Tuesday, January 31, 2012

"London Jottings - 8"

Odds and ends…

I went back to the “Old Bailey” later in the trip. (I sat in on a murder case that seems, to me, worthy of consideration as an SVU episode. A 20 year-old Sikh woman was molested by a close friend, she told other friends about it, and the attempted rapist was later found burned to death in his car. The question to be decided was, was it murder, or did the assailant commit suicide, as penance for his shameful misdeed? What do you think? Is that “chung-chung” material, or what?)

On the Underground (subway) ride to the courthouse, I sat opposite an impeccably groomed young woman doing something which, to me, was either immensely skillful or foohardily dangerous. I will leave you to decide.

The subway train is barreling down the tracks. And as it bounces along, the young woman is sitting there, utilizing a series of needle-like implements, in a “makeover”-level effort to beautify her eyes.

I’m talking “herky-jerky” subway ride. Passengers cling tightly to the poles, so they don’t fall on top of each other. And as the train careens down the tracks, this entirely unself-conscious woman is wielding a sword-tip sharpened black pencil, a thin pointy stick and a menacing pair of tweezers, in an effort to make her eye area, I don’t know....pop.

I sat there the whole trip, wondering if I should be impressed by her dexterity, or whether, at any moment, a horror movie was about to break out.


“My EYE!!!

Nothing happened. Still, it seemed like she could have completed all that eye refurbishment at home. Is it possible I had encountered my first ever “Makeup Daredevil”?

Complementary Stories

Printed in the local newspaper…

Police cars, uniforms, and even handcuffs have been stolen from under the noses of officers, according to new figures that show that a crime takes place every hour in British police stations.

Printed in the same newspaper…

Americans bought record numbers of guns last month amid an apparent surge in popularity for weapons as Christmas presents.

I don’t know why they bothered buying the guns when could simply go to England and steal them from police stations.

(Yes, London police stations have guns. You just have to sign them out.

“Wait right there, Mr. Perpetrator. I’ll be right back.”)

Learning About The Locals…

One of the great thrills about London is that, wherever you look, you find statues and plaques paying honor to historic personages. Literally half a block from our hotel, there was a plaque on a building, announcing that Sir Isaac Newton had lived there. The English clearly revere their past. (Including their historic losers, like “Scott of the Antarctic”, who reached the South Pole second, and perished with his entire company on the way back. Big statue. He looks cold.)

I also noticed many interesting street signs on our visit, like the one that said,

Glasshouse Street Closed To Through Traffic from 22 September, 2008.

Another English attribute: They do not seem to mind waiting.


There’s a banner hanging outside the British Museum (or there should be) saying:


An Unusual Dining Experience

Ate at a restaurant called St. John, in the heart of London’s meatpacking district. I know I’m in challenging territory when, on the top of the menu, I spot a hand drawn picture of an entire pig.

The menu includes more than just pork, however. For those who don’t eat pork, there’s rabbit. For those who don’t eat pork or rabbit, there are lamb tongues. And for those who don’t eat pork or rabbit or lamb tongues, there are Snail Sausages. Setting the tone, the motto printed at the bottom of St. John’s menu reads,

Nose to Tail Eating.

The one oasis of culinary sanity is a dish comprised of lentils and goat cheese. But when you order it, the waiter makes a face.


It was an unusual eatery all around. An apparent lawsuit-indemnifying disclaimer informs diners that

“Some game and fowl may contain lead shot.”

I had never experienced that before. A main course including potatoes, a choice of vegetable

And bullets.

Why did I select such an establishment? Did I mention I was not traveling alone?

(Full Disclosure: I sampled the rabbit. At that point, my stomach threw its hands in the air in consternation and dismay. On the trip, I had eaten pork, venison and, now, rabbit. My mouth was unquestionably “Under New Management.”)

Sign posted at a fashionable London boutique in January:

“Gone Tanning.”

Us And Them

America is defined by its entrepreneurial individualism, their longstanding businesses branded by the driving passion of a singular vision – Macy's, Tiffany’s, Bloomingdales, Levi Strauss. These names say “success.” They say “We did it on our own!” With the underlying implication, “And we’re not splitting the money!”

In England, the template for success is, apparently, teamwork.

Almost anywhere I looked, I saw business establishments bearing two names: Fortnam and Mason (gourmet grocers), Turnbull and Asser (upscale clothiers.) We patronized a cheese store called Paxton and Whitfield. Even cheese sellers seem incapable of a solo attempt.

This difference seems embedded in the characters of the two nations. America is Daniel Boone, a man who sets out alone to seek his fortune, and two hundred years later, is immortalized in a television series starring Fess Parker.

In England, the entrepreneurial leap seems to require the bolstering fortitude of a team.

PAXTON: Whitfield, I’m thinking of opening a sort of a cheese thingee. You know like an emporium, or some such. Care to go in with me?

WHITFIELD: Me? A shopkeeper?

PAXTON: Oh, please do, Whitfield. All the finer retailers are two-named affairs these days. If the customers see only one name on the sign, they might suspect problems with the cheese.

A dual effort not only supplies security, it apparently signals trust.

“If Paxton trusts Whitfield, and vice versa, perhaps we can trust them as well.”

Also, if the enterprise goes under, there is always the other partner to blame.

PAXTON: Whitfield was, shall we say, rather imaginative with the books.

WHITFIELD: While serving a sampling of Northumbrian Blue, Paxton inexplicably went to his nose. The word got around, and like that! – we were done for.

Theoretical imaginings. But there is clearly a difference.

Flyer posted in the window of a store that sold cookbooks:

“Sausages Workshop With Eric. Wednesday Jan 11th.”

Bad luck for us. We were departing on the Tenth.

Monday, January 30, 2012

"London Jottings - 7"

Today (it feels like you’re right there with me, doesn’t it?), we jumped into a cab and I heard my tension-ridden voice bark at the driver,

Lanesborough Hotel. And step on it! We’re late for tea!”

Have I become too English?

Not quite yet. How do I know? Because of this. I was sitting there at tea, scanning the three-tiered stand of sandwiches and pastries, many of them quite appealing, but one of them, at least to my sensibility, extremely curious, bordering on, with respect to our English hosts, bogus.

Here’s the thing. Hard as I try, I cannot get my head around the idea that a cucumber sandwich is an actual sandwich.

Three razor-thin slices of cucumber between two diagonally cut pieces of bread – a sandwich?

It seems like a bluff to me. How can just cucumbers be worthy of the word, “sandwich”? Is there a lettuce sandwich? Is there a parsley sandwich? Is there an arugula sandwich? Maybe. If you’re poor. But this is the Lanesborough Hotel. They’re charging heavy poundage for this “tea.” And they’re thin-slicing a vegetable and serving it between two pieces of bread?

I’m sorry. To me, a cucumber sandwich is a bookmark for a real sandwich that has not yet arrived. A sandwich with meat in it. Chicken. Smoke salmon. Ham, if you must. For all I know, these cucumber sandwiches once did have meat in them, but somewhere on their way to the table,

The meat fell out.

I am not singling out the Lanesborough. We have enjoyed “High Tea” at many locales. Harvey Nichols. Fortnam and Masons. The Chesterfield Hotel. And on each and every occasion, arrayed on the tray, along with the legitimate sandwiches, is the counterfeit


A garnish, passing itself off as a sandwich.

One can imagine the origin of such a culinary scam:

An “Aristocrats Only!” gathering at a baronial estate. The company has arrived. It is almost time to tinkle the little bell, indicating “It’s ‘Tea Time’.”

Suddenly, Netty, the sweet but slightly dim servant girl, comes scurrying in from the kitchen. She catches the mistress’s eye, indicating there’s trouble. The mistress excuses herself from the company, heading over to the quivering Netty.

Why, Netty, you look chagrined. Whatever is the matter?

I’m sorry, Mistress. I don’t know how it happened, but I fear that we have seriously miscalculated the number of sandwiches that will be required for the “tea.”

Not enough sandwiches! How is that possible?

We miscounted, Misstress. Arithmetic is not our strong suit, I’m afraid.

Well never mind. It can’t be helped at this point. Though you can expect serious repercussions down the line.

Will there be sackings?

We will discuss that issue later. The question is, what to do now?

We could cut the sandwiches we have in half.

Cut the sandwiches in half! Dear God! They are already cut in half. Are you proposing cutting them in quarters?

Just this once.

That will not do! I can just imagine the gossip. ‘We had “quarters” for tea at the Almondsbys. It will be the talk of society for years to come!

Well then what should we do, Mistress?

Let me think. I know. Do we have any cucumbers?

Tons, Mistress. We used them as a garnish for the smoked salmon sandwiches.

All right then. What I want you to do is to slice the cucumber everso thinly, and place two…make that three…slices of cucumber between two pieces of bread.

I am not following you.

It’s very simple, Netty. We will use cucumbers as a filling.

In a sandwich?


A sandwich with cucumbers in it?


Nothing else? Just the cucumbers?

That’s right.

A raw vegetable, between two slices of bread?


A cucumber sandwich.

Desperate measures, Netty. We are inventing a new sandwich on the fly.

A cucumber sandwich.

Will you stop saying that!

It sounds ‘orrible.

It’s the best we can do.

Might as well trot out a peas sandwich.

That’s ridiculous! The peas would all roll off the bread!

Not if they’re mashed peas!

Enough! After you have produced the requisite number of these sandwiches, you will set them out on the serving trays, interspersing them with the other sandwiches.

You mean, the real sandwiches.

It’s a real sandwich now, Netty. And it is we who will have introduced it.

I’m sorry, Mistress. I can’t go back oin the kitchen and tell Cook to whip up some cucumber sandwiches. The woman ‘s got sharp implements at his command. She’d cut me ‘ead off!”

Tell him those are my orders.

She’d never believe me. She’d think I was ‘avin’ ‘er on. I can just ‘ear ‘er now. “‘Cucumber sandwiches.’ It’s blewdy ridiculous!”

What about cucumber sandwiches with cream cheese?

(AN IMMEDIATE “ONE-EIGHTY”) Ooh, that would be loovely!

A Great Moment In “High Tea” History. Courtesy of “Just Thinking.”

Headline read in a local newspaper:

Kitties Step On The Gas And House Burns

Friday, January 27, 2012

"London Jottings - 6"

Today… (well, it was “today” when it happened)

When the tour ended, we vacated our hotel in favor of another apartment, this one in a bustling part of London, an area teeming with restaurants, trendy boutiques and foot traffic. The building was located at the other end of a narrow alley off of hyper-busy Oxford Street. We had stayed at this place on a previous visit, so, though it was slightly hidden away, it was not difficult to relocate. It was exactly where we’d left it.

One drawback to the place: A coffin-sized elevator, capable of holding only two riders, one, if they’re wearing a coat. I generally avoid such mini-conveyances, as they evoke nightmarish foreshadowings of my final resting place, with the unwelcome disadvantage of being confined inside them while I am still alive.

I take the stairs. Even though it’s three floors up. Which is really four floors up, since, in England, the First Floor is on the Second Floor, because they call the First Floor the Ground Floor. Meaning you have to walk up four flights of stairs to get to the Third Floor.

(This additional stair-climbing may explain why English people aren’t in as terrible shape as their diets would predict. I cannot believe what they eat. It’s like nutritional suicide. The food American heart surgeons instruct us to avoid, in England, that’s their “staples” – carbs, butterfat, beef, bacon, jam and salt. They love it! And they’re doing quoit noicely, it appears. Could I be eating healthy stuff for nothing? )

The apartment building’s stairs present challenges of their own. For some reason, the treads on the steps are extremely tiny, accommodating barely half of your foot (the front half going up, and the back half going down.)

It’s as if the manufacturers had originally designed the staircase for an orphanage, but when the orphanage was unable maintain the payments, it was repossessed and resold to this apartment, relegating the orphans to climb up the sides of the building to get to their rooms.

Home Entertainment

We stay in for the night in a week. I slip off my shoes and click on the TV. Among various other entertainments is a generous array of sports – cricket (which I understand about twelve percent of), soccer, rugby, live NFL football (the East Coast game is broadcast at six P.M., the later game starts at nine), and, most surprisingly, English-league ice hockey (as distinguished from field hockey), a program appropriately sponsored by a firm of personal injury lawyers.

With this eclectic range of offerings vying for my attention, I was finally won over by to the predominant sporting event of the day –

The National Darts Championship.

My mouth dropped, seeing an arena packed with thousands of spectators who had paid money to watch two guys throw darts at a seventeen-and-three-quarter inch dartboard. They must have had really good eyes. Especially the ones in the back.

It turned out, I had lucked into an unprecedented occurrence. It was not just the semi-finals of a national darts showdown I would be privileged to witness; I would experience an event that had never taken place in the entire history of the tournament.

Let me set the scene for you. The air was thick with excitement, as the two well-matched competitors took turns flicking darts at the dartboard. Suddenly, one of the players stops in mid-flick, and refuses to continue. The referee is required to call a halt in the action.

This was entirely unheard of. You do not call “time” in the middle of a dart’s competition. You play on till the blewdy finish.

Why had this happened? It was explained to us that the player who had demanded the interruption in the contest had claimed he had detected…

A breeze.

Which was throwing off his aim.

The player insisted that he would only return to the competition after the source of breeze had been discovered, and that said dart-deflecting impediment had been alleviated.

The delay was officially marked at twenty-two minutes. The search for the breeze-causing was on. And it was feverish, believe me. Never before had a national darts tournament been disrupted by a prevailing weather pattern (and may I remind you, the tournament was indoors.)

During the interruption, the announcers filled the time by adjudicating the appropriateness of the demand for the stoppage, predicting what effect it might have on the tournament, once play was resumed. One commentator branded the competitor who refused to continue weak-willed. His guess was that a man who was unable to accept the dart-throwing conditions as they were would probably lose, owing to a lack of the requisite grit.

It was ultimately determined that the disruptive breeze was the product of the collective body heat of the darts-watching assemblage. There was nothing to be done about it. The tournament must resume.

It did.

And the breeze-complainer lost.

Read in a local newspaper…

“{Prime Minister} David Cameron is facing a backlash after a millionaire businessman jailed for fraud appeared on the “New Year Honour List.”… Last night, the Cabinet Office refused to confirm whether the honour was the first senior award to be given to someone who has been convicted of a crime.”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

"London Jottings - 5B"

A director we met on our London Arts Discovery tour labeled our group “cultural activists.” Sounds a little too “art lovers at the parapets” for my liking, but what are you going to do? Theater directors are, by definition, “theatrical.” That’s their style – flamboyantly flattering. Which is appropriate when the guy has been paid to meet with us, and, meeting at “tea”, we were supplying him with free scones.

Okay, back to the theater…

One Man, Two Guvnors (based on The Servant of Two Masters, by Goldoni)

An extremely broad farce, which, as a comedy genre, is not my favorite. The barely decipherable working class accents and the cascade of specifically English references defeat my ability to understand what’s funny. And yet, the show’s cleverly-conceived conceptualization, its breakneck pace and the sublime quality of a number of the performances, highlighted by substantial chunks of improvisation hilariously executed by the lead actor, overpower my resistance, and I surrender to its silliness, both verbal and physical.

Example: Stanley Stubbers, laying low at a pub called “The Cricketers Arms” is currently in conversation with Francis, a dim bulb Stanley has recently taken on as his servant.

STANLEY: (READING FROM A “LETTER OF AUTHORIZATION”) To whom it may concern, the bearer is an authorized agent of Stanley Stubbers.

FRANCIS: Who’s Stanley Stubbers?


FRANCIS: Who’s Stanley Stubbers?

STANLEY: (Whisper) Me. But don’t call me Stanley Stubbers. I’m going to have to make up a new name for the pub.

FRANCIS: What’s wrong with ‘The Cricketers Arms?’

(NOTE TO COMEDY WRITERS: The joke’s set-up line -“I’m going to have to make up a new name for the pub” – could not have been better. It makes logical sense on its own. And it’s exquisitely structured to be misunderstood if the listener, like, in this case, Francis, is an idiot.)

Next up…

Juno and the Paycock (an Irish classic by Sean O’Casey)

‘Tis a gud t’ing we rad de play ahedo toim, or we wuddn’ ‘ave onderstuhd a ward dey war sayin’.

The final play included on the tour was


Despite a toweringly memorable lead performance a a veritable Niagara of cascading language, I found Jerusalem less deep and resonating than the playwright might have preferred.

Our weeklong program ended with an English National Ballet performance called Strictly Gershwin. Okay, this is me, and it’s just what it is. I have no point of access into presentations, as skillful as they may be, where nobody talks. They’re dancing, it’s nice, the music is wonderful. And I’m sitting there thinking, “Why aren’t they saying anything?”

Reflecting my wavering interest, I spent the entire intermission, scribbling notes for an impassioned disquisition on the subject of why the cucumber sandwich should not be considered a sandwich.

(When the tour ended, we saw one other play, Three Days In May, set in 1940, depicting Churchill’s efforts to rally his cabinet to fight Hitler, rather than suing for peace. This is a monumental turning point. Unfortunately, the actors were not up to the history.)

To complete my survey of the tour’s itinerary, let me briefly mention two art exhibits, one a little less briefly than the other:

Gerhard Richter

At the Tate Modern Gallery, I spent over an hour listening to an accompanying audiotape, as I wandered from room to room, intensely examining five decades of paintings in this extremely impressive exhibit. However, when I checked out the post cards featuring reproductions of many of Richter’s most famous works in the Gift Shop, I was perplexed to discover that I did not recognize any of them.

Okay, six out of twenty-four. Does that make me sound any better?

(Notice posted by the elevator (lift) at the Tate Modern: “Celebrate your ability to use the stairs, and please give priority to those who need to use the lift.”)

Now, here’s the real treat. For me.

We were bused to a nearby town, now more of a London suburb, called Dulwich (pronounced Dul’ich), where we attended an exhibit at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. And who was the currently featured artist?

Tom Thomson!

Who’s Tom Thomson, you ask? What are you, not Canadian? Tom Thomson is one of Canada’s most famous landscape artists, who specialized in evocative outdoor paintings of places where I personally went on canoe trips!

Aside from his internationally appreciated renderings of the Canadian wilderness – we were told that people were flocking to this exhibit – Thomson’s story comes with a mystery – his still unexplained death while on a painting excursion in Algonquin Park. When I was a kid, I did not realize Thomson’s body had been recovered; I thought he was still missing. So when I paddled over Canoe Lake – the last place Thomson was seen – I would peer into the crystal-clear water, trying to spot a body below the surface holding a paintbrush.

After seeing the Thomson exhibit, we were escorted to an arranged lunch at a nearby Dulwich restaurant, where the scheduled main courses were a choice between crab and venison. That was a tough one – a non-kosher scaly thing. Or Bambi. I ate Bambi.

Prompting my hyper-confused stomach to exclaim:

“Who’s up there!”

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"London Jottings - 5"

Today…(Do you feel the excitement? We’re talking fake “now!”)

We check out of our apartment near St. Paul’s Cathedral. So long, “Tent City.” We’re moving to a hotel.

It was called London Arts Discovery. A week-long package – including hotel accommodations; that’s why we moved – whose itinerary listed seeing six plays and a dance performance, meeting a political pundit, a director, two actors, and a longtime theater critic, as well as visiting three different art exhibits. In six days. Normally, we wouldn’t do that much in…we never do that much.

Temperamentally, we are not in our bones “Tour People.” We relish our independence. There’s a “sheep” quality to tours, “herding” being a predominant element, the tour organizers cast as the wranglers, the tour participants, the cattle, or sheep, take your pick. We see ourselves as untamed horses. How would this work out?

Late afternoon, on the first day of the tour. We are in our room. Dr. M is on her cell phone to our kids in California. The opening tour “Briefing” is scheduled for 5:00 P.M., in a conference room in the hotel. It is now 5:02.

The room phone rings. It’s the tour organizer.

“Are you coming to the Briefing?”

“Is everyone there already?”

“Everyone except you.”

My first impression?

London Arts Discovery is a tough town.

In this case, however, that first impression could not have been more wrong. It was a glorious experience – masterfully organized, congenial company, an impressive itinerary including the most talked about productions of the current season, pamperingly reliable transportation, all ramrodded by two bright and knowledgeable tour conductors. The herding was subtle and at a minimum. Mostly, it was self-herding. We were never late again.

Did I love everything I saw – and I did attend every event, except for a “postmodernism” exhibit, which I ditched in favor of a jaunt down to the “Old Bailey.” (See yesterday.) I enjoyed pieces of everything. But mostly, I appreciated the opportunity to sample the best that London late 2011 – early 2012 had to offer.

I have neither the credentials, the insight nor the passion of a professional reviewer. The following are some top-of-my-head responses to the plays we attended:

Before the tour started, Dr. M and I got tickets to a show called Potted Panto. Potted Panto is a clever and energetic parody of the very popular genre of traditional Christmas productions for children (of all ages) called “pantomimes”, which themselves are parodies of classic fairly tales, thus making Potted Panto a parody of a parody.

Their winning performances placed the show’s two lead players - in my mind - in the top tier of children’s birthday party entertainers. However, Potted Panto’s nomination for the equivalent of a United States theater Tony Award suggests that I may possibly have missed something.

The tour itinerary kicked off with a revival production of the 1972 musical Pippin, a show we’ve never cared for, this time, re-configured, I thought rather imaginatively, as a hi-tech, video game.

Our critical reaction:

ME: It’s about as good as they can do this.

Dr. M: Yes. But it’s still this.

The next afternoon, it was Hamlet, starring Michael Sheen, (who played Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon.) Hamlet’s director, Ian Rickson, whom we met later in the week at tea – “Met him at tea, did you? How veddy British of you!” – explained that he was uninspired by the prospect of yet another traditional staging, so with the agreement of the star, he re-imagined Hamlet, setting the action of this production in a mental institution.

Longtime Guardian theater critic Michael Billington – whom we also met that week, though not “at tea” – confided that he saw this production as “extremely Hamlet-centric” (in this version, Hamlet also plays the ghost of his dead father as well as – Spoiler Alert! – Fortinbras) at the expense of a more rounded representation of the “non-Hamlet” characters.

Billington also observed that if this nuthouse version was your first encounter with Hamlet, you might leave with an impression of the play that is different from the impression Mr. Shakespeare originally intended. I agree with both of those points. Though “Full Disclosure” requires me to report that I was asleep during a substantial portion of the First Act.

(What if that happened to an actual critic? What would he write? “The First Act was barely memorable to this reporter.”)

Matilda, The Musical

Based on a popular (at least in England) Roald Dahl children’s book, Matilda, The Musical is wonderful. (Though I do not now nor did I, walking out of the theater, remember any of the songs.)

Why is it wonderful? Because it feels like kids. The production, performed primarily by children, albeit with Rockettes-level precision, is conceptually simple. No elaborate puppets, no “Look what we did here!” productions values. One song is designed around children playing on swings. The climactic moment gives us “Matilda” and her new step-Mom jubilantly performing joint cartwheels. And the “final bows” involved the entire cast, riding scooters.

(After watching this liberating paean to childhood independence, I went into the “Men’s Toilet”, where I witnessed a father warning his young son as he stepped into a stall, “Don’t lock the door, Nigel. Sometimes, you can’t get it open.”)

I think that’s enough to munch on for today. With your permission, I will continue my London Arts Discovery odyssey tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"London Jottings- 4"

The “Old Bailey” – (Criminal Courts of London)

Here’s how it works.

The “Old Bailey” consists of sixteen courtrooms. Visitors are permitted into any gallery in which proceedings are in session, with priority allotted to “interested parties”, the families and friends of the participants in the case. The (overhanging) galleries are relatively small – in the area of thirty seats per gallery – leaving not a lot of seating room for uninvolved parties, otherwise known as people like me, who have just dropped by to watch the show.

January 3rd, the first day back from the “Christmas Break”, was, as I was told is common on first days back, a “slow court” day. A number of courtrooms had nothing going on in them at all. In those courtrooms that were active, the proceedings were in their preliminary stages, the court dealing with various “bookkeeping-type” motions, which need to be resolved before the meat and potatoes of the trial, or as I call it, “the good stuff”, can then get underway.

In prqctice, what this means is that a small amount of legalistic blah-blah gets processed, after which then they adjourn prior to “the big push” of the next step, which would be jury selection. The adjournment results in the clearing the courtroom, which, of course, includes the gallery.

The result of this “not an ‘ole lot gawing on” situation was that, on the morning of January 3rdtoday’s pretend “today” in my London chronicle – in the course of an hour and a half, I attended the proceedings in four different courtrooms.

On the advice of a bailiff who directed me to a courtroom where there was a trial involving “a guy ‘oo ‘it anoothuh guy”, I sat in on proceedings that lasted all of five minutes, before they adjourned to chambers. I was actually relieved by that turn of events, because the presiding judge was a chronic mumbler, and I could not hear a word he was saying. There is nothing more incomprehensible than a mumbler, unless it’s a mumbler mumbling in an indecipherable upper-class accent. Even the court stenographer appeared perplexed.

When I stepped into the next courtroom, the entire gallery immediately got up and walked out. It is difficult not to take something like that personally…if one harbors certain deep-seated insecurities. I then looked down to see that the whole place was emptying out. So it couldn’t have been me. Most likely.

My third courtroom visit seemed particularly promising. The substance of the case was that a shipment cobalt aluminum, which a British company had sent to Slovakia, had ended up in Iran.


It looked suspiciously like an English company selling cobalt aluminum to Iran while pretending they were selling it to Slovakia.

I don’t think you can do that. And I wasn’t alone in that belief, because somebody was on trial.

My suspicions concerning the significance of this case were amped up during the “motions hearing”, in which the defense attorney argued for obscuring screens and electronic voice alteration, to protect the identities of the witnesses. It sounded like big doings. Selling cobalt aluminum to Iran evoked echoes of Colin Powell’s reputation-besmirching “aluminum tubing in Iraq” speech at the United Nations. I could hear jangly espionage music in my head.

The judge adjourned the proceedings after forty-five minutes, though I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps he needed to take a nap. Or, more likely, call a friend and say, “Holy Toledo! I can’t believe the case I’m presiding over! I mean, I had to appear calm on the bench, but…My Gawd!

As I mentioned earlier, on the first day back, the cases were generally just getting started. With one exception. A murder case. Which was coming to an end.

After nineteen years.

One newspaper called it “The country’s most notorious unsolved murder.” A skeletal summary: In 1993, a black teenager named Stephen Lawrence was murdered at a bus stop by a gang of, call them, “skin heads”, chanting racial epithets. Original inquiries led to a dismissal, due to insufficient evidence, compounded, a commission later determined, by indifferent police work. Despite the persistent efforts of the victim’s mother, it appeared that the case would never be resolved.

Then, after advances in forensics linked some blood evidence to two of the suspects, almost two decades after the incident, the suspects were on trial for murder.

The trial lasted seven weeks, ending with the judge’s two-day “summing up” of the evidence, proceedings I had tried twice to get into, and failed.

The jury was now in its third day of deliberations. Other than the announcement of the verdict, the trial was over, meaning there were no courtroom proceedings to observe. But if something did happen, however, there was now the possibility, though still a slim one, of getting in, as, with the expectation of no activity, fewer outside visitors had chosen to show up.

The door to the stairway leading to the courtrooms opened, and the families of the victim and the defendants were ushered upstairs. I was second in the line of the “non-family” observers. To my surprise, I was told I could go in.

I step into the gallery, I look down, and there it is – the judge sitting up high, inexplicably attired in a red rather than the traditional black robe, a host of lawyers representing both sides, a designated reporters’ gallery, and to my left, behind the standard Plexiglas partition, two sour-looking defendants.

Court was, to most people’s surprise, in session.

The judge instructed the jury to be brought in. This could be it, I thought, suddenly losing access to my breath – the jury coming back with the verdict. Could it really be possible? “The country’s most notorious unsolved crime” was reaching its climactic resolution, and I would be there to witness it?

As it turned out, no.

What had happened was that, apparently, there was some computer-related problem in the jury room and it needed to be dealt with before the jury could continue with its deliberations. That is what we heard the jury being told when they were brought into the courtroom.

The judge also discussed upcoming scheduling issues, including the likelihood of one of juror’s needing to miss some deliberating time for medical reasons. After the judge had exhausted his, I’m sure, all very necessary chit-chat, the entire courtroom and gallery, sat in complete silence, and virtually complete stillness, waiting for the jury room equipment to be fixed.

The almost tableau-like courtroom was exploding with tension. Sitting directly in front of me, though they never acknowledged each other, were the victim’s parents, whose marriage had been shattered by the tragic events. The families of the defendants sat further down the same row from the grieving parents who had not received justice. I wondered how that felt.

The defendants, who were now in their thirties but had been teenagers when the murder was committed, sat stone-faced in the “Prisoners’ Box.” I saw them glaring at the jury, twelve strangers who could finally nail them for their actions, after years of believing they had beaten the rap.

We sat, and we waited.

I recalled a “non family” regular attender opining to me earlier that the defendants would get off, due to the defense’s argument that during the extended period between the crime and the trial, the blood evidence had been contaminated. That, of course, was that guy’s opinion. No one was certain which way it would go.

After fifteen minutes, the computer problem was finally resolved, and the jury was sent back to their deliberations. After that, it was, “All rise. Clear the gallery.” And out we went.

There was no certainty we’d be called back in. There was no telling how long the deliberations could go on for days. Despite this possibility, the families and some “Lawrence case” diehards remained, waiting in the hall. I had other obligations, which was fine. Chances were the only thing I’d miss out on if I stayed would be the rest of my day. So I left.

A couple of hours later, the jury returned with its verdict.


I heard that when it was announced, the victim’s mother sobbed, and a defendant’s father cursed the injustice. Emotions, understandably, ran high.

Did I regret missing being there at the end? No. For the most part, I felt relieved. That’s the difference between me and actual journalists.

When it get too real, I want be someplace else.

Monday, January 23, 2012

London Jottings - 3"

Today… (Stay with the concept. It heightens the experience.)

Our London apartment has a shower, which is not separate but is a combined shower/bathtub kind of arrangement. You stand in the tub, and you take a shower.

I am finished showering. I turn off the water, but as I have accidentally stepped on the stopper, there is about three inches of water sloshing around in the bottom of the tub, not draining out because I accidentally stepped on the stopper.

I reach for a bath towel, which is draped over an electric towel warmer. The towel is not warm, because the towel warmer switch has apparently not been turned on. I decide to flip on the towel warmer switch to warm up the towel.

As I reach for the electric towel warmer switch, a vestigial synapse in an underused part of my brain because it relates to science sends a not entirely formed thought to my conscious mind. Something about…

“Electricity – water. Death. After some uncontrollable jerking around, with the possible involvement of smoke, rising ‘Execution-style’ from the top of one’s head.”

I back away from the towel warmer.

It was a very close call. I almost never think on vacation.


Shopping at a nearby Convenience Store to procure provisions for our apartment, I noticed, gracing the pharmaceuticals shelf, a recognizable Pain Reliever in its trademark packaging – the familiar small, yellow box with the product’s name printed prominently in black lettering. There was only one difference. The box said,


Not Anacin. Anadin. The same packaging. But with a “d.”

I found this to be highly peculiar. Until, while walking back to our apartment, I passed a Financial Services concern whose overhanging sign read,

Royds Of London.

What the heck is going on!

Language Barrier

I found myself continually asking our British-accented cab driver to repeat himself because I could not understand what he was saying. Whenever I did, I was required to repeat myself because, inexplicably, the cab driver could not understand what I was saying.

For Shame

Dining at the home of good friends, I was confronted with a pork roast. Did I hew firmly my principles, proclaim my dietary limitations, and only eat the potatoes? I most cowardlyly did not. I instead mutely consumed the two pinkish slices delivered to my plate, smothering them in applesauce and cranberry sauce, to keep God from seeing I was swallowing curly-tailed meat. I did not hear from the Almighty. But I did hear from my stomach, which wondered, “Are we under new management, or what?”

Respect For The Elderly And Infirm

Riding the Underground (subway), a man with white hair, looking as old as I am or older, got up and offered me his seat. I must have generous mirrors at home. I think I look terrific.

Hello, Goodbye

The sun momentarily appeared in the slate-grey sky, apparently lost on its way to Spain. It then realized its mistake, and disappeared for a week.

Art lesson: When you see the murderous skies in British paintings, we are not witnessing the outward expression the artist’s darker nature. That is actually their sky. At least in winter.

You Can’t Be Too Careful

A nearby couple was polishing off their drinks and their pudding (dessert). The man waved over their waitress.

“One more for each of us, please,” requested the customer.

The waitress nodded and headed away. A minute later, she returned to clarify the order.

“Was that one more drink, or one more pudding?”


Fortuitously, our apartment was a five-minute walk from the “Old Bailey”, the criminal courts I habitually visit, to sit up in the gallery (the gallery looms above the courtroom) and watch what, for me, is the dramatic spectacle of ongoing trials. Wigs and all.

An extremely high profile murder case had been dragging on for eighteen years. The judge was scheduled to “sum up” to the jury, before sending them off to deliberate. I went to the courthouse to see if I could get in. I couldn’t. The gallery (about thirty seats) was already full, primarily with the families of the victim and the defendants, who got priority. Justifiably so, of course, though I still thought they could have reserved a seat for the person who came the furthest.

The next day, I returned, as the “summing up” had expanded to a second session. Again, I did not get in.

A few days later, my persistence sent me back a third time. This time

I got in.

That story, tomorrow.

In the meantime...

Headline in a major London newspaper:

Sword Swallower Stabs Himself

(Another headline…I will spare you the first part, but the headline continued with the words…

…Because He Forgot We Drive On The Left

Friday, January 20, 2012

"London Jottings - 2"

Today… *

(* Actually, it was three-and-a-half weeks ago, but I want it to feel current.)

The first place we stayed in was an apartment in a complex called “The King’s Wardrobe”, a structure that dates back to the time of Henry VIII (1491-1547). I found a ruffled collar in the closet. It had his nametag on it. I guess he took it to camp.

Actually, that last part, though possibly humorous, is not chronologically possible, because the original “King’s Wardrobe” (and presumably its contents, including discarded ruffled collars) burned down during the great London fire of 1666. You probably read about it. It was in all the folios. The structure we’re staying in is the replacement, which a stone-carved plaque outside tells us was constructed in 1667.

Think about that for a moment.

“The King’s Wardrobe” was there before 1667. A long time before, specifically whenever Henry VIII got tired of dressing outside and said, “I need a wardrobe. The peasants are seeing me naked.”

That wardrobe went up in flames in 1666. And in 1667, they carted away the rubble, and they put up another “King’s Wardrobe” where the first “King’s Wardrobe” originally stood.

I find this amazing, don’t you? 1667 was a long time ago. In 1667, America was still “Indians Only!” No buildings at all. Longhouses and wikiups. But nothing with stairs.

Yet, at that very same time, in the city of London, they were building things

For the second time!

Do you get what I’m telling you here?

This is a really old place!

And that’s why I love it.

Nearby Points of Interest

“The King’s Wardrobe”, or as they called it in 1667, “The New King’s Wardrobe” is located less than a hundred yards away from St. Paul’s Cathedral, made famous as the imposing backdrop for the “Feed The Birds” song from Mary Poppins. (Though others may have different associations with it. )

Along with its magnificent signature dome, St, Paul’s also boasts a bonging, reverberating clock, which chimes every fifteen minutes, as well as on the hour.

The noise never bothered us, as we have our own a bonging clock in our living room. This one’s just a thousand times louder.

A recent addition to the location is what they call, a “Tent City”, London’s incarnation of the “Occupy” movement. Dozens of tents have been set up just praying distance from the venerated cathedral. As far as I could glean, “Tent City” is there, because St. Paul’s is adjacent to London’s financial district. And also, because there was space available to put up some tents.

There was understandably quite to-do about dozens of protesters camping out right next to one of the most hallowed cathedrals in the world. The outraged faithful wanted them out of there.

And then, the archbishop of I don’t know what but he’s big, stepped up and said something like,

“I’m no expert on religion, or anything…no, wait, I am. And I think we’re supposed to be on their side.”

So there they remain. It certainly can’t be easy for them. It’s winter. It’s rainy. And they’re sleeping ten feet away from that big noisy clock.

On the Slightly Lighter Side…

Read in a major London newspaper…

Police are hunting thieves who stole thirty-eight budgies from a private aviary. Said Mark Allison, a care assistant from Hessle, East Yorkshire,

“I’m worried about them. If they’re not fed properly, they’ll get ill.”

Thursday, January 19, 2012

"London Jottings"

Welcome to a cheesy time travel experiment. I will take you back to three and a half weeks ago. Not really a “time travel”; more like a time meander.

We went to London for seventeen days, seven of which involved an organized theater tour, where we attended plays every night and had private interview sessions with actors from the plays we saw, a longtime theater critic and a really hot director. I mean, he was successful, not, you know, the other kind of hot. Although maybe he was both. I’ll have to check with the wife.

We stayed in three different locations, four days in a rented apartment, the seven theater tour days in a hotel, and five days in another apartment. (“Day 17” was travel.)

I didn’t post while I was away, because it was too complicated (for me), and I was too busy doing things. I did, however, take copious notes. (I haven’t used the word “copious” since I studied Words Are Important in Grade Ten.)

To inject an element of fake immediacy, I will write the following an as yet undetermined number of blog posts, as if there were written while the events were actually taking place. (Because when I took the notes about them, they were.) Think of it as war correspondence from a journalist who got shot, and they found seventeen days of notes in his pocket.

Okay, seatbelts, everyone. Calibrate the settings, as we propel ourselves back in time, all the way back to…(WAVY LINE EFFECT WITH ACCOMPANYING EERIE MUSIC)…December the twenty-second, 2011.



Words you never want to hear before leaving on a trip:

That’s an unusual fracture.”

Searching for a certain cosmetic product to take along – okay, nose drops – I pulled out a drawer and it fell on my foot. Well, not exactly my foot, my right baby toe. And not my whole right baby toe, the topmost metacarpal. It’s like a half an inch long.

What made it “unusual” to the foot doctor was that the fracture was so high up, that if I had pulled my foot back a half an inch further, I’d have missed injury entirely. I cursed having abandoned my Scottish dance classes. A nimble skip backwards, and I could have Highland Flung myself to safety.

Instead, though no treatment was required beyond the ameliorating (Words Are Important again) passage of time, I was setting off for London with a pedal digit that had the purplish hue of an eggplant, swollen to the extent that only irony would qualify it to any longer be considered a “baby toe.”

As it turned out, we had a wonderful trip. I may have to reconsider the entire concept of omens.

(Future blog post: “Omens” – predictive, or retrospective revisionism?)

So long, L.A.

On the drive to the airport, we spotted a small dog in an adjacent car with its head out the window.

The puppy was wearing sunglasses.

The Best Laid Plans

Regular readers will be aware that for the last quarter century, and a little more, our family’s habitual Christmas Break destination has been Hawaii. This year, however, primarily because of the theater tour – though also because baby Milo (ten weeks old) was too little to hula – Dr. M and I were instead holidaying in London.

This required a deliberate adjustment in our thinking. Weeks before our departure, we decided to eschew (yet another Words Are Important selection) any and all thoughts related to our fiftieth state, especially considerations of the contrast in temperature between Honolulu and London – a meteorological disparity amounting, conservatively, to thirty-five degrees.

It is warmer in Hawaii.

We were vacationing, untraditionally, in a damper, bone-chillingly rainier portion of the world. A tiny part of us thought we were crazy.

Consciously determined not to think about what we were passing up, we succeeded to a commendable degree in erasing thoughts of tropical days and flower-scented breezes from our minds.

We arrive at the airport, and proceed to our Departure Gate. The electrical Notice Board flashes “LONDON”, along with the flight number and the time of departure.


It was evident that earlier in the day, that same gate had been the Departure Terminal for passengers headed to – wait for it…


How did we know that? Each of the terminal’s three cylindrical columns had a grass shirt encircled around it. The Departure Lounge also sported a full-sized cardboard cutout of Santa Claus, with Santa dressed in his identifiable outfit, except for the surfing-appropriate bathing suit. And wafting out over the sound system was “Mele Kalikimaka”, the traditional Hawaiian Christmas song.

They seemed to be laughing at us.

With our coats and our hats and our scarfs and our gloves.

The Flight

It’s a psychological phenomenon: You try not to think about something and you think about it even more. What I tried not to think about on our long flight to London, half of it over the ocean, was the word


And away we go