Just Curious

Please state the answer in the form of a question... Just Curious is the occassional blog of Andrew Nelson. In an attempt to balance the polemical tone of most of the blogosphere, all entries hope to pose at least one useful question. Many entries simply advance useful memes. Personal entries may abandon the interrogative conceit.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

London, Alone - Part 3 - "A Tour of London, with 100,000 People"

pics here!

I got started a little late Saturday morning, and decided the trip to the library probably wouldn't be worth it. I'm going to Liverpool on Monday, and I can spend all day in the library Tuesday, so I should be all right. Meanwhile, I had a protest to get to. I stopped by the stationer to pick up a posterboard and a thick marker, and made my sign on the Tube. Here is a picture of me with it later in the day. I added the finishing touches on a bench in the Hyde Park Corner station. A tiny Lebanese-looking girl asked, "Are you going to the demo?" I thought about what she meant for a moment, then said yes, I was. We were both afraid we?d be late, but I had to finish my sign, so she and her crew moved along.

Outside the gates of Hyde Park, a group of volunteers from Socialist Worker newspaper were handing out signs with a picture of Bush and the words "#1 Terrorist." There were a few other popular pre-generated placards: "Against All Wars"; "Troops Out Now"; "End the Occupation." None of those were really for me, since I don't quite support any of those goals. My real sentiment was something like, "Now that we're in Iraq please don't screw things up too badly and I hope we can leave as soon as possible but I would also rather not create a civil war and by the way I support Israel's right to exist and I want the Palestinian Authority to clean up its act before Palestine becomes an independent country, more for the Palestinians' sake than the Israelis, and while we're on the subject I completely oppose any sort of violation of human rights or racism, and yet I think there might be extreme cases where torture and the death penalty are justified, but I'm not sure if I trust the state with the power to administer them oh and also regarding American hegemony I don't think we can really get around it in a world where economic power matters most but I think there's a right way and a wrong way -- your advice as the previous hegemon would be appreciated." Whew. But you can't fit all that on a placard.

You can fit some of it in a discussion, though, and this was the first chance I really got to have them. To get to the march's launching point, we had to walk across the north side of Hyde Park, which is quite a hike. The park was amazing, by the way -- I had hoped to get down there earlier in the day and explore a bit, but I didn't want to miss the demo. I'll likely go back to see the museums that are down there. Anyway, I had a few fellow travelers across the park. One was a veteran organizer from Brighton; looked like an old Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament type (there were there in force, by the way). He told me about his trip up and made fun of the bobbies lining the edge of the park. "Probably going to spray us with sewage or something," he said.

I wanted to keep talking to him, but we were interrupted by a socialist who objected to my sign. "Kerry! Kerry was just as bad!" He looked around, trying to draw a crowd from the people rushing to catch up with the rest of the marchers. "We should be protesting against this fellow! He should be tarred and feathered!" I had to stop for that -- I explained that my sign was kind of a joke, that I wanted to show the futility of the American voter. He told me I should have voted for a real opposition, though he didn't seem to know what he meant by that (besides, if I had cast a third-party vote, it probably would have been for the libertarians). We came to something of a consensus in the end -- I told him that I thought voting was just one form of political expression, probably the minimum form, and I didn't consider it a real reflection of my principles. He seemed to like that, but kept wanting to go on about how the Democrats had purposefully lost, or something along those lines. I told him I had to catch up with the marchers, which was true.

Things moved pretty slowly from there on out, but it was okay, because I had a good chance to take pictures. I had seen massive protests in the United States, though I've never been in one, so I can't tell what aspects of what I saw were uniquely British. I saw some of the same guerilla theater stuff you see in the States... always entertaining. The police line probably interested me the most. About a third of them weren't even police -- they were observers or "stewards" from some of the organizing groups. I think they were both there to watch the bobbies and to keep the crowd moving. When we stood still -- which was often, at first -- representatives from various groups worked the crowd, distributing literature. A few of them got caught up in discussions, often about who to vote for in the upcoming elections. There was a strong "Labour Against the War" contingent, some Liberal Democrats... I think most of the march represented the entire city's socialist vote, though. We'll see in (I think) May.

We soon approached our first target, the American Embassy. I held my sign so the people looking out the windows could see. The chanting began: "Bush, Blair, CIA: how many kids have you killed today?" "George Bush? TERRORIST! Tony Blair? TERRORIST!" And, occasionally: "Shaaa-ron? TERRORIST!" I asked one of the yell leaders if she knew "We Shall Overcome" and was promptly ignored. The only group I wanted to sing with was a church choir who seemed to have brought books of hymns for peace, but I'd lost them in Hyde Park.

"You can?t have a protest without embassies!" remarked an older fellow who had fallen in beside me. He noticed my sign and started asking me questions about American politics. I explained a little about the Democratic primary, speculated about how other candidates might have fared against Bush. He asked me if I thought Bush was really wearing a wire during the first debate -- I told him the White House could surely have developed a better technology. I did explain, though, that it was a good analogy, because I thought Bush wasn't the evil genius that radicals and anti-war protesters make him out to be. I told him I bought Al Gore's explanation of the man-- he's a coward who will never say no to anyone who helped him get elected. He seemed to like that line, thought it could be applied to Blair. I wasn't so sure. I also told him about the Jeff Guckert/Jeff Gannon story, which apparently hasn't broken over here.

As we approached Piccadilly Circus, he pointed out a few sites to me. "That's the Duke of Wellington's house," he said. "One Piccadilly Circus." He seemed as congenial as a tour guide. I thanked him, then fell off to the side to take some pictures -- things were really beginning to heat up. During another congested moment, I talked to a student from Portugal who was studying somewhere further north and had come down just for this. His opinions seemed somewhat conflicted, like mine. I had a feeling he was there for the girls -- he spent the rest of the walk with a few radical-chic types. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I left him as we entered Trafalgar Square.

The moment I saw Trafalgar is probably a good metaphor for my experience in London so far. When you associate a place with the past, with buildings and monuments, you start to think of it as empty. We had a nice little discussion about this in my Technology and Colonialism class... why colonial governments would always portray the monumental architecture of India or Africa or Southeast Asia as empty. One theory says they wanted them to become symbols of the government, not the people who lived there (though nationalist movements were quickly able to adopt them -- that's why Zimbabwe is called Zimbabwe).

Anyway, I couldn't help thinking of that discussion when I saw Trafalgar filled with people. The base of Nelson's Column was covered in posters. A black woman rode one of the bronze lions, swaying her arms to the music. A woman wearing sunglasses and a T-shirt that just said "peace" splashed around in one of the fountains, soaking her black skirt. The steps of the National Gallery were packed with bodies. There was some milling about, but most people focused on the speakers: a labor leader, a Green Party MP, a Muslim feminist, a rapper. I gave up with my sign at this point and walked around, taking more pictures. The Green Party was also nice enough to sell me some tea and a brownie (no, not special brownies). I stayed around long enough to take photos of the cleanup crew, then headed for the Tube.

For a first protest experience, it wasn't so bad. I agree those who say that this form of political expression is probably dying -- the fact that so many millions of people all over the world were unable to prevent the Iraq war is a sign of that. I think any sort of popular movement that emerges over the next few decades will need to be smarter than crowds yelling at the American Embassy. But I loved the sort of discussions that took place that day. Even though none of the speakers really disagreed with each other, they did focus on different issues, they had different priorities. And there was great discussion in the crowd about where Britain (and the world) ought to be going. I don't know if that happens at these sort of things in Chicago or New York or Berkeley, but I'm glad it happened here.

More things happened that day, but I?m just about written out. Hope you enjoy the pictures!

Saturday, March 19, 2005

London, Alone - Pt. 2 - “Bloomsbury, Noodles”

I suppose I hadn’t had enough of getting lost the first day, because I feel like that was my principal activity today too. Thouugh it turn out so bad after all. Much of the day was spent either asleep or on my wild cyber-goose chase, yet even in the few evening hours I feel like I took in a lot. Also, though I briefly visited the library and took a tube ride yesterday, this was the first day I actually feel accultured to them.

I got to the Wellcome Library around 3 p.m. I should say that the library was nothing like what I expected. I hadn’t seen any pictures of it on their Web site, so I expected a tiny, old building with a loving, protective staff. Of course, this doesn’t make any sense; the Wellcome Library is one of the best libraries for the history of medicine in the world. To earn that reputation, it would need to have at least as many volumes as Northwestern does on the subject, and that’s a lot. It turns out it is a rather modern building -- not even its own building, actually, but a few floors within the Wellcome Trust. It is pretty similar to most research libraries and rare book rooms -- hour-long waits for materials, pencils only, no coats and bags, signing forms to hold you liable for the slightest crease, a few territorial librarians and researchers. The woman at the desk nearly had to break up a catfight between two people over a computer.

I didn’t get to look at much today -- just one of the expedition’s research papers, something that is actually held in the rare books room at Rush University, though they wouldn’t let me see it. It was somewhat illuminating because in this report, Todd (the Canadian scientist) includes a history of the Congo Free State, his ideas about disease causation and recommendations for prophylaxis. In itself it is a great example of how early-20th-century doctors thought about disease. We’ll see how useful it is for me in the long run.

After Wellcome closed at 5:30 I found my wireless, which occupied me for at least an hour (I had to finish up some work on the magazine article). After that I walked around Bloomsbury, just south of my hostel. This area is most famous for being the trotting ground and Virginia Woolf and friends. It’s also where you’ll find University College London and the British Museum. I accidentally found both earlier in the day, when I was trying to get to Euston Station. UCL didn’t look too different from an American college campus. The most distinctie features were the hundreds of posters advertising the massive anti-war protest going on tomorrow in Hyde Park. Don’t think I’m going to miss that; I’m stopping by an office supply shop (a “stationer”) tomorrow to get a poster board and Sharpie (“Don’t Blame Me-- I Voted For Kerry!”).

The part of Bloomsbury I explored was something of a mixture of upscale bars and restaurants with cheap student food and bookshops -- sort of like a very condensed Evanston, actually. I was searching for Wagamama which, legend has it, brought the “noodle shop” to the West, or at least to Britain. It was tucked in its own little nook off Bloosbury Street -- would never have found it if I wasn’t looking. It’s clear that everyone knew where it was, though -- I got there around 9 p.m., and the place was pretty packed. Some of that is due to the setup. In a plain, white room there’s about ten long benches, filled with people on either side. I felt sort of awkward eating there alone; they wouldn’t seat anyone across from me. They said it was all right, though -- it’s clear that they have a premium on speed. They give you a menu the moment you walk in the door, and the waiters place their orders by radio. I had the “wagamama ramen,” which I’m afraid wasn’t everything I’ve ever dreamed of in a noodle dish. I really should have gotten something with rice, but my main criterion was price -- I only had about eight pounds on me, because I had spent most of my cash that day on buying a Travelcard for the tube.

I got out of Wagamama around 10 p.m., but wasn’t tired at all, so I decided to take the tube to Picadilly Circus. In the old travel book Mary lent me, Here’s England, the author describes entering the Circus and not realizing she was in the heart of London. I doubt that would be possible today; the four corners surrounding the tube station and the statue of Eros are covered in bright video advertisements, Times Square-style. I wandered down a few streets, saw the ads for many of the major shows in town. I discovered, to my horror, that there is a T.G. I. Friday’s in town. I hope they don’t have to wear flair. You know, an amusing story would be to interview a person who works (or frequents) ten different iconic chain stores that have set up shop in London. At least they don’t have Wal-Mart yet.

I’d had about enough of Picadilly, so I headed home around midnight. Got lost once again... but tomorrow I think I’ll at least be able to find my way to my sort-of home.

I’d like to include some “observations on London/ers” for today, but I need to sleep. Perhaps tomorrow.

Oh, and I finally got my luggage, so... photos!

Tomorrow: protests through Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square... also maybe a bit of Chelsea.

London, Alone - Pt. 1.75 - “Access, Cont’d”

Okay, this isn’t really being written on day 1.75, but it is meant to represent the point I was at earlier today.

One of the reasons we travel is order to feel different. A voyage is like a piece of fiction -- it’s not worth it unless the main character has changed by the end. Until this evening, I was only aware of the fact that I was in London. I didn’t really feel. The main reason was that I was worried. At about noon, this worry was divided into about four parts. My luggage hadn’t been delivered, and I got the sense my clothes were starting to stink. I had slept in that morning -- forgiveable, since I had gotten about three hours of sleep in as many days, but still annoying. As a result, I only spent a few hours in the library, even though I had intended to be there from nine to five. I was able to get oriented and put in a load of requests for materials, but I was still feeling one of my background fears for this entire trip -- that my research won’t turn out to be as promising as I thought. I doubt that will be the case -- I already found a few good things today -- but that may not make the fear go away.

The main irritant of today, though, was that I still hadn’t sent in my final paper and that article for the Weinberg alumni magazine. I feel that there really were extenuating circumstances, but I still felt guilty. Additionally, it meant that I spent the early afternoon searching for wirless internet. I had considered just retyping both items on one of the pay-for internet terminals at the hostel, but this seemed inordinately expensive and time-consuming. This wasn’t too awful, since it helped me orient a bit better. Also, my principal target, the Euston Station area, was not so far from the Wellcome Library. Alas, I failed in the end. Euston Station’s wireless only allows free access to the terminal’s site and a few others. The only alternative I could find nearby was Starbucks, which I was told had a T-Mobile hotspot. Ha, maybe in America, maybe, but I was not going to Starbucks in England. (Though they are ubiquitous, in some areas more than in the U.S. I’ll do a count next time I’m out.)

In the afternoon I was able to buy forty minutes’ access for a pound at the Virgin Megastore. This sounds exspensive if you consider that the exchange rate is a little over two dollars to the pound, but it was much less pricy than anywhere else I looked. The trouble was that when I got into the area, my adapter was incompatible with their outlets. It was sort of like trying to use a three-prong device in a two-prong plug. I even unplugged one of their “arcade tables.” (These were really neat, by the way... old two-player sit-down video game units, except they’ve attached some nice seats and everyone eats on them. You can still play the games, though -- I would have if I weren’t freaking out about the exchange rate.)

Oh, and Boy George was there. I couldn’t really see him, but... weird.

I finally found relatively inexpensive access at a place called Caffe Vero. As I would eventually discover, this is a sort of pseudo-Starbucks, a chain that claims to have London’s “best Italian coffee outside Milan.” It actually was pretty good. I suppose I can forgive the chaininess because the fact that they’re all over the city means it won’t be too hard to find one. If I had actually done some planning for this trip, though, I would have thought about where to find free (or “price-of-coffee”) wireless access. If my need hadn’t been so urgent, I might have worked harder to find free access here, but the only good way I can think of doing that is... the internet. Besides, I snuck a look at a Lonely Planet guide which said most places are pay-for. My own guide, though admirable in other respects, only mentioned one internet café, which looked like every other internet café. And what I needed was wireless, not rows of terminals.

Thus, word for the wise, don’t forget internet access! Now, the real entry.

Friday, March 18, 2005

London, Alone: Pt. 1.5 - Access Update

So I should explain, outside of the "pure" context of an entry, my access situation. I've bought a week wireless pass for internet at a cafe chain here... cheaper than my hostel, and wireless, which is what I really need. There should be a post every day from here on out, but what I just posted was actually yesterday's, so there should be two tomorrow. I'll also be checking my e-mail once a day. I can call the U.S. if need be, but I don't have a lot of time... e-mail me if you need a phone call, and I'll see what I can do. Cheers!

London, Alone: Pt. 1 - "In Transit"

I left in a ridiculous state of unpreparedness. At the time of my departure I had left one of my final papers unwritten, a job application incomplete, and the sink full of dishes. We'll see how many of those problems I can solve from London. Part of it was the fault of my shoddy computer battery... should have gotten my long-awaited replacement before I left, but there was no time.

I was so unprepared that I forgot to pack another pair of pants. One would think this would be a more essential thing to worry about than which novel to read on the plane (Orwell won -- Down and Out in Paris and London), but I'd been thinking about that all day instead of how to cover my ass. Fortunately, I had been meaning to get some new slacks anyway, so I bought a not-too-expensive pair at the airport. I really should have waited to go to SoHo and get something more "posh," but the fear of trouserlessness drove me to dull consumerism. And the value of the dollar was plummeting anyway.

So after a series of delays and a dash through the -- dare I say "beautiful?" -- Atlanta airport, I am on a plane to Gatwick Airport in London. (Digression: I love airports, train stations... like Gaiman's Delirium, I love any place that isn't really a place. This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed Spielberg's "The Terminal" more than I should have. I am actually typing this two days after the fact, and I should note that despite my sick affection, I did not find Gatwick to be beautiful in any way. Maybe it was because my luggage was lost. More on that later.)

For weeks I had been saying I couldn't believe it was real. I know the exact moment that changed -- when I saw the series of maps on the in-flight monitor that detailed my route. The American maps labelled the Blue Ridge Mountains; Rome, Georgia; Norfolk, Virginia; the sort of places whose reality I couldn't dust off if I tried. If they could be reduced to little white dots, I coudl believe that he most important city in the world could be one too. For a moment, at least.

"The most important city in the world"? Maybe not, but I can't shake the sense that everything important happened there. It's a historian's bias, but when people speak of liberty, of science, of commerce, of modernity, of "civilization" (good or bad) any of those things, I think of London, and not Washington or New York or Tokyo or Rome or whatever city I'm supposed to think of. Maybe it's because I feel like I know a little of its dark side, from these years studying the massive plunder that was planned in sites I'll be casually walking through in a few days. But I don't let those judgments get me down. The British Empire made our world -- that's one of the reasons it interest me, one of the reasons I'm here.

Of course, Engalnd made my world in a different way, one I didn't think of until I got on the plane and started listening to the Beatles. There is so much culture that I consider mine first and British second -- Wallace and Gromit, Monty Python, Douglas Adams, Elvis Costello, Radiohead -- that it's strange to think of going to the place where it was made. Maybe that's how the rest of the world feels when they come to America.

As the previous three grafs indicate, there will be far too much to see in just 11 days, especially when you consider that I'm actually here to work and I'm supposed to make day-trips to Liverpool and Oxford. Right now the most definite item on my itinerary is probably meeting Prof. Glassman for a beer. But, that said, here is my plan for the next 11 days.

I have to work -- that's the reason I'm here. On the first or second day (depending on jet-lag), I will try to work out a time schedule for getting through this particular archive at the Wellcome Library. I should try to take home as much of it as possible in the form of xeroxes, photographs or microfilm -- there's no way I'll be able to read everything here.

Fortunately, I am incapable of *really* working more than eight hours a day, and I should be able to explore every night. I'm not sure if I will make a concerted effort to meet people in my hostel; it would probably make me feel safer inside and out. But I don't hunt in packs at home, so it will be something of a relief not to have to do it abroad. I have always traveled in large groups before (yes, my family counts as a large group). Now I will almost be doing it the way I'm supposed to, without any possiblity of help or protection. I say "almost" because the real meaning of "alone" to me is "with Lindsay" ... without her I am a little less than myself, a little less than alone.

It's probably no surprise that my itinerary on free days will be decidedly personal. the big tourist sites are not a priority in themselves -- I only care if they've been recommended by a friend. So the Tower and Westminster and the Tates are all on the list, but so are bookstores and noodle shops, the Old Operating Theater and the "Jack the Ripper" walking tour. And maybe even a few of the places Orwell frequented, ha.

For now, it's time to stop anticipating and nap. When I awake, I'll be in Albion.