Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Regent's Canal

I've written before about the Grand Union Canal, near our neighborhood -- the canalside towpath is one of my favorite running and walking routes. I hadn't explored much of the canal beyond our area, though, and I often wondered how far the path goes. Yesterday, I began following it to the east.

I didn't intend to, but I wound up walking nearly 12 miles, the entire length of the Regent's Canal. The 200-year-old canal flows through the boroughs of Westminster, Camden, Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets before coming out at the Thames in Limehouse, near Canary Wharf.

The Grand Union Canal joins the Regent's Canal in a picturesque area east of our neighborhood known as Little Venice, near Maida Vale (top). Little Venice is a boat basin with a park and lots of anchored "narrow boats" along the shore, surrounding an island graced by a weeping willow tree. The canal here branches into two waterways.

I followed one, but soon wound up at a dead-end basin near Paddington Station -- a very urban area with overhead highway ramps and waterside warehouses and office blocks. I found this sculpture, Sean Henry's "Standing Man." Then I turned around and went back to Little Venice to get back on track.

Following the other branch, I walked east toward Marylebone. The canal goes into a tunnel under Edgware Road and the towpath briefly ends, so I had to walk a few blocks along the streets to pick it up again -- and when I did, the towpath was crowded with potted plants, garden decorations and other items from a neighborhood of (apparently permanently) moored boats.

Soon the path opened up again, though, and I found myself walking through a very wealthy area along the north side of Regent's Park. I passed beside the London Zoo and into Camden.

At Camden there are locks that allow boats to navigate changes in the canal's height. These are the first of many locks that I encountered as I walked eastward. I stopped here and had some vegetarian Indian food, a cappuccino and a scone at Camden Market. By this time, I'd been walking a little more than two hours.

The canal continued through a somewhat industrial-looking area just north of the St. Pancras railroad station, and then into Islington, where it was lined by townhouses. It entered another tunnel, so I came up to street level for several blocks until I could rejoin the waterway again. I started seeing more and more walkers, runners and bicyclists.

In Hackney, the walls along the canal became canvases for graffiti and street art of all kinds. I got lots of interesting pictures of the artwork.

Finally, in mid-afternoon, I found myself walking through Mile End, with the towers of Canary Wharf gleaming gold ahead of me.

By the time I got to Limehouse Basin, where the canal joins the Thames, the sun was beginning to set. As you can see, the basin contains lots of swanky-looking boats.

I circled the basin and reached the canal's mouth at the Thames just in time for sunset. It took me from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to walk the entire distance -- though I'm sure it could be done much faster. (I was pausing to take lots of photos along the way.) I was so happy to get on the train at Limehouse and rest my aching dogs as I rode back to Notting Hill!

Monday, January 30, 2012

Carrying the Stone

Last night Dave and I watched "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring," one of my favorite movies. (Just bought the DVD from Amazon!) It's a Korean film about a Buddhist monk who lives in a floating temple in the middle of a lake. A boy comes to live with him and the monk trains the boy in Buddhism. The film follows the boy's life as he grows up, strays from the path and commits a murder, and struggles to redeem himself.

Near the beginning, the boy is playing in the forest. He ties a stone to various small animals -- a fish, a frog, a snake -- and laughs as he watches them struggle. He doesn't know his teacher is also watching.

That night, the teacher ties a large stone to the boy's back. When the boy awakens the next morning, he pleads with the monk to remove the stone. The monk tells the boy he must first remove the stones from each of the animals he'd trapped the day before. He warns the boy that if any of the animals are dead, he will carry a stone in his heart for the rest of his life.

The rock still strapped to his back, the boy struggles into the forest. He finds the frog alive and releases it. But the fish and the snake are dead. The boy cries inconsolably.

That lesson always impresses me. I don't remember ever consciously tormenting an animal as a child, though I'm sure I caught my share of fireflies. I remember trying to save frogs from another boy on the elementary school playground, as he ran around stabbing them with a stick. I did my best to throw them over a fence before he could get to them.

I do remember harming an animal, ironically, when I was in the Peace Corps. I was out in the countryside with my Moroccan colleague, treating wells with large chlorine tablets to purify the water. We'd drop a tablet or two in each well to kill any bacteria. We came upon an underground spring that bubbled up into a pool, covered with a concrete cap and a door. When my counterpart opened the door, we saw numerous turtles swimming in the water.

It seemed amazing to me that these aquatic turtles were living in the arid environment of the Anti-Atlas mountains. But my Moroccan colleague was not amused. "This water is very dirty," he said, and proceeded to dump about ten chlorine tablets into the spring.

We didn't hang around to see what happened to the turtles, but I don't see how they could have survived. I felt so guilty about it afterwards that I decorated one of my shirts with drawings of turtles to memorialize them -- not that it did them any good.

The monk was right -- I still carry that stone in my heart!

(Photo: Two lizards on a house in Notting Hill.)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Trent Country Park

Just north of the Cockfosters tube station is the large Trent Country Park, about 420 acres of fields and forests surrounding a campus of Middlesex University. It used to be part of Enfield Chase, a historic royal hunting ground dating back to the 1300s.

When I rode up to Cockfosters on Friday, I decided to visit the park, since the weather was sunny for the first time in several days. I walked along the avenue of lime trees (this kind of lime, not this) leading from the entrance and watched people romp with their dogs in the muddy fields.

I don't think I've ever seen so many dogs in one place before. I saw one guy -- surely a dog-walker -- with 10 dogs. He let them off their leashes to run around and chase each other, which they did with abandon.

I mostly focused my lens on the landscape, though, since it's rare that I get out of the city into such a woodsy environment.

The mud in Trent Park got a little challenging -- it stuck to my shoes and got quite slippery in places. But I soldiered on. If little old ladies could get out there and stomp around, well, I could too.

I came to a cleared grassy path that led up a hill to a huge obelisk, marking the birth of George Grey, Earl of Harold, the son of Henry and Sophia, the Duke and Duchess of Kent. George was born in 1732 and died in infancy; the monument seems rather outsized for such a short life.

I wound back through a forest filled with ferns browned by winter. By this time I was chilly, so I made tracks to the park's cafe for some coffee and cocoa biscuits, and sat surrounded by a large group of older people who seemed to be part of a club or group of some kind. (Power walkers? Dog lovers?) When one would stand up and leave, the others would all say, "See you next Friday!"

Warmed by my coffee, I headed for the main entrance gate to continue my exploration of Cockfosters.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Cockfosters is not a metaphor. It's merely a suburb.

Author David Leavitt is responsible for planting in my head the idea that it could be more. Years ago I read his book "While England Sleeps," in which an author and enthusiast of the London tube system named Brian Botsford is curiously fixated on the Cockfosters tube stop. One of Botsford's mantras is "Imagine Cockfosters" -- for him, it represents a distant place of potential. In fact, he never actually goes there, because he's afraid if he did, he would find plain old stifled suburbia. The question, to him, was more interesting than the answer.

Yesterday, I decided to stop Imagining Cockfosters and go see it for myself. I hopped on the Piccadilly tube line and rode it all the way to the end, about nine miles north of central London.

It's interesting that Leavitt chose the Cockfosters stop for his book. It's not the most distant tube stop from central London -- that's Amersham in Buckinghamshire, on the Metropolitan Line, about 24 miles northwest of Charing Cross. But the book took place in the 1930s, and maybe at the time Cockfosters was one of the more remote stops in the underground network.

More likely: I suspect that Leavitt, a gay author whose books can be frankly sexual, and who was writing about a gay character, was making a not-so-subtle double entendre. If you're a conflicted gay man in the 1930s like Botsford and you're "Imagining Cockfosters," what are you really thinking about? Surely some graduate student somewhere has already made that the subject of a thesis. Or is it too obvious?

Anyway, as you can see, the real, non-metaphorical Cockfosters is mostly a pleasant but unremarkable community of semi-detached houses and small businesses. I walked for a couple of hours through Trent Country Park, a huge park of forests and fields just north of the tube station. (Photos to come!) Then I walked westward to High Barnet, a tube stop on another line, and rode back into Central London.

Now I don't have to Imagine Cockfosters. I've been there. (Wink, wink.)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Chips and Shards

In case you're curious to see the stuff I've found beachcombing at Bankside on the Thames, here it is. The clay tubes are from single-use smoking pipes, which as I understand it are at least 100 years old. (I suppose picking them up back then would be like picking up cigarette filters today! Bleah!)

The pottery is an assortment of earth-colored stoneware and finer dinnerware. Again, I have no idea how old any of it is, but I'm guessing based on the decorations it's about 100 years old, maybe a little more. And the glass is just a mix of interesting shards -- the bottle neck has a seam, so it was manufactured rather than blown, and that piece of stemware looks fairly recent. But all the sharp edges have been worn down, so who knows?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Beachcombing and Jobs

Yesterday I went back to the Thames at low tide, to pick up a few more interesting bits of pottery and such on the beach at Bankside. (Nothing valuable or very interesting, I hasten to add, for the benefit of any authorities reading my blog.) I am such a beachcomber. I could do it for hours.

Afterwards I walked to St. Paul's, on the north side of the Thames, and then to the Tower of London a bit farther downstream. I tried to do some photography but the weather wasn't great -- the skies were gray and leaden -- and that part of town just isn't very inspiring to me. It's very businessy, full of banks and office towers. I dunno. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood.

I've been looking at job listings online, but I haven't seen anything very promising. The journalism jobs all seem to involve covering either markets or specific technologies, neither of which I'm equipped to do. (Or want to do, for that matter.) Of course, those are the jobs that require very specific experience, the ones that need to be advertised. There may be other jobs out there that are more general, but that begs the question: Do I want to return to reporting, chasing ambulances and working nights? Could I even do it in this environment, where the government structure is a mystery to me and I don't yet know the subtleties of the culture?

Other writing jobs seem geared toward technical writing and that sort of thing, where I have no experience. I'm continuing to look, but I'm still uncertain about my place in the current economy. Do my talents and training have any value anymore? Or are there so many people out there who can write and gather information -- "citizen journalists," and other media people squeezed out of disappearing jobs -- that what I used to provide for a fee can now be had for nothing?

I have no teaching experience. I have no retail experience -- at least, not since college. Many job types seem the domain of various groups -- Eastern Europeans, for example, make up so much of the food service industry that it's been the subject of articles in the newspaper. (Besides, I'm not yet to the point where I feel like I have to take any job, at McDonald's or the grocery store. My time is more valuable to me than that.)

I've applied for three jobs since I got here -- one a temporary position -- and all three came to naught. It's not like I've been plastering London with resumes, and maybe I should be. Or maybe I should turn away from all that and continue finding a way to work for myself as a photographer and/or writer.

As you can see, there are more questions than answers!

(Photo: An alley in the old City of London, yesterday. I liked the bright pink trash bag amid an otherwise dark scene.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


I took another marathon walk yesterday, an 8-mile trek through Kensington to Fulham Palace on the Thames, historically the home of the Bishop of London. That wasn't my destination when I started out -- it's just where I ended up.

As usual, I took lots of photos, like the one above of a used furniture store on North End Road. I found yet another street market in that area, with vegetables and all sorts of other items for sale. London has a surprising number of outdoor markets, especially given the season! What with going to Borough Market twice last week, Portobello Road on Wednesday and now this one, I think I'm marketed out.

I found lots of interesting storefronts, like this unforgettable gem, as well as both "USA Nails" and "American Top Nails and Tan." Interesting how Americans are so readily associated with nail and tanning salons.

I wandered along Lillie Road, where there is a pub named after the actress Lillie Langtry. Despite exhaustive Googling, I can't find any information on the source of the name of the road, so I'm not sure whether it's named for Langtry or predates her. That's the first question in a really long time that I've been utterly unable to answer using the Internet.

I briefly visited Fulham Palace, just long enough to get a sense of the place and have a coffee and some apple cake in the cafe. (By this time it was past noon, and I hadn't brought any lunch with me!) I then hoofed it back via Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush, and got home about 3 p.m. A nice day out!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Mother Tongue

The book I'm reading now, "Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson, is all about the evolution of the English language. It's an interesting read. Bryson tracks the roots of English, the origins of certain interesting words, the reasons American spelling is different from British spelling, the sources of our grammar and sentence structure, and other subjects.

For example, the term "O.K." I've long had a vague idea that it came from the military, and relatively recently. But Bryson said its earliest usage in print was March 1839, in a Boston newspaper. Apparently some young people at the time thought it funny to use "intentional illiteracies," and O.K. may stand for "Oll Korrect." I had no idea.

He also makes the point that some of our rules of grammar really make no sense. For example, we have rules against split infinitives, and against ending a sentence with a preposition. Apparently these are rather groundless prohibitions that serve no useful function. We prohibit split infinitives because they are prohibited in Latin, and an early grammarian simply thought ending sentences with a preposition sounded bad.

I've never really stopped to think about our rules for usage, grammar and spelling -- I've merely adopted them, as most of us do. I've long been aware that English is a growing, changing language, but who knew it was so arbitrary?

Dave and I went to see "Shame" yesterday. It's a powerful movie, and an interesting examination of the excesses of misplaced desire, but I can't say I loved it. It's almost painfully slow in places -- and this is coming from someone who normally likes slow, cerebral movies.

Otherwise, we had a very quiet weekend. We've spent a lot of money over the past few weeks -- a new rug for the living room, numerous restaurant meals and movies, my photography classes, airplane tickets for Amsterdam and my visit to Florida late next month. It's time to pare back for a while!

(Photos: Top, an Instagram image of some sidewalk scaffolding near our flat. Bottom, the same scene taken with my camera a few minutes later, after the red car had parked.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012


When Liz, Sally and I went to the Tate Modern on Thursday, we watched an exhibited film by the British artist Tacita Dean in the museum's vast Turbine Hall. The film, simply called "Film" -- how's that for minimalism? -- feels, according to the museum, "like a surreal visual poem, including images from the natural world among others."

It's silent and includes black & white, color and hand-tinted images that have been cut and manipulated. It was interesting to watch, and seemed to me a melange of both the natural and industrial -- leaves, girders, volcanic cones, windows. I couldn't begin to say what it's supposed to "mean," though.

The film is projected onto a white monolith at the end of the Turbine Hall that's supposed to recall the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey," according to the museum website.

Seating was available many yards away from the screen. But when we were there, two guys were lying instead on the concrete floor beneath the monolith, watching the film close-up. One seemed to be recording it on his iPhone. (It's funny how people seem to automatically record or photograph things around them now, almost as if that's the only way they can really see them. I'm guilty of that too!) Anyway, I liked the way the huge film dwarfed the two guys on the floor.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dead Pigeon

I couldn't believe it -- of all the places in London to go on my last day of photo class, we were assigned Borough Market. I'd just been there the day before with Liz and Sally! Oh well.

The teacher told us that it can pay to find a quiet spot to linger with your camera and observe. In other words, you don't need to be running around all the time. Just sit and be attentive. (Very zen!)

I took that advice. As I was eating lunch at the market, I saw a flattened pigeon in the road nearby. I got interested in the ways people responded to the pigeon -- some pointed, some frowned or made gross-out faces, some laughed. Many people didn't seem to notice it at all.

I sat with my camera and photographed people and their reactions. I wound up with 17 shots, which you can see on Flickr here.

One oblivious guy managed to drag his suitcase right through the dead bird, as did the woman with the beige bag, behind him. (Why would someone bring a suitcase to Borough Market?)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Playing Hooky

I spent yesterday morning with my photography class, reviewing our photo assignments from earlier in the week. I was pretty happy with the way my Portobello Road photo essay turned out -- for just an hour or two of shooting, I think I came up with some pretty good images. We then went to St. Pancras train station to photograph an attempt by several couples to break a world record for longest marathon hug.

Then I played hooky. I skipped out of class to join Sally and Liz for a wander through Southwark and Bankside near London Bridge. I'd agreed to meet them before I signed up for the class and didn't realize the conflict until a few days ago -- I figured since we'd be taking lots of photos, being with them was just as good as being in class, really. Besides, it's not like I'm getting a grade or even a graduation certificate.

We had a good time at Borough Market, a food-lover's paradise but a vegetarian's nightmare -- I saw wild game hanging from hooks and a deer being butchered. Yikes. Then we walked along the muddy banks of the Thames, picking up little shards of glass, pottery and clay smoking pipes. Beachcombing along the Thames is fascinating -- those shards could be hundreds of years old. (Apparently you need a license for serious beachcombing, the province of people known as "mudlarks." As you can see from this site, truly incredible, museum-quality objects can be recovered from the Thames.)

We went to the Tate Modern to see a photo exhibit and a temporary film installation. Then we went back to Borough Market, where we met Liz's husband Andy and drank a pint while standing outside a surreal red-carpet party for Walkers Crisps. I had no idea who the "celebrities" in attendance were, but then I don't watch "The Only Way is Essex" -- which is essentially England's "Jersey Shore" -- or "Celebrity Big Brother." (I tried to ask a papparazzo -- of which there were legion -- who the celebs were. He said "I don't speak English" and turned a cold shoulder. They really do have bad karma. Fortunately a kind woman nearby, waiting to enter the party herself, filled us in.)

We topped off the day with dinner at Applebee's. No, not that Applebee's. This is a seafood restaurant at Borough Market, where I had terrific skate wing.

Today, back to class for one final day!

(Photo: The spires of Southwark Cathedral, seen between overhead railroad tracks at Borough Market.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Misty Market Day

On Wednesdays, particularly when it's damp and wintry, Portobello Road is transformed. It's not the impassable horde of foreign tourists that it becomes on Saturdays.

It's a market for locals, where people pass the time eating lunch outside a takeaway shop...

...or snoozing on a delivery truck...

...or having coffee at Coffee Republic.

A few stray shoppers check out the bright scarves, inexpensive pajama pants and London souvenir t-shirts.

The produce vendors, amid everything from potatoes and onions to pomegranates and lychee nuts, have time for some friendly banter.

A Japanese camera crew seizes an opportunity to stage a fashion shoot on the relatively empty street.

And the market recharges, getting ready for another crowded Saturday.

This is the photo essay I shot yesterday for my photography class. We had to include photos of five different types: an establishing shot that tells the overall story (top), a detail shot (pomegranate), a portrait (the woman through the scarves), a "moment" (the sleeping man, the man with the coffee) and a relationship shot (the women walking together, the produce sellers, the Japanese camera crew).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Long Shadows

Here are some of my photos from my class excursion to the South Bank of the Thames on Monday. The shadows at this time of year are so incredibly long -- the photo above was taken about 3 p.m., and the last of the photos about an hour later.

Yesterday we went to the Berwick Street Market and to Chinatown with some specific assignments, and today I'm supposed to shoot a photo essay on something within my postal code. (Today is homework day.) Tomorrow the class reconvenes!