, let me say this: it is wonderful, fabulous, and fabulously wonderful. I would say that you have all strains of humanity but frankly I would be lying. Normal, mainstream people with normal, mainstream beliefs are nowhere to be found at Speaker’s Corner, except maybe in the crowd heckling the speakers. All the loonies, though… they’re in there. Because I believe that the best way to get a sense of things is through the details, I’ll concentrate on a few of them I encountered there.

CIMG1656This was the first guy that I stopped to listen to. In retrospect, I’m not really sure why. I think he was one of the religious folk. There were lots of religious types there. This guy might have been what some might call a “Christian Socialist”, except that the term “Christian Socialists” connotes a party affiliation and therefore lack of general nuttery. What I do remember for sure about this was the following conversation:

Nutbag: And the Muslims are nothing but fools!

Arab Guy next to me: (looks perplexed)

Me (to Arab Guy): Dude, I think he was talking about you.

Come to think of it, I think he might have been a “freethinker”. Which is refreshing in a backwards and twisted sort of way. Here in the USA the only people who bash Muslims are Christians. There aren’t enough Jews to go around and the atheists are all ex-Christians or were raised among Christians so that’s the primary source of their disdain for religion. This guy, though, he was all about singling out the minorities. Come to think of it, “refreshing” might not be the proper word.

CIMG1659I have to admit to being initially fooled by this guy. Come on. You would be too. Look at the sign! “Everything is OK”. It sounds like he is peddling early 90s era cola products. Or, you hope as you stand in the midst of all the yelling, he is the Official Voice of Sanity, the guy who points out that yes indeed anti-Semitism is still anti-Semitism, even if your anti-Semitism springs out of the belief that the Jews are secretly 9 foot tall lizards with remote control devices on the planes that crashed into 9/11.

But no, this guy turned out to be a loon as well. What specific type, you ask? I don’t think he was specifically anti-vaccine because England as a whole is just not that stupid but if he lived in the United States he would totally be a follower of Jenny McCarthy. I think the thrust of his shouting had to do with the children today and how they are being turned into robots with the hip hop and the public school. You’d think that with that attitude the least he could do is throw in a Bill Cosby reference, but no.

Socialist Dude #1

Socialist Dude #1

Socialist #2

Socialist #2

No, seriously. There were not one, but two guys from a socialist party at this. And they did not like each other. You remember the television show “I’m With Busey”? Probably not. Anyway, it was a show by a guy named Adam de la Pena (who has since gone on to write for the animated series Minoriteam and Code Monkeys) who idolized actor Gary Busey, who in turn made it his duty to get Adam to learn the meaning of life. In one episode, Busey found a bunch of guys who believe in crazy stuff and brought them all together so they could convince the semi-skeptic Adam that there was more to life than was dream’t of in his philosophy or however the quote goes. The hitch in this little idea was that the guy who believed in UFOs thought that the guy who believed in Bigfoot was full of crap and vice versa. Needless to say, Adam did not learn the lesson Gary Busey wanted to impart upon him in this episode.

This nook of the Speaker’s Corner was, like, the living embodiment of that show (to the extent that the show itself was not the living embodiment, since it was reality TV and all). On one side you had the guy from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, who thought that the guy from the World Socialist Party was a fool. On the other side, the World Socialist Party guy thought that the Socialist Party of Great Britain really didn’t think the whole socialism thing out. Both of them were communist – calling themselves socialists was pretty much just a ruse to keep people from throwing eggs at them. Both had nebulous plans about how communism was ever going to be achieved worldwide (I think Marx said it would be a bloody revolution by the proletariat; both guys agreed that it wasn’t necessarily going to be bloody but it was coming. Somehow). Both blamed lots of things that have nothing to do with market systems of any kind on evil capitalism. I’m talking about stuff like mental illness and crime. Both said that Russia and every other so-called communist nation to date were not actually communist, and both called me an idiot when I asked how we were supposed to believe that their Glorious Revolution was still in the making when nobody could even decide what a communist government was.

The most interesting parts of both guys’ interchanges came when an Eastern European talked about the horrific experiences his family endured before the fall of the Soviet state. I am no commie-lover but I did think the World Socialism guy made a good point that those were repressive dictatorships, not so much the “worker’s paradise” envisioned by Marx. Still, the stories were very compelling and actually made people think. Well, they made me think anyway.

If you throw a yelling party, of course the Jesus freaks are going to crash it.

If you throw a yelling party, of course the Jesus freaks are going to crash it.

As noted, the talk radio producer in me loved this stuff. Not only were there so, so many viewpoints to argue with, and not only were so, so many of the viewpoints just plain retarded and easy to tear apart, but most of these guys are semi-professionals and therefore have a 5-10 minute speech they just run through over and over again. That means that when you hear a stupid point and you don’t think of a good comeback until a minute later, all you have to do is wait until the speaker cycles back to that stupid point again. You do have to interrupt people but interruption is the name of the game and I have to admit that it’s a lot more democratic than potting the caller’s phone call volume down so that the host can say his piece.

Also, there’s this weird sense of camaraderie at Speaker’s Corner, a feeling that hey, we’re all here to let the crazy thoughts loose and we may as well have a good time doing so. Despite some very heated discussion there was zero violence, at least not that I saw. People were free to name-call, shout over other folks, and commit any number of rudenesses but stopped short of profanity. The area is fairly well policed and I am told that swearing is one thing that will get you kicked out of this area. Nonetheless, I don’t care how many policemen you have, you put a whole bunch of crazy Americans together in a situation like this, you’re going to get UFC 104: This Time, We’re Not Just Going To Hug Each Other On The Mat.

The tears of... oh, screw it.

The tears of... oh, screw it.

I want to end with this guy. He’s obviously hamming it up for the camera, but overall I think he was my favorite out of all of ’em. First up, he spoke openly about his bipolar disorder and how most of his speech was out of a really vivid dream he had. I felt the same sort of tolerance towards him that one feels towards the Matt Damon character in The Informant!: not someone I’d want to have dinner with, no, but he’s just a little different, that’s all. He was a Massive Worldwide Conspiracy Theorist who was of the opinion that George W. Bush was anointed by the Bilderberger Committee or the Illuminati or the Freemasons or Skull and Bones or… frankly, they all kind of gell together in one big conspiracy blob for me because I am not that particular breed of crazy. At one point, I did have to point out that if there really was a far-reaching conspiracy, you’d think they would have chosen someone with a greater intelligence capacity of a marmot* to head the leading country of the free world. The response was the typical “yes, that is what they WANT you to believe” but I refuse to hold that against this guy.

I’m mulling whether or not to go back this time around. On the one hand, it was a good deal of fun and to be honest there’s not a lot else to do in London on a Sunday. On the other, this is one place where I fear that the second time will not be the charm: many of the nastier things I mostly overlooked in this essay will probably come more to the fore for me. On the third hand, if Bill Maher comes back for another bit in a movie (he pretended to be a Scientologist spouting his silliness at the Corner in Religulous) I can “razz” him about his stupid, stupid beliefs about vaccination. On the fourth hand, I’m not freaking Vishnu, okay!?

*Not to be confused with the capybara, the largest and therefore most intelligent rodent on Earth.

1. In a MASSIVE attempt to tie everything on this site together, I emailed the London Zoo to ask if they have capybaras. No response yet. I don’t think they do because if so it would be called the London Capybara Plaza and would be the most attended venue in the entire world and I am including the Rosalie Wyhel Museum of Dolls in this.

2. I’m not sure what point #2 was going to be now. This is what happens when you lead with the capybara story.

If you’ve heard anything about England, you’ve probably heard about the foodstuffs. Well, this blog post shall denounce some popular myths and, um, talk about other stuff as well.

This is the good stuff.

This is the good stuff.

The English like their beer cold, just like we do. Yes, I know that’s the big stereotype, those English folk drinking their room-temperature beer. And I will grant you, some of the “classic” ales are meant to be tasted at 50-60 degrees, which is what passes for English room temperature. Personally I think that a lot of people prefer their beer to be ice-cold because they’re drinking crap like Budweiser or Coors and want to experience as little taste as possible. That being said, you will not have a problem getting a good cold beer in England.

In fact, a proper Pacific Northwesterner will probably have between zero and no problem with the pub scene. With all the hops-heavy microbrews up here, you’ll probably find most English beers rather mild in comparison. Don’t get too complacent, however: I doubt most English folk know what a hefeweizen is, and if they catch you putting a slice of orange into your beer you will get punched very hard in the face by a “hooligan”.

While we’re on the subject of beverages, a couple bits about soft drinks. First, do not be surprised if your Coke comes sans ice. I don’t know why, but they don’t put ice in drinks a lot of the time. It’s a strange experience, in that we Americans know how our soft drinks taste and prefer them ice cold. That being said, if you’re a Coca-Cola connoisseur, this may end up being a good thing because they use cane sugar as opposed to high fructose corn syrup. Yes, there is a difference in taste. Don’t let anybody tell you differently. I found cane-sweetened Coke to not necessarily be any sweeter – in fact, it might have been a little less sweet – but had more of a sense of what I think the Japanese refer to as umami. It has more of a… complete feeling to it, like the taste equivalent of Warren Spector’s wall of sound. And you don’t even need to murder anyone to get it! Anyway, no ice in your Coke means you’ll have that much more of it to savor. Just don’t expect it to cool you down so much on a hot summer’s day (and really, you shouldn’t be using Coke too cool down anyway, fatso).

Don't expect any of this in Old Blighty.

Don't expect any of this in Old Blighty.

Don’t expect a lot of steak. Think about it: the United States has vast tracts of land, the kind that guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail could only dream about. We have so much land, we can let cattle basically roam free and only bring ’em back in when we decide to cut them into tasty bits. England, well, look at it. Imagine a country with a third of the population of the USA jammed into a land mass the size of the state of Oregon. On top of that, a great deal of the land that is out there an available is owned by an aristocratic class that would rather use their land for leisure than ranching. As it happens, England has some of the best farmland in the world, but the scenario I put together does not make for a lot of space to raise cattle. England’s got plenty of fish and other meats, is really good with cheeses, and the restaurants are close enough to continental Europe to really nail the presentation aspect of things, but if you’re in the mood for a thick, juicy steak, save it for when you get back to the USA.

The best place I ate at in all of England. No, really.

The best place I ate at in all of England. No, really.

Feel free to think “outside the box”. London is, of course, the cornerstone of the British Empire. At one point in time, lots and lots of different cultures paid some sort of fealty to this capital of this nation. As such, there is a great deal of stuff available from a number of different locales in the city. When I think of London, I think of it as an incredible location in a vertical sense, in that there is so much history there, but also in a horizontal sense, in that there is a tremendous amount of diversity. It’s very easy to be overwhelmed by all of this; in fact, I’d say it wasn’t until the last couple days of the trip that I really began to understand the depth as well as the breadth of England.

That goes quintuply to its food. “Classic” English cuisine has always been derided as bland, overcooked, and pie-centric: the sort of thing you wash down with your 17th beer of the day so that you never taste it anyway. Thing is, “classic” English cuisine isn’t so English anymore. My tour guide on one of the trips I took – tour guides, of course, always being 100% correct about everything – remarked that the most popular foods in the country nowadays are tikka masala and spaghetti bolognese. Indian and Middle Eastern are also very popular (I think tikka masala is Indian but I don’t really know Indian outside of curry so I can’t say for sure).

Where that intersects with bangers and mash and meatpies and so on is that a lot of these kebab shops and so on are pushing out the pubs. That’s a bad thing to the nostalgic but a wonderful thing to the visitor, as many of the places that have managed to stay in business have done so by providing the best that old-skool English food has to offer: delicious, fresh food and some of the best alcoholic beverages in the world (brought to you by the people so drunk they tried to burn mud) (and succeeded, I will grant you, but you still have to be drunk).

Pub grub is going to be a bit on the mild side, though. The English do not seem to have the taste for heat that many of us in the USA have built up (thanks in large part to our neighbors in the South). My brother tells of a place he went to further north where a restauranteur passed around some hot sauce. Try it before you put it on your dinner, he warned. This is painfully hot, he warned. Do not, whatever you do, put this directly in your mouth, he warned. My brother tried it. It was roughly as hot as Tabasco sauce.

So if you want the heat, you have to get away from the places that “native” English folk and tourists frequent and instead head out to the shops that service the immigrant populations. The Star Kebab House is, I am pretty sure, one of those places. It was on Earl’s Court, right smack in the middle of Touristville, but even so this was not a place designed to suck in tourists. There were around 40 items on the menus, all with unintelligble names and no explanation. I chose one at random and must have chosen right because man, oh, man… spicy and delicious, and served on a bed of rice so that you could put the fire out as soon as it started. I liked it so much, I went there a second time and was not disappointed (that time, I pointed at one of the trays of simmering goop).

The ironic bit was that these were also perhaps the cheapest two meals I bought (Burger King’s breakfast might have been less expensive). It’s mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide to London that you don’t have to spend a lot to have a good time in the city, that in fact sometimes all money does is insulate you from the heart of the city. This is definitely one of those situations.

So as I said I took a *lot* of pictures of London. Not of them are really about anything, just stuff that caught my attention. As stated earlier, the people all speak English, albeit with a funny accent, so it’s *almost* like you’re still in the USA. But then little things start to creep in on you around the corners and it dawns on you that this might just be a different country after all.

From left to right: the shilling, the loony, the poltroon, the bollocks and the Manx henge.

From left to right: the shilling, the loony, the poltroon, the bollocks and the Manx henge.

First of all, the money’s different. One of the first thing a USAsian notices about pretty much all foreign money is that it’s much cooler than ours. Our money is pretty boring, frankly, and I imagine it has to be easy to counterfeit. Oh, I know we put all those anti-counterfeiting measures all over our bills, but realistically… how many people hold up a $20 to the light to find the little “TWENTY TWENTY TWENTY TWENTY” strip they put inside of it? And I know that you can fold George Washington on the $1 to make a mushroom cloud but I don’t think that was a theft prevention device the Founding Fathers put in there. (Speaking of which, when *did* they decide who to put on what bill? I would love to know that the version of American history that is in my head and which features Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton out of anger over not being put on the tenner is true.)

ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US.

ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US.

One thing that did throw me off for a little bit were all the Starbuck’s. Now, there were *not* as many as in Seattle because, well, it’s Seattle. I know of 9 Starbuck’s within a mile of my apartment. I’m probably missing some and I am also not counting the 3 Tully’s Coffee places, although I guess I just did. Anyway, Starbuck’s is Starbuck’s wherever you go – coffee named after things that make you think you’re saving the planet, burned coffee grounds, lots of sugar in everything. I am sad to report that I went to Starbuck’s twice during my trip, although one of those was because I got to the Globe too early and nothing else was open in the area. I also went to Burger King once and McDonald’s once. I am a bad, bad tourist.

What the freak. I mean, what the freaking freak.

What the freak. I mean, what the freaking freak.

Speaking of Burger King… here is the “Texican” Whopper. Hey English people, I know you invented the language and all, but “Texican” is not actually a word. You want to go with “Mexican” or “Texan”. Although I can kind of see your point; this burger is clearly neither Texan nor Mexican nor really a combination of the two (there, the proper term would be “Tex-Mex”). If the resolution is too low, this is what the Texican Whopper included:

– Hamburger patty (from Texas, I guess)

– Cheese (From Wisconsin, which is way, way north of Texas)

– “Crispy taco coated with chili con carne” (this gets into the WTF portion, as chili con carne is not something you can coat something with. Chili is a kind of soup with beans and meat and onions and chili powder. This makes about as much sense as making a New England Burger and including a crispy apple fritter coated with clam chowder)

– Lettuce and onions (from the land where they put children in a blender and create lettuce and onions from their entrails)

– Cajun sauce (WTF part #2, as it’s from a place in the USA called Louisiana. Louisiana is sort of near Texas in the same way that Canada is sort of near Mexico but they aren’t exactly similar in terms of the foods the people eat. So, unless your idea of authentic Mexican food is poutine, there is a bit of disconnect here as well)

– A sesame seed bun (from the state of Sesame).

No, I did not eat this.

They move closer to you when you're not looking.

They move closer to you when you're not looking.

The phone booths are interesting on so many levels. On the base one, these probably define England for foreigners as much as double decker buses, soccer hooligans, and drinking tea with one’s little finger extended. On top of that, though, these are pay phone booths. In the year 2009. Yes, pay phone booths. And they even work! You can go inside of them, put your money in the slot, and actually use them to call people. It will feel like you just stepped into the year 1979.

On a slightly related note, ISTR there being a Monty Python sketch involving these things attacking innocent people. They do look kind of like Daleks, you have to admit. Or at least how you’d imagine Daleks to look since you, being a person who reads this fine and esteemed blog, is far too cool to know what a Dalek is (hint: it’s a monster from Doctor Who or Star Trek, I forget which. By which I mean I totally know that it’s from Doctor Who but I am trying to re-establish my non-nerd street cred).

CIMG0407I’ll go ahead and end on this, just because I think it’s a crying shame and a tribute to the way England hates America so much that they would have a perfectly good “yield” sign that has two words that make sense on it rather than “yield”. Yes, I know perfectly well what the word yield means. I am a college graduate – with a degree in our language, nonetheless – so I am supposed to know this kind of thing. But when was the last time you heard someone use the term ‘yield’ in a sentence that did not involve either a. a road sign or b. them sounding like a pompous ass? I mean, other than this post. Which I guess you aren’t technically hearing anyway unless someone is reading it aloud to you or you have one of those cool Speak and Say software programs because you’re blind.

Whatever. My point is, the English yield sign, which is actually the English GIVE WAY sign, actually makes more sense than its American counterpart. When I go to England I want nonsensicality created by several millenia of history, not something that makes more sense than what I see at home! BRITAIN R DESTROYE MERKA.

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