Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Golden Reminder

It's been exactly six months since Dave and I said goodbye to our old and ailing boxers, Ruby and Ernie. I still miss them every day. I miss goofy Ernie snoring and taking up half the bed, and I miss Ruby doing her "Milk Bone dance" after her walk, when she knew a treat would be forthcoming.

Dave and I are still pondering getting another dog. As I've mentioned, though, we want to wait until we've lived in London a bit longer. That way, we can travel and explore without worrying about dog care, and perhaps wait until we live in more dog-friendly accommodations. (A back garden would be nice!)

On Thursday evening, I found this incredible spray of golden light across our bedroom wall, and across the framed photos of Ernie and Ruby that hang there. That's when it occurred to me we were then days away from the six-month mark. I don't really believe in communications from beyond, or anything like that -- but it was a nice reminder, and I'll concede that the universe works in mysterious ways!

Friday, June 29, 2012


I didn't post any pics of Dover yesterday when I wrote about our bus tour, so here are a few. The sky was gray when we first arrived, and as we stood on the pebbly beach a mist began rolling in, obscuring the old castle and church on the clifftops. It looked like the kind of place that probably gets a lot of gray, chilly weather.

I got some photos of the cliffs themselves, but we were looking upward through a maze of hotels and streetlights and urban visual clutter, so none of them are really blog-worthy.

I think we're running out of sightseeing steam. Yesterday we met Jennifer and Jesse at the school where Dave teaches, and he gave them a quick tour. We spent what seemed like a couple of hours just having lunch and talking with Dave's coworker Gordon, who came along. It was a nice, leisurely afternoon.

Last night Dave and I watched "The Ipcress File" with Michael Caine, a surprisingly good Cold War spy movie from 1965, on Netflix. I'm not thrilled with my Netflix subscription here in the U.K. The selection seems very limited. I've tried to rent "Dances With Wolves," "A Room With A View," and the "Die Hard" movies, among others, and none are available. We're not exactly talking about obscure cinema, here!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Visit to Kent

In the year that we've lived here in England, I've done almost no traveling outside London. We had one jaunt to Stonehenge last September, and that's been about it. But with my stepsister Jennifer and nephew Jesse visiting, Dave and I decided to join them in exploring the countryside.

Yesterday we hopped on a bus and headed southward into the county of Kent for a daylong tour. Our first stop was Leeds Castle, parts of which date back to the early 1100s. Once the home of British royalty and sometimes their spurned wives -- Catherine of Aragon lived here for a while -- it was most recently inhabited by an Anglo-American heiress from the Whitney family, Lady Baillie. She opened it to the public upon her death in 1974.

The castle still contains many of Lady Baillie's furnishings, including her Egyptian cat statue and her book collection. (I love that "British Dogs" tome, but where are volumes one and two? And did Lady Baillie really read Lord George Paget's "Crimean Journal"? Yawn!)

The structure was beautiful, with its Norman wine cellar, crenellations and moat full of Australian black swans. But overall I wouldn't want to live in a castle. Too big, too drafty, and just not at all cozy.

From there we drove down to Dover, to check out the famous white cliffs. (Dave and Jennifer were impressed that I know the words to Vera Lynn's famous World War II song -- but hey, it's on my iPod!)  We stood on the pebbly beach and took some photos, then piled back into the bus for the trip to Canterbury.

The main attraction there, of course, is Canterbury Cathedral. When we entered, I was stunned to see the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, Rowan Williams, preparing for an ordination ceremony this weekend. (That's him in the center above, with the gray beard and wild eyebrows.) We were told that although the Archbishop -- religious leader of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion -- is often at the cathedral, we were lucky to have the opportunity to see him working.

The cathedral itself is like all cathedrals, huge and vast and dim and chilly. We saw the spot where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170, now marked by a large dagger-like wall sculpture.

But as sculptures in Canterbury go, I prefer this one -- "Lamb," by Kenny Hunter. (You may remember  another Hunter sculpture from my blog -- "I, Goat" from the Spitalfields Market in London.)

We had a few hours to eat lunch and explore Canterbury. I bought a Queen Elizabeth II coffee mug in a thrift store (£3, a bargain!) and got a kick out of the woman behind the counter, who was wearing two large Elvis Presley pendants and playing Elvis music over the store's sound system. She said she'd been to Graceland three times. When I told her I'd never been, she said, "That's a disgrace, to be an American and never visit Graceland."

But don't I get points for making it to Canterbury Cathedral?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On the River

Jennifer, Jesse and I boarded a boat yesterday morning for a ride down the Thames to Greenwich. I've always used the tube to travel down that way, but the boat really is much more pleasant. It's interesting to see the city from the river -- the old waterfront warehouses now converted to lofts and offices, interspersed with new glassy condo towers. I can't even imagine how strange it would be to live right on the Thames, with all that river traffic passing through the back yard.

Greenwich is a mess right now, amid all the preparations for the Olympics. The equestrian events are being held there, and huge areas of green space in and around the park and the Queen's Palace have been fenced off and built up with towering bleachers. Walking through is like navigating a metal maze.

We went to the Royal Observatory, the Greenwich Market and the Royal Naval College, with its buildings by Christopher Wren. True to form, Jesse wanted to go back to the hotel -- but he managed to take it all in very patiently.

Last night Dave joined us and we went to St. John, the home of nose-to-tail cooking, at Jesse's request. Jesse had heard me talk about the duck heart salad and he really wanted to try it, but sadly, it wasn't on the menu. He had to settle for pig's cheek and ox tongue, and he got to try Dave's main course of sweetbreads. Mystifyingly, given Jesse's generally unadventurous approach to tourism, he loved all three.

I, however, went conservative and got baked chicken.

(Photos: Houses on the Thames, and a leafy shadow in our neighborhood in Notting Hill.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pollarding, Part 2

Back in February I posted a photo of this street near our flat, to show you the severe form of tree pruning known as "pollarding." I thought you might be interested in seeing the same trees in summer. As you can see, they fill out pretty well!

In other news:

-- The caterpillars living on our horseradish plant have vanished. We recently had a chilly night, with temperatures in the low 50s, and when I looked the next morning the caterpillars were motionless. The next time I looked, they were completely gone. I don't even have caterpillar corpses. My theory is the cold stunned or killed them, and then something ate them. But who knows.

-- I've had a big week, photo-wise. The blogs Londonist and Little London Observationist both published some of my photos from Flickr, which was a pleasant surprise. (Follow the links if you want see them -- they're photos I haven't used here.) And on Thursday, while visiting the Saatchi Gallery with my friends Sally and Jamie, I was happy to find in the gift shop a book called Focus: Found Faces, which contains one of my photos. (Unfortunately I don't get royalties or anything -- in fact, I didn't even get paid, beyond getting a free copy of the book. But I thought it was worth it to let them use the picture, just for publishing credit.)

-- We had an armed robbery in our neighborhood, which freaks me out a little bit. Denbigh Road, where it occurred, is a short street that runs right next to our apartment building. I usually read about street robberies happening late at night or in the wee hours of the morning -- but this was 7 p.m., broad daylight! Of course, the victim was wearing a £28,000 Rolex. I wouldn't be such a tempting target, with my 15-year-old, $49 Fossil.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Goodwill Glassware

Here's one from the archives! These pictures are really old -- I took them in the mid-1980s while I was in college. I had a collection of glassware I'd picked up piece by piece at Goodwill stores, and each one did its own crazy thing with sunlight.

Trying to capture this phenomenon, I loaded my Canon AE-1 with some artsy black-and-white film and toted the glassware outside one sunny day, where I arranged it on a piece of white posterboard.

I especially liked this bowl, which was salmon-colored. I used it to burn candles, which sent out long spirals of light.

I remember being disappointed when the pictures came back from the photo lab (ah, yes, film developing -- ugh). I didn't know anything about white balance at the time, and they all looked very gray and murky.

When I scanned them the other day I was able to correct the balance a bit, so that white background now looks more like it should. Finally, after 26 years!

I don't have any of this glassware anymore. I eventually gave it all back to Goodwill. I suspect it has probably returned to sand by now.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

From the Bus

My stepsister Jennifer and nephew Jesse are visiting from Florida, and for the last few days we've explored the city. On Friday I took them on a walk around our neighborhood, including a visit to the graffiti yard at Trellick Tower. (I can just hear my dad: "Where did you take my 14-year-old grandson?!") We explored Portobello Road market and had Indian food for dinner.

Then, yesterday, Jennifer bought tickets for one of those open-top bus tours around the city. The first 3/4 of the tour was fabulous -- I learned lots of things about London neighborhoods that I never knew, such as the location of Margaret Thatcher's house and the origin of the Great Fire of London. The last quarter of the trip was horrendous, as a frigid wind blew in gray, rainy-looking clouds. Note to self: Open-top bus tours are a very bad idea on unseasonably chilly days. (It was in the 50s yesterday, and I have been insistently wearing shorts -- so maybe it's my own fault that I got cold, but it's summer, dammit.)

Jesse, being 14, was sick of the bus trip almost from the moment we set out. His mantra on vacations is, "Can we go back to the hotel now?" He wants his YouTube, his television and his big double bed. By the end he was practically catatonic with boredom. He did not appreciate sights like the world's largest photo of the royal family (above), installed on a riverfront building for the Queen's recent Jubilee flotilla. After we finally disembarked, we managed to find a pub for some lunch and then went out on the river itself, in a boat that, thankfully, was covered and served coffee -- and took us right back to Jesse's hotel room.

Dave comes back from his conference in Rhode Island today -- yay! -- so he'll be able to join us on upcoming sightseeing expeditions.

And speaking of Dave, you may remember me writing about a scaffolding collapse in our neighborhood during a windstorm several weeks ago. Well, we've learned more about the new Jamie Oliver restaurant soon scheduled to open at the site of that mishap -- it's called Recipease, and apparently it includes a kitchen shop and will offer cooking lessons. A certain someone (named Dave) will definitely want to check it out!

Saturday, June 23, 2012


This little yellow character, maybe slightly larger than a pinhead, built a web on our balcony, precariously strung between one of the stakes for our tomato plants and the top of a boxwood shrub. When the sun came up in the morning, he was ready with glistening threads to catch some breakfast.

Hopefully he was successful; there are plenty of little gnats and flies around the houseplants on our balcony. I can't be sure, though. I went out in late morning and when I returned in the afternoon, he and his web were gone.

(This photo, by the way, was taken with my old camera -- the only one for which I have a macro lens. I hope to get a new macro to go with the new camera, which hopefully will result in sharper, more detailed shots!)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tipping Point

A friend recently posted an article to Facebook suggesting that humans are pushing the planet to a "tipping point" -- a point from which our ecology will slide inexorably toward dramatic change.

Most of us have already adapted to the idea that we've altered the planet's weather patterns through our increasing industrialization and use of fossil fuels. We see species continuing to disappear around us, or being relegated to a handful of individuals held in zoos and other controlled environments. Change is already occurring.

I hadn't really considered the idea of a tipping point, though -- that crucial moment when things are pushed to such a degree that they can't recover, or can only slide even more rapidly toward collapse.

The article, which is based on a study from numerous scientists appearing in the journal Nature, suggests that solutions are within our grasp. Reducing reliance on fossil fuels is one obvious solution, but I have doubts about how well that will work unless people are willing to give up a huge amount of the energy they now consume. Wind and solar can only take us so far.

Another solution is population control. For some reason, this topic seems to really set some people off -- particularly religious types, who perhaps see it in opposition to the Biblical demand to "be fruitful and multiply." But to me, that's the most obvious answer. We should be encouraging every possible method of population control.

First and foremost, that means educating women, providing them with opportunities and leaving them in absolute control of their reproductive lives. Studies have repeatedly shown that as women's personal opportunities and material wealth increase, they have fewer children. It also means making contraception readily available and campaigning against the forces -- predominantly religious -- that discourage empowerment of women and the use of birth control in complete disregard for the planet's future.

Men certainly bear responsibility in these matters, too. But it's an axiom of international development that working with women on contraception (and other family issues like health, nutrition and budgeting) is more directly effective. We have to get serious about improving the lot of women all over the world, and continuing to transform cultures (including some segments of Western society) where women are denied opportunities and/or taught that parenthood is the only true raison d'etre.

I don't have anything against kids -- and obviously we need some. Parents who want two or three kids, more power to you. More than that, and I'd suggest thinking about it.

I know some smart aleck is going to say, "Well, why don't you start by jumping off a bridge?" After all, we all want to live, myself included. I'm not suggesting we start practicing eugenics or mandatory euthanasia, or develop a society reminiscent of "Logan's Run." I once suggested, somewhat rashly, that men and women undergo sterilization after two children. That's probably too extreme -- though I'm not sure government limits on childbirth are inherently a bad idea, I much prefer giving people reasons to have fewer children, rather than passing restrictions on the number they can have. (I do think if we continue on our present course, however, such restrictions are someday inevitable.)

Curbing population growth solves all our problems. It reduces demand on our fuel supplies, it reduces pressure to push into the planet's remaining wild areas, it leaves us with fewer mouths to feed and fewer thirsty bodies. In combination with modern medicine I imagine it would drastically reduce disease, with fewer reservoirs for illness. Every species, including ours, would benefit if there were fewer of us.

(Photo: Completely unrelated, a  crosswalk on King's Road, Chelsea, in early May.)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Clapham Common

Have you ever heard the 1979 song "Up The Junction" by Squeeze? It starts like this:

I never thought it would happen 
With me and the girl from Clapham 
Out on the windy common 
That night I ain't forgotten

With those lyrics echoing in my head I went walking in the south London neighborhoods of Brixton and Clapham on Wednesday, with Clapham Common my eventual destination. I haven't done much photography south of the Thames, so I wanted to extend my range a bit and see a new part of the city.

The Squeeze song is pretty bleak, overall -- a working-class tale of woe about an overworked guy who has a baby with a thankless woman, then gets jilted for drinking too much.

Fortunately, the common itself isn't bleak at all -- at least not now. (Maybe 1979 was another story.) It's a big, grassy park with a historic Victorian bandstand, several ponds, walking trails and a skatepark. The smokestacks of the Battersea Power Station are just barely visible over the treetops.

I can see how it would be windy out there, can't you?

It's a good thing I got some walking in, because as I understand it, the rest of the week is supposed to be incredibly rainy. In fact, an article in Wednesday's newspaper said we're in for an "umbrella summer." Something about low pressure and whatnot, apparently lasting through the Olympics and beyond. (I wonder how meteorologists can project that far into the future?)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Horseradish Salad

Here's our horseradish plant, which you may remember grew from two bits of root we planted in a pot. It's become quite large and leafy, and it had even more leaves before I removed some for culinary purposes. (Read on!)

Before I discuss our own eating habits, though, I have to mention this guy. Actually, there are three of them -- some kind of green caterpillar-slash-inchworm critters, munching away at the leaves of our horseradish. I decided to leave them alone for now, thinking they'll eventually become moths of some sort. (They look like they might be peppered moth caterpillars.) They're not doing too much damage -- just leaving holes in leaves here and there. I can live with that.

Isn't it amazing that some insect found our horseradish plant on our sixth-floor balcony, and chose it as a nursery?

Anyway, as I said, I removed some of the horseradish leaves so we could eat them ourselves. Dave first did some research on whether horseradish leaves are edible, and it turns out they are. So I cut five or six, transferred one wayward caterpillar back to the plant, and washed the leaves thoroughly to ensure we weren't consuming any of his siblings. Dave then chopped the leaves and added shallots and dressing to make a salad, which we ate with pork chops. The leaves taste vaguely of horseradish, though also more green and nowhere near as strong as the root.

Here we are in London, growing our own food! I feel like Oliver Wendell Douglas on "Green Acres," growing vegetables on his New York City balcony (before he could convince Lisa to leave her penthouse view and move to Hooterville). I don't think we'll be buying a farm anytime soon, though.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Short Takes

-- I didn't mention Father's Day here, but I did Skype with my Dad last week to wish him a happy one. It was great to talk to him. He seems to be doing well, and I'm looking forward to a visit from my stepsister and nephew in just a few days. Should be fun!

-- Dave's birthday is this Friday, but as (bad) luck would have it, he's going to be in Rhode Island at a conference. So we celebrated Sunday. I gave him some dinnerware he wanted, and a few new cooking vessels, and some shirts. Then we went to Bar Bouloud in Knightsbridge for dinner, where I shocked even myself by ordering a Basque blood sausage tart. From time to time at restaurants I really try to break out of my food comfort zone (remember the duck heart salad?), but in this case, being adventurous wasn't the greatest idea. I am not a blood sausage fan. At least now, having tried it, I can say that with authority.

-- You may remember that I am a huge fan of '70s disaster flicks. Well, I recently tried to rent "The Towering Inferno" on either Netflix or iTunes, to no avail. Neither site has it. When our collegiate guest Sarah was here, she suggested another way to watch free movies online, so I tried that -- but it seemed to involve registering for a site and maybe even downloading software, which looked way too shady. Finally, on Sunday, I thought to look for it on YouTube. And there it was, the entire movie! We watched it and had a great time. Sometimes the easiest option is the best.

-- Also Sunday I read a short book called "Conspicuous Compassion," by Patrick West, in which he argues that the mass outpourings of grief that occur after some news events, such as the death of Princess Diana, are really selfish displays of our own egotism. They're meant to show the world how "caring" we are. Likewise, giving money to beggars and marching in protests against economic inequality and other issues can merely be a form of showing off, West contends. Overall the book seemed extremely cynical, but I think there's a grain of truth there. I've always been uncomfortable with those stacks of teddy bears and flowers that materialize outside the houses of young murder or fire victims. On the other hand, I think people genuinely want to find ways to connect, and in our media-driven, hypercommunicative culture such memorials often become the focus of those desires.

-- Remember our night of rioting in Notting Hill last August? Well, some of the suspects were caught, and they're on trial now.

(Photo: Looking down from a footbridge over the Grand Union Canal, last Wednesday.)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Alleyway HDR

As I mentioned the other day, my new camera can do photography in a mode called HDR, which compiles a number of photos taken at different exposures into a single image. This creates images that even out what would otherwise be areas of extreme light and dark.

Here's an example. About a week ago, I took the photo above of a covered alleyway off Portobello Road. As you can see, it includes very dark areas where daylight doesn't quite reach.

I went back on Friday and took the same alleyway in HDR mode. The camera shot three frames and combined them into the image above. Big difference!

There are also several modes to enhance the HDR photo, making the colors brighter and the contrast sharper, or even adding special effects. I don't like messing with photos too much, but I like this color-enhanced version a lot.

I think the top photo is still good, with its mysterious blackness. But HDR adds more possibilities. It's probably not a function I'll use a whole lot, but it's fun to experiment!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Flags on Regent Street

The same part of Regent Street that was recently aflutter with Union Jacks is now flying flags of the world. I assume this is for the Olympics, London's next major civic hurdle, which begin July 27 and run until August 12.

Dave and I don't have tickets to any Olympic events. We talked about trying to get some, but despite our recent cricket outing, we're not really sports people. I never even watch the Olympics on TV. So it seemed silly to try to go.

Besides, the Olympics dates overlap with visits from our New Jersey friend Adam, in early August, and from Dave's parents, who depart London just after the opening ceremonies and then return a few days before closing ceremonies. (They're cruising the Mediterranean in between.) So we'll have plenty to do!

I did get to see the Olympic medals, which are on display at the British Museum. They're huge.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Cricket -- Not The Insect

On Thursday evening, Dave and I waded into the great global tradition that is cricket. We went to Lord's Cricket Ground, which from what I gather is the Yankee Stadium of cricket -- hallowed ground to fans the world over. (Hey, down in front!)

Before we went, I didn't know the first thing about cricket. All that batting and running between wickets was a mystery to me. Like many Americans, I suspect, I couldn't help comparing everything to baseball. But Dave's colleague Gordon, who plays cricket himself, was there to explain things to us.

Apparently the match we saw, between the Middlesex and Surrey teams, is a sort of abbreviated form of cricket. Test cricket matches, the more traditional form in which players wear whites, can go on for days, as I understand it. Our game was shorter and flashier -- there were flag-waving fans, sequined cheerleaders (!) and players in bright jerseys.

I shouldn't try to explain the game as I grew to understand it over the course of the evening. I know I'll get it wrong, and cricketers everywhere will protest. But I was fascinated by the fact that the game is played in the round -- when the batsman hits the ball, it can fly or roll in any direction, even behind him. The batsman's job is to defend his wickets, which the other team tries to knock down -- if they do, the batsman is out.

While we were watching the game, I was also trying to absorb some of the ambience of Lord's. This is the media center, which looks like a giant space-age Tic Tac. The hotel where Dave and I stayed when we first came to London is just across the street, and I remember wondering what the heck that big lozenge on stilts could be.

This is the Pavilion, which I believe is the oldest part of Lord's. Gordon said that's where the fancy people sit. Needless to say, we did not sit there.

The game was fun, but it was incredibly chilly -- 59 degrees with an even cooler wind. I brought a sweater and I was still freezing, despite consuming about half a bottle of cava. (We also brought boxed dinners. How great that fans can bring their own food and drink!) The game got postponed twice for rain, and finally Dave and I called it quits and went home during the second half. I have no idea who won.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Hijinks at Moroccan House

On Wednesday, I bought that new camera. Joy, joy, joy! It's a professional Canon with lots of resolution and some really terrific amenities, like the ability to take HDR photos and video. I could barely contain myself while waiting patiently for the battery to charge before taking it on its first outing.

I went out to Portobello Road and walked north for a couple of miles. I've shot this Moroccan cafe on Portobello several times. But this time, as I stood on the opposite corner and raised my camera, two guys in front of the cafe started cursing at me and flipping me the finger. I told them I was just taking a picture of the building. "There are people here!" one guy yelled.

Well, there are people all over the street, everywhere. In an urban environment it's hard not to take pictures with people in them. The fact is, if you're sitting outside in a public place -- especially on a major street populated by lots of camera-toting tourists -- you could wind up in a picture.

If you'd rather not be photographed, guys, just look down, or look away. Don't be nasty and make a stink that will guarantee you prominence in a photo.

See what I mean?

(And how about that resolution?!)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

More Foxes

Some of you may remember that last August, I was intrigued by the stencils of foxes I kept finding throughout our neighborhood. I hadn't seen any new ones for a while, but then on Sunday Dave and I went to a party up in Queen's Park, which is north of us. There, lo and behold, were a few more foxes...

...including this stealthy fellow, the first one I've seen with his nose to the ground. (Love those orangey-brown fox colors!)

And on a related note, the store on Pembridge Road that plays host to a fox -- one I photographed for my post last year -- has closed, at least temporarily. I hope this doesn't spell doom for the fox, but then, he has had a good long run there.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Goodnight, John Boy

We've had another week of chilly, dismal weather -- that is, up until today. The sun is shining and I probably should get outside and take advantage of it. I did manage a damp run yesterday as well as a walk up to Trellick Tower for yet another round of graffiti photography, followed by some picture-taking along Portobello Road.

I'm seriously considering buying a new camera. The cost kind of freaks me out, but my camera is puny compared to what's available these days, and if I'm going to take serious pictures I suppose I need the equipment. And given the amount of time I spend tromping around with my eye pressed to a viewfinder, it seems justified. I'm working up to it.

I've been watching reruns of "The Waltons" recently -- they're somewhat surprisingly available on British TV. Like my "Little House on the Prairie" binge a couple of years ago, this is a reconnection with a show I loved as a child. I think "The Waltons" is less sappy than "Prairie," but maybe only slightly.

(Photo: Portobello Road, yesterday.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Shades of Python in Daniel Defoe

In his 1722 historical novel "A Journal of the Plague Year," Daniel Defoe relates a tale that will sound familiar to anyone who knows the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail":

It was under this John Hayward's care, and within his bounds, that the story of the piper, with which people have made themselves so merry, happened, and he assured me that it was true. It is said that it was a blind piper; but, as John told me, the fellow was not blind, but an ignorant, weak, poor man, and usually walked his rounds about ten o'clock at night and went piping along from door to door, and the people usually took him in at public-houses where they knew him, and would give him drink and victuals, and sometimes farthings; and he in return would pipe and sing and talk simply, which diverted the people; and thus he lived. It was but a very bad time for this diversion while things were as I have told, yet the poor fellow went about as usual, but was almost starved; and when anybody asked how he did, he would answer, the dead cart had not taken him yet, but that they had promised to call for him next week.

It happened one night that this poor fellow, whether somebody had given him too much drink or no -- John Hayward said he had not drink in his house, but that they had given him a little more victuals than ordinary at a public-house in Coleman Street -- and the poor fellow, having not usually had a bellyful for perhaps not a good while, was laid all along upon the top of a bulk or stall, and fast asleep, at a door in the street near London Wall, towards Cripplegate; and that upon the same bulk or stall the people of some house, in the alley of which the house was a corner, hearing a bell which they always rang before the cart came, had laid a body really dead of the plague just by him, thinking, too, that this poor fellow had been a dead body, as the other was, and laid there by some of the neighbors.

Accordingly, when John Hayward with his bell and the cart came along, finding two dead bodies lie upon the stall, they took them up with the instrument they used and threw them into the cart, and all this while the piper slept soundly.

From hence they passed along and took in other dead bodies, till, as honest John Hayward told me, they almost buried him alive in the cart; yet all this while he slept soundly. At length the cart came to the place where the bodies were to be thrown into the ground, which, as I do remember, was at Mount Mill; and as the cart usually stopped some time before they were ready to shoot out the melancholy load they had in it, as soon as the cart stopped the fellow awaked and struggled a little to get his head out from among the dead bodies, when, raising himself up in the cart, he called out, "Hey! Where am I?" This frighted the fellow that attended about the work; but after some pause John Hayward, recovering himself, said, "Lord, bless us! There's somebody in the cart not quite dead!" So another called to him and said, "Who are you?" The fellow answered, "I am the poor piper. Where am I?" "Where are you?" says Hayward. "Why, you are in the dead-cart, and we are going to bury you." "But I an't dead though, am I?" says the piper, which made them laugh a little -- though, as John said, they were heartily frighted at first; so they helped the poor fellow down, and he went about his business.

I know the story goes he set up his pipes in the cart and frighted the bearers and others so that they ran away; but John Hayward did not tell the story so, nor say anything of his piping at all; but that he was a poor piper, and that he was carried away as above I am fully satisfied of the truth of.

Did this inspire the "I'm not dead yet" scene in "Holy Grail"? Wikipedia made that connection, as did another blogger. Being Oxbridge educated, I'm sure the Pythons knew Defoe's book and this story. Turns out that scene has been amusing people for centuries!

(Photo: Not quite the dead cart, but still a bit melancholy in the lonely landscape of our apartment complex!)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Style Standstill

I read an article not too long ago that alleged fashion has grown somewhat stagnant. While clothing and hairstyles of previous decades fluctuated widely -- who can't roughly date a Joan Crawford movie, for example, based on the style of dress she's wearing? -- today's styles have been more or less the same since the early '90s.

Think about it. The '50s had their "New Look" flared skirts, the '60s their mod styles, the '70s their back-to-the-earth peasant skirts and shiny disco outfits -- not to mention all that hair. The '20s had their flapper shifts, the '80s their graphic prints, "Flashdance" sweats and shoulder pads.

But what have we had for the last two decades? Jeans. Khakis. T-shirts. When I look back at my own wardrobe it seems like an endless sea of Gap plaid and Banana Republic, broken up by the occasional paisley print or Goodwill find. (And Goodwill finds don't really represent current fashions, since they're often from an earlier time period!) Women's clothes have perhaps been slightly more variable -- but even there, I can't think of an item of women's clothing that was fashionable in the '90s that would seem particularly out of place now.

I could put on the same clothes I wore in 1991 and I don't think I would look dated at all. (Maybe just sillier, since my clothes back then were designed for a younger guy -- not someone leaning into middle age.) I still wear a few shirts I bought in the early 2000's.

What's going on? Have fashions fluctuated less because we're so much more casual now, and casual clothes are less subject to trends? Are we just more comfortable than we once were? Imagine that the photo above had been taken in 1995 instead of 2012 -- wouldn't that woman have fit in just as well?

(Photo: Kentish Town, May 30.)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Long Summer Days

This was the view from our balcony last night about 10 p.m. Doesn't that mysterious cloud look like it's heralding the arrival of a huge spaceship a la "V" or "Independence Day"? You can see how long the days last at this time of year. Even at 10 p.m., there's plenty of light in the sky. The sun goes down for a few hours and then it begins getting light again around 4 a.m., with sunrise about 45 minutes later.

Maybe people from other northern climes won't find this unusual, but I'm impressed -- so much daylight.

Our flat has big thick drapes which we usually never close, but about a month ago we realized that at this time of the year, we need to close them -- at least in our bedroom!

Lots of kids live in the surrounding apartments, and they loudly play games in the parking lot and on the grass until it gets dark. Our neighbors once asked us if we mind them -- and in fact, I heard one woman yelling at them one night: "Stop f*cking screaming! Christ, every f*cking night!" But they don't bother me. I think it's great that they're outside playing games with each other. And you know, not one of those kids is overweight!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Breakfast and Ballgowns

Yesterday was our final day of sightseeing before Sarah catches her plane this morning back to the U.S. It's been great to see her, but I must admit I am exhausted. We've crammed a lot of activities into this week and I'm looking forward to being a vegetable for the next day or two.

On Thursday we went to the British Museum, where I promptly lost Sarah in the vast rooms dedicated to museum displays of the Enlightenment era. She wandered up ahead while I lingered over Maori pendants from New Zealand, and the next thing I knew, she was gone, swallowed up by a crowd of about a million museum spectators. Because she'd been living in France her cell phone doesn't function here, so I couldn't call or text her. I knew she had our address so she could always make her way home, but that didn't clarify what I should do. Stay? Go?

I waited a while in the Enlightenment area, but she didn't return. Fortunately, I knew she wanted to see the Rosetta Stone, in a completely different part of the museum. So I went there. And there she was, peering blithely into a museum case in a nearby gallery. Problem solved, but I can only assume she might have been trying to ditch me!

Yesterday we went to Trafalgar Square, despite gusty winds and intermittent rain. Then onward to the V&A, which has a special exhibit on ballgowns -- glamorous evening wear by the likes of Hardy Amies and Bellville Sassoon. They were beautiful, bejewelled and diaphanous, but for sheer creativity I kind of preferred Dame Edna Everage's "Breakfast Dress," located in the nearby theater and costume wing.

Last night Sarah had some time on her own, when she met up with a visiting friend from the U.S. (it's amazing how many kids manage to study overseas these days). I came home and spent the evening with Dave, watching "Eggheads" and "The Big Bang Theory" and that really terrible Star Trek movie about whales. I've barely seen Dave all week, because he had two concerts at school, so it was nice to ease back into our old routines. More of the same this weekend, as soon as I take Sarah to the airport!

(Photo: The awning over the front entrance of the V&A. There are special concurrent exhibits on British Design and Heatherwick Studio -- I suspect it may be related to one of those.)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Curious Objects...

...found lying around our neighborhood.

We are being weather-challenged today. The forecast is "wet and windy, with gales or severe gales for many." (Odd wording, but that's straight from the BBC.) I'm a bit worried about our tomato plants, which are just tall enough to be battered by the wind -- we have the two tallest ones staked, but those gales are fierce on our balcony! Oh well. Nature will have to take its course.

This is the last day of Sarah's visit, so we're off to Trafalgar Square and a few more spots that simply cannot be ignored -- even in this weather.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Tower of London

Sorry for the crappy photos today -- our collegiate visitor Sarah and I went to the Tower of London yesterday and I didn't feel like lugging my real camera. So these are all iPhone shots -- pretty good for a phone, but only OK for a camera.

I'd been to the Tower once before, nine years ago. But this was a first for Sarah, and obviously if you're visiting London the Tower is a must-see attraction. So we made the trek.

The photo above shows a corner of the White Tower (left), which dates from the time of William the Conqueror. It can be a little difficult to wrap your brain around the fact that you're standing in a building with a functioning Norman fireplace!

Lions and baboons made of chicken wire were prowling around the Tower site. These are sculptures by artist Kendra Haste, being shown as part of the Tower's Royal Beasts exhibit (which I must confess we did not see).

An aside: I was very sorry to hear about the death of Ray Bradbury -- at least, as sorry as I could be about someone who died at age 91. I eagerly consumed his books as a teenager, and "The Martian Chronicles" remains an all-time favorite. In the late '90s I wrote a newspaper column about Bradbury, critical of the fact that "Chronicles" had been re-issued with updated and slightly revised text. I argued that such an important work should have been held sacrosanct. To my surprise, Bradbury called me to make his case that revisions were acceptable to keep the work current, and keep readers enthusiastic about the promise of future space travel. I didn't entirely agree, but he was a nice guy, and I wrote a second column giving him vent. Getting a call from Ray Bradbury remains one of my best journalism memories.