Friday, March 1, 2024

Black Spot

Thanks for all your thoughtful replies to yesterday's post about local news. I'm glad to see that so many of you value it and keep track of it in one way or another. Even those of you who choose not to have given me food for thought, whether local news feels irrelevant to your daily life or you have concerns about the ownership or quality of your local media outlets.

However, one thing that occurred to me while reading your responses is that we here in blogland are not a representative slice of the population. I'm sure you'll agree that we tend to skew older, at the very least, and we probably all tend to be readers. I wonder if younger people are paying more or less attention to local news, and in what form?

Anyway, enough of that. Obviously, since it's my industry, I could talk about it all day long, but we'll let it rest for now.

When Dave and I went to L.A. a couple of weeks ago, I borrowed some related reading material from the library for the trip. One of the books is a collection of writing by Raymond Chandler, a well-known mid-century detective novelist who I had never read. I'm reading Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" right now, and I am loving it. His protagonist, Philip Marlowe, is the epitome of the hard-bitten, trenchcoat-wearing, wisecracking detective, and Chandler's writing is really good. I can see how it's inspired so many parodies and imitators, but I'm impressed at his turn of phrase -- his word use surprises and delights at every turn.

In the book, Marlowe mentioned being handed a $5,000 bill bearing James Madison's portrait. I thought, "Does such a thing exist?" (Obviously I have never seen one!)

It turns out they used to exist -- along with $500, $1,000 and $10,000 notes, as well as a $100,000 "gold certificate" used only for transactions within the federal reserve. All those bills were discontinued in 1969, but you can see pictures of them at the link above. They're still legal tender and could theoretically still be circulated, but the ones that survive nowadays are probably all in the hands of collectors.

Also, at one point Chandler offered a detailed description of a woman's hands, including her painted fingernails. This reminded me that I forgot to mention another experience on our L.A. trip. We flew Virgin Atlantic from London to L.A., and we had three male flight attendants serving us in our cabin. All three of them had expertly painted fingernails -- bright red, to match their Virgin uniforms. Dave and I agreed that having one male attendant with painted nails would be unusual enough, but having three was quite remarkable. We wondered if they all went out for a manicure together before the flight! (For the record, I wholeheartedly approved.)

Here's my own fingernail mystery. This is my left thumb. Last week, in the library, I had to make a sign using a Sharpie marker, and not long afterward I noticed this black spot near my thumbnail. I figured I accidentally got ink on my finger and didn't think any more about it. But the spot stayed and stayed, though countless hand-washings and dish-washings and showers, and I thought, "Hmmmm. It must not be ink."

To be honest, I can't see it very well -- it's tiny and my eyes, even with glasses on, aren't entirely cooperative. So I went to the school nurse yesterday and said, "What IS this?"

He thinks I injured my finger somehow and it's basically an internal bruise. He said it should disappear over time. It's possible I did it while working in the garden, perhaps cutting blackberry vines, and maybe I just didn't immediately notice it. It doesn't hurt at all. I'll be keeping an eye on it, though!

(Top photo: A nighttime street scene in Vauxhall, on Sunday.)

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Do We Need Local News?

I read a really interesting article yesterday in The New York Times about a guy who, in the '80s and '90s, was looking toward the future of newspapers in America. At the time, publishers were confident that their content was necessary and valuable, and that they would find some way to shift it online and make money from it -- either from online advertising or subscriptions.

I was a young reporter in the '90s, when the Internet was blossoming, and I remember talking about this with my co-workers. In 1995 or so, I asked my former publisher in Sarasota, Fla., when our paper was going to develop a web site, and he said, "We will -- we just have to figure out how to make it pay." But I don't think any of us doubted that we would somehow, eventually, make money online.

I remember confidently telling my relatives that I wasn't worried about the future of news. Newspapers as objects might not last -- the printed article itself, with paper pages -- but people would always need and value reliable news. Professional, trained reporters surely had a future.

What I didn't count on is the shift in news consumption from local and regional to national and international. People nowadays seem to have little or no appetite for hyperlocal news. The social stuff -- who won ribbons at the gardening show, or marched in the Martin Luther King Day parade, or local campaigns about road closures or construction projects -- has all moved to social media. The stories are told by the participants and campaigners themselves -- no reporters needed. Maybe that's not a bad thing, though I'd argue that in the case of contentious issues it can lead to distortions.

Meanwhile, many people have no idea what their local governments are up to. The stuff I used to cover -- city government, county commission, public hospital boards, that kind of thing -- largely goes uncovered in the modern world. (Or perhaps it's still covered by dwindling local papers with nebulous futures, but for how much longer?) The pros have found that they can't even give away local news.

In many communities, no one is left to perform the essential watchdog function of a local newspaper. No one is double-checking how the mayor is spending your tax money, or whether your county commissioners are respecting public meetings laws or making unorthodox deals with developers. And what blows my mind -- and what I never foresaw in my career in local news -- is that apparently NOBODY CARES!

My theory is that as the Internet opened up our worlds, and we spent more time on social media platforms that cross geographical boundaries, we all gravitated to discussion topics we share -- and that's national and international news. We see it here in blogland, where we can discuss and debate Ukraine or Joe Biden and Donald Trump, but it's harder to talk about local issues because our readers don't share the same frame of reference. (There are local news blogs but they struggle too -- remember how was supposed to reinvent local news for online platforms? I haven't heard much about Patch lately, though apparently it's still out there, at least in some areas.)

I must admit that here in London, I have little idea what my local council is up to on a routine basis, though I do read two local papers online, the Ham & High and the Camden New Journal.

I'm curious -- how many of you reading this blog subscribe to a local news outlet? Why or why not?

It seems to me that "community," which used to mean our next-door neighbors, our town or county, now means something much more amorphous. It's less geographical and more ideological. Our communities are now the people we hang out with online, often people who think like us and reinforce our beliefs. I suspect the struggle of local news outlets, and our polarized political climate, both reflect that shift.

(Photo: A watchful trash bag on West End Lane, last Saturday.)

Wednesday, February 28, 2024


I was walking home from work on Monday when I noticed this old ghost sign on Finchley Road. See it, against the concrete? It had been covered up by another sign and was exposed when that one came down. It says "Cosmo Restaurant."

I wondered how old the sign was. So I did some online sleuthing and it turns out that the Cosmo Restaurant, which was in business from 1937 until 1998, had a long and colorful history. It was seen as a center of the vibrant Jewish community that sprang up in northwest London, and a venue where Jews who had fled fascism and the Holocaust often gathered. Even Sigmund Freud, who lived a short walk away, is said to have patronized the place, though Freud died in 1939 so if that's true he couldn't have gone there long.

There's a blue plaque marking the restaurant's significance on an outer wall. (I'm noticing that the plaque gives an opening year of 1933, which is earlier than some published accounts. That would make more sense for Freud, I suppose.)

The Cosmo's history was even the subject of a musical theater production in 2019. That linked article gives a lot of information about the restaurant through the memories of its patrons. Artist Pamela Howard, who helped create the theater piece, is quoted as saying, "I was a provincial girl from Birmingham studying at the Slade School of Art. I used to walk up Finchley Road early in the morning to Swiss Cottage station. I would look in the window of this café, where I saw all these ‘old people’ and I thought, who are they?"

I can easily imagine what that must have looked like, peering in the window and seeing all these people with so much shared history.

The Cosmo closed in 1998 -- probably around the time many of its patrons were vanishing -- so the ghost sign must be at least that old. I think the bit in the middle probably said "fully licensed," a phrase that appears on a lot of old restaurant facades in the UK. (It seems odd to me that a restaurant would have to point out that it's licensed, but whatever.)

In more recent years, the Cosmo site was the home of a couple of Indian restaurants, a gelato place and then a spa. If the signs on the windows are accurate, a Chinese restaurant is going in next.

I thought all this was pretty interesting. Once again, walking around London, we're all surrounded by history!

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

More Winter Lights

Remember when I went to the Winter Lights show in Canary Wharf last month? It's an annual event featuring artworks that use light (and often sound) in innovative ways, perfect for our dark winter months.

Well, while researching that show, I saw that a Winter Lights event was also planned for the redeveloped Battersea Power Station, now a massive housing complex and shopping center. I put that on my agenda too, and I've been meaning to go for weeks, but life kept intervening -- work stuff, our trip to California, Dave's surgery, et cetera.

Last Sunday was its final day, so that evening -- even though I'd already walked Olga around Hampstead Heath, and even though the weather forecast called for rain -- I decided to hop on the tube and go down and see it.

It was smaller than the Canary Wharf event, and thus easier to take in. I believe there were seven featured works, including "Butterfly Effect" (top) and "Large Diamond" (above).

I also came across a troupe of women wearing roller skates and spinning colorful lit-up hoops. They aren't listed in the program so I have no idea who they are or what their group is called, but they were fun to watch too.

Still photos don't do any of this justice. "Large Diamond," for example, has a beautiful shimmering effect that reflects on surrounding surfaces, kind of like a disco ball but more subtle. The lighting on all the artworks fluctuates and changes, and some of them include elements of sound as well. So here's a four-minute video:

Artworks depicted, in order:
1. "Singularity" by Squidsoup 
2. "Butterfly Effect" by Masamichi Shimada 
3. "Lightpiano 1.5" by Arion de Munck & Mark Ridder 
4. "Lightbattle III" by Venividimultiplex 
5. "C/C" by Angela Chong 
6. Entertainers with glowing rings and skates 
7. "Large Diamond" by Studio Freerk Wilbers

Watch for the moment when I'm backing away from "Singularity" (and thus having trouble holding my phone straight) and the exterior lights of the power station come on. I was lucky to catch that.

You'll notice I left ambient sound in the segment for "Lightpiano" (for obvious reasons) but put music over the rest of the video. That's because my videos were so darn noisy. I didn't want to subject you to the sound of the wind and kids yelling and passers-by nattering about whether or not to stop in to M&S to buy some beans. "Singularity" had a musical element as well but you couldn't really hear it, so hopefully this copyright-free music from iMovie is a worthy substitute!

Monday, February 26, 2024

Back to Parliament Hill

Olga and I set out for an adventure yesterday morning. We hadn't been to Parliament Hill, a scenic overlook on Hampstead Heath, in a long, long time -- possibly since this outing in July 2020. When I walked past it on Tuesday, while crossing the Heath to pick up Dave in the hospital, I thought, "I should bring the dog back here!" So I did.

I didn't want to have her walk the whole way -- I think that's too much for her advanced age. So we took the train from West Hampstead to Hampstead Heath station, and walked up the hill from there. It was slow going because nowadays Olga has to sniff every little thing, a curious habit that seems to develop in older dogs. But we got there in the end.

As you can see, the view was hazy, but that created its own interesting effects.

I was thinking that Parliament Hill is the highest point in London, but apparently that's wrong -- in fact it's not even close. At 322 feet, it's not even the highest point on Hampstead Heath. The view is what makes it so famous.

Olga rolled happily in the mud, and chased her tennis ball...

...before taking a swim in one of the Heath ponds. The swim was inadvertent; she was wading and stepped off an underwater ledge. Fortunately she can swim, and when she came out of the water she was invigorated and wide-eyed, as if saying, "WOW! DID YOU SEE THAT?!" She ran around and shook to work off the adrenaline and get the water out of her ears.

We walked back to the train past the Parliament Hill athletic complex, headed for the station at Gospel Oak. Once again, I couldn't remember exactly where the station was and we had to backtrack a bit. I don't know why, after living here more than a decade, I can never find that bloody station.

Anyway, it was a fun morning out and Olga was none the worse for wear. She slept soundly all afternoon and she got half a paracetamol with her dinner, and now she's bouncing around as usual!

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Book and Movie and TV Show

I forgot to mention in yesterday's post that we had hail on Friday. I was sitting at my desk in the library when I heard a clattering sound on the skylight, and about that time some kids came into the library from outside, talking about the hail raining down. I texted Dave at home, and he said it was coming down in our garden, too. Drama from the skies! It wasn't big enough to cause any damage -- just little pea-sized pellets.

Yesterday was indeed a very domestic day -- which is why you're getting this picture of the sunlight in our dining room. I barely left the house. It was just what I needed -- a restorative day to catch up on life.

Our windowsill cactus is going gangbusters, with four flowers. I don't think we've ever seen that many blossoms at once!

Our other windowsill cactus isn't blooming -- it never has -- but its colorful spines glow reddish orange in the sunlight.

So what did I do yesterday? Well, I cleaned, for one thing. I always feel better when I put the house in order.

Then I read the young adult book "Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack!" which some of you may remember from your own years in school. It came out way back in 1972, and I remember seeing it in my own school library back in the late '70s. It was the basis for an ABC After-School Special on TV. But I never read it because I was put off by the title, which seemed super-gross to me. A couple of weeks ago, my boss pulled it off our shelves to weed, so I thought I'd give it a try and see if it's something we should keep.

It's somewhat dated now, with references to "encounter groups" and that kind of thing. It's also not that great. The plot is a bit scattered. I think there are better YA books, and ones modern kids will connect with more.

I also watched a movie called "All the Right Noises," from 1971, starring Olivia Hussey. It's the kind of movie that would never be made today -- about a married theatrical crew member who has an affair with an actress, who turns out to be 15 years old. And does he stop the affair when he finds out? NO! Why should he?! It was the '70s.

The only reason I watched it is because it incorporates songs by Melanie in the soundtrack. I only heard about this cinematic adventure with Melanie's recent death, so I thought I'd catch up with it. I'm not sure her songs were an essential part of the film. They seemed like a bit of an afterthought. (And I knew them all from earlier albums anyway.)

Dave and I are also finishing up the third season of "Slow Horses" on Apple TV, which has been really good. And that's the pop-culture roundup from West Hampstead!

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Weekend Miscellany

Here's what the garden looks like this morning, with the grass a bit frosty and the light a pale blue. It got down to 32º F (0º C) last night, which is colder than I expected, and I didn't bring anything in for protection. Wouldn't it be ironic if, after stealing that citrus tree to protect it from the cold, I then inadvertently kill it by leaving it outside? I don't think it got that cold, though. I think everything should be fine.

I am so looking forward to this weekend. I have nothing planned. I don't want to go anywhere. I want to stay home and relax and decompress. I had a pretty good day of decompression yesterday, with a steady but not overwhelming pace of students coming to me for help and a chance to read some blogs in between.

And yes, the tiger is still there!

Olga wants to stay home, too. She's snoring and snuggled so tightly against me that her ear is on my keyboard. I keep pressing it every time I need to backspace but she doesn't seem to care.

The bergenia in the alley is blooming again. This poor plant has been through hell. It survived the repaving of the ground around the gate a couple of years ago, and last year -- as you may remember -- we had a drain blockage that caused wash-water from the kitchen to seep all over the alley. Its roots got saturated with soap and its leaves turned a sickly grayish green, but it didn't die. It is a survivor.

Finally, as I walked Olga yesterday before work, we passed my favorite camellia bush -- this candy-striped variety on the housing estate. It had dropped this flower, which was a bit dirty from the ground but otherwise still looked pretty nice.

Ah, Saturday!