England

DestinationsEnglandThe British Isles

Damaged in Newcastle

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I’m talking about my poor brolly at least, that took a fair amount of beating in the blustery winds and heavy rains that accompanied my visit down south to Newcastle – a less than perfect backdrop for the famous 7 bridges across the River Tyne.

Newcastle, suspiciously run-down and dreary from the train on a sunny day, looked like an industrial wasteland whose construction was abandoned in the 1800s after the Revolution in the rain and cloudy weather. But a step out from the Central Station and onto Grainger Street where the urban centre begins and the atmosphere as I imagine it would be minus the bad weather, would have been nothing short of electrifying.

Newcastle’s brilliant, as the Brits themselves would say. But now that its FC has been relegated for the next season, I wondered if the thrill’s diminished somewhat, judging from the tragically empty stores selling the club’s gear.

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The urban square is confusing at first, and the sheer number of shops, inter-looping shopping malls can drive one crazy. But the river Tyne provides instant navigation access, and soon I found myself trudging across the famous Tyne Bridge while wrestling the high winds and an increasingly flimsy umbrella in the hopes of visiting Baltic, the converted warehouse now a contemporary art gallery sitting at the foot of the Millenium Bridge. Essentially a glassed-up white cube many storeys high overlooking the river and its bridges, the Baltic’s views and its rotating exhibitions of the most famous names in contemporary art left me overwhelmed.

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The walk back across the river was equally excruciating and I passed a mix of Geordies (you are either cursed or blessed with that accent, depending on whose perspective you are speaking from) revelling in the rain, or looking plain miserable. From a distance, I saw a man start to strip. A stag-night party  looked as though it either started early, or ended really late when a group of males (not men) made the presumably-groom-to-be run around in the wind and rain clad only in black briefs. He returned soaking wet to hoots and cheers and most probably, yet another pint on the house for such bravery.

I boarded an incredibly filthy National Express East Coast train on the way back (coming up from London Kings Cross) where the seats in front of me were taken by American surfer-jocks who yakked non-stop in the Quiet Coach.

They were stunned speechless by the waves of the North Sea hitting the rugged coastline, and expressed it the only way they knew how:

“Wow!”

“That’s cool. That’s so cool.”

“I dare you to swim in that!”

Smirking, I simply toed off my shoes, peeled off the wet socks, dried my clammy toes and prayed that my feet smelled bad enough to make them pass out.

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DestinationsEnglandThe British Isles

Wandering (part of) the Black Country

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I found out not too long ago from a quick perusal of the trusty Lonely Planet Guidebook that the Black Country was another name for the West Midlands area of England, the blue collar championing area where the ‘real’ people toiled and laboured at work before celebrating hard in a pub with tons of beer, and spoke (according to some websites that had forums) with the ugliest accents.

A last-minute journey required me to go all the way to Walsall via Birmingham and I practically pounced on the opportunity to do something else other than travel the eastern Coast as I’ve been wont to do so much these days.

The train tickets were so costly, but still less than Flybe that went into Birmingham International – for this nearly 5-hour journey. Only when the train passed Oxenholme, Preston, and the stations in between did I realise I was so close, so close, to the Lake District but couldn’t stop there.

I was collected at Walsall’s train station by my host, an Orthodox priest who had kindly arranged accommodation for me, and insisted on paying for everything else – not normal in the country, or in the Western world, as he deemed. Walsall was anything but familiar. A high percentage of immigrants who led simple lives, working in their corner of their world.

“To die naturally is all I can ask for,” said the manager of the Indian Restaurant when we went for dinner. “After seeing my father die, my grandfather die – all of illness, best to go naturally. Best way to end life.”

It was not a perspective I am familiar with once again – dying ‘naturally’ as he said, somehow had always occurred to me as going gently into the good night. Conditioned from goodness knows where to rage against the dying of the light, this rather placid view seemed to call for all-round defiance.

The place I was to stay in for the night was an old Victorian house just behind the church, tucked away neatly deep into Walsall.

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It had a staggering number of rooms (many of them for tenants), and a slowly but surely decaying interior that made for fantastic shots. I learnt that the rooms were specifically meant for people doing church work, or had some connections with the Parish – to them, I was probably the curious outsider who did not know how to respect people’s personal stuff.

Much of the time for the best part of the 2 days, was spent just listening to the wealth of information this priest had to tell me of the Orthodox tradition and its practices. He spoke a lot, and I wondered insanely at times, if discipleship in the ancient days of the philosophers meant doing the same exact thing, just in togas and sandals.

I left for home the next day via Birmingham New Street station. The length of transit time wasn’t long, but permitted me a quick walk through the jaw-dropping shopping streets – now that was unfortunately something I could relate to better after the Walsall experience – shallowness and superficiality. But it was also overwhelmingly cosmopolitan, modern and sleek, and packed with people and the comfort of anonymity.

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An exhausting trudge through the streets lugging a laptop and my overnight stuff (enduring unpleasant verbal abuse from a mad man out of nowhere as well) later, I felt more than ready to return to Edinburgh.

Now a tiny diptych of the Theotokos and the Christ Pantokrator now sit on my work table, courtesy of my host – in faded colours, a reminder not just of these icons meant to contain the presence of their prototypes, but of the surreal experience of the Latin West meeting the ‘mysterious’ East.

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Elitist Boundaries

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The airport bus was late, so the irate faces of the would-be passengers told me. The driver however, did apologise for the lateness, on the grounds of “people not being able to drive properly”. And then it was yet another 50 minutes from London Stansted to the town centre.

Cambridge seems to typify the posh bit of the so-called ‘Englishness’.

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I found that its open spaces achingly beautiful, its grounds almost sacred (almost like Edinburgh with Hyde Park built in) but infuriatingly elitist, its city centre small and after a while…dare I say..boring.Punting is the highly-rated pastime and the order of the day. One punter tried to imitate a Venetian gondolier’s sense of romance (and failed miserably) by singing a cloister song in Latin.

Maybe boredom really does drive one to do crazy stuff.

Many colleges were closed because of exams and the more famous ones like Kings College and Trinity College, now charge for admission because of the wealth of history they carry and the number of tourists who regularly flock to soak it all in – those buggers.

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But with so much history and such academic vibes floating around, the tourists keep coming and will definitely pay, at least that’s what Archway Bed and Breakfast’s owner Mrs Skingley says. I was given a room that overlooked their gorgeous garden, courtesy of her husband. It was definitely nicer than what I had expected, and rightly so, seeing as the hostel I was supposed to be putting up at, had actually caught fire the day before  in a case of suspected arson.

By the time the next day rolled around, I had probably covered its centre 4 times by foot, and have entered and exited its circular core as many times as it has its entrances. (The heavy rain made it even more English-ly unpleasant) But this trip was after all, meant to be a research trip and there I was, standing at the cusp of …well, I hoped desperately that I wouldn’t embarrass myself after having caught a bad throat infection the day before. I croaked loudly miserably – it was toadlike, I swear – , testing the voice many times during the morning, wishing for some kind of a healing miracle.

I resolutely marched down to Huntingdon Road (where the famous professor RC and his equally famous wife live, both of whom teach in Cambridge’s department of classics), only to find the interview interrupted by a security set-up man. Their house had been burgled and in Cambridge, so said the prof, “they go after computers”. I was ushered into his study – an amazingly large room with wall to wall bookshelves and a harpsichord – and was surprised to see how spry he was with a computer despite his advanced age. He said he was just starting to learn the harpsichord, and had to practice everyday.

Talking to him was like talking to an encyclopaedia. I just couldn’t imagine the amount that his mind holds, and how much the years of study have added on. His wife, a sharp-tongued, somewhat brassy and confident, well-spoken middle-aged (and rather intimidating) woman with no qualms about swearing, walked in half-way and demanded his opinion about the security man.

I think I am starting to become her tentative fan. Let me read her blog first and then decide from there.

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DestinationsEnglandThe British Isles

A better version of London

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The Travel Companion (TC) was with me once again this month, and we decided to make the 5-hour train journey to London from Edinburgh. I was adamant that he should be the one to write this entry because our last trip to London last December was pretty much accidental. My own memories of London spent in the summer of 2007 were exceptionally good, and I had desperately hoped that TC would have at least enjoyed that same privileged experience which I had.

This meant packing a heck of a lot of activities in the 3 days we were there (the majority of them consisting of visiting galleries in the day, in between sightseeing, and watching West End plays at night) and TC surprised me by enjoying the gallery visits as much as I needed to look at them for work’s sake.

It was even more pleasantly surprising to learn that TC had developed a fondness for art by Titian and Jacopo Bassano. In fact, he could not stop exulting their artistic techniques and the textures, happily stepping into the Scottish National Gallery after we returned to look at more.

Here, recounted in TC’s own words, are his feelings and memories –  eccentric, weird, mutedly funny and sometimes plain cynical.

It all started with a rush – which pretty much characterised all of our trips.

The journey to the train station consisted of The Babe (TB) and I running through the streets of Edinburgh to the train station, in pelting snow.

“Great”, I thought to myself. “A brilliant way to change my impression of London”. For those wondering why the title is what it is, my first visit to London was an absolute nightmare. On my way out of Edinburgh at the end of last year, my flight was cancelled and I was rudely diverted to Heathrow (which I had tried to avoid due to its infamous reputation for screwing up flights and luggage – and now to no avail). What followed was a mad dash from gate to counter to counter with an ill TB in tow, as one thing after another went wrong until both of us nearly ended up spending the night sleeping on the floor in Heathrow.

I decided there and then, that I was never going to watch the Amazing Race ever again, having just lived through it in the worst possible way. We eventually ended up getting back to our intended destination one day late, with our luggage still in limbo in Heathrow. Having decided that this first, foul tasting morsel of London was not a fair impression, I therefore declared this trip to be the “good” version of London. Thus far, the weather did not augur well.

As the National Express East Coast moved from Scotland to England (Berwick upon Tweed, Newcastle, York, Durham, Doncaster, Peterborough, and finally, London), the weather actually improved. Instead of the expected dull, dreary grey skies topped with steady drizzles, the sun actually made a rare appearance. By the time we reached King’s Cross/St Pancras, it was evident that the weather was doing its penitent best to improve my impression of London.

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1. By and large, transport seemed decent. The tube was, predictably, small, crowded and expensive with the occasional line breakdown (we had to make 2 transfers on 3 lines to get to our hotel because the line we needed to take was down for maintenance). It was fast, if nothing else. We soon discovered that taking certain buses at the right time of day was much cheaper and a much more pleasant way to travel – route directions were well laid out and easy to follow.

2. London House Hotel lived up to its reputation. The room was clean and fairly comfortable, the staff friendly, and breakfast was decent (although not fantastic). The only quibble I had was the noise from the workmen and other vehicles on the lane just below my room, a compromise for price and a central location in London (we stayed near Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens).

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3. Oxford Street had its range of interesting shops. Never much of a shopaholic myself, I nonetheless discovered the wonders of Primark. I ended up buying a number of things which cost a total of about 20 quid. At such prices, the shop was an absolute madhouse of people from various countries. TB and I ended up returning in the morning in order to get any shopping done at all. As usual, the stuff we needed to find was in fact, way nearer than we needed to go.

4. Our trip to two museums had mixed outcomes. The National Gallery was quite a surprise for me. The amount of famous paintings left me a bit stunned. It was rather surreal. I found myself standing next to the real Sunflowers by Van Gogh. I nearly ended up slapping myself to ensure that I was not dreaming. What I also discovered was that the various paintings by famous artists actually were in vivid colours. Prior to this, my visit to the Uffizi gallery in Florence left me convinced that the old masters only painted in a dull olive green and dirty yellow, with a very occasional grudging blue. I had just realised that the lazy buggers in Florence never cleaned or restored anything.

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The British museum, on the other hand, was overrun with tourist groups and school children on tour. The quality and variety of the exhibits on display was unquestionable. However, the fact that virtually everything was probably looted left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. With the crowds filling nearly every corner (they all showed a fascination with ancient Egypt), TB and I decided to leave there early, taking off for the customary sights of Westminster and the (gag) London Eye.

5. Meals were a strange thing. We went from eating takeaways at a kebab store to having lunch at a small quaint café frequented by locals.

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6. We naturally paid homage to Fortnum & Masons and Twinings.

I suppose London did its best to redeem itself in my eyes. I can say that this really was, London (good version).

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DestinationsEnglandThe British Isles

Englishmen in (Old) York

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I decided that England is a dreadfully dismal place to be in the whole of God’s cheery earth, as the National Express East Coast wound it way southwards towards York. Clear skies in Edinburgh soon became a memory as the train chugged through England – and fog intuitively seemed to roll in at the Scottish borders after Berwick-upon-Tweed, hugging the coast line and passing Holy Isle en route to Newcastle, Durham, Darlington and finally, York.

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Even the weather hates the English, I thought childishly. Thankfully the 2.5 hour-long journey to York was mostly without incident, save for screaming children who got excited over sheep and inconsiderate parents sitting in the quiet coach. I gratefully got off the train, straight into the fog and right into the old town of York. Light, misty rain followed soon after. Despite the abysmal weather, York has history spilling out from its very name, and admittedly does pack quite a punch. 3-miles worth of the York walls still encircle the old town, and a short walk around half of it (they are actually wide enough for running on them) gave me the view that the Romans, Vikings, Anglo Saxons, and Normans had as well.

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A detour en-route to the old town took me along those walks, past Micklegate, and past the last bridge across the river Ouse, and finally into the heart of the town, where all the shopping is concentrated on Coney street and the lanes that grow haphazardly around it.

York Minster, a gothic cathedral that rivals Cologne, dominates the town, and stands at the end of the spidery tourist roads.

It so happened that my day visit coincided with the Jovik Viking Festival, a week’s worth of brutal Viking debauchery (and some educational talks for good measure) which I strangely did not get to experience as all the exciting events will only be taking place in the weekend. Even the queue to the Jorvik theme-park museum (which promises an actual reconstruction of Viking life in the 10th century right down to its cesspits) was regretfully too long – in winter. One takes what one gets – a small Viking stand near the Jorvik Museum that is meant for educating children about Viking daily life.

Even the obligatory ghost tours start only at night. Instead, I found myself walking through a farmer’s market, and nursing a necessary hot cup of tea while resting the legs in a bookshop/cafe combination along Micklegate.

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In a town of ancient history, archaeology and artefacts, perhaps the biggest irony was the stroll through York Gardens, around ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey that led to the city art gallery.

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DestinationsEnglandScotlandThe British Isles

Winter of (Dis)content

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TC and I congratulated ourselves on the relatively fuss-free and brilliant KLM internet check-in procedure as we were ensconced in the Airport Shuttle (also pleased that the driver found the pick-up location) en-route to Edinburgh Turnhouse Airport, replete with our bagfuls of gifts and other stuff sitting behind us.

Once more, the security checks and baggage drops seemed effortless, as we found a nook adjacent to the gate that had reclining chairs on which no one seemed willing to lie. Near-slumberous repose overtook us, until an announcement for our flight woke us into anticipation, and catapulted us into dread and unprecedented panic as we were told that this flight to Amsterdam had been cancelled due to technical faults – its obvious repercussion being that we would miss our long-haul connection back.

A horrendously long queue formed quickly behind the KLM ticket desk, whose harried and hassled staff worked to sort out 105 different connections that arose from this cancellation. A young man behind us was obviously upset at having missed his flight as well to the same place we were flying back to, and spoke with expletives peppering every sentence as he made call after call in escalating desperation, seeking other alternative flights.

A 90-minute wait in the ticket desk queue had us re-scheduled on a BMI Flight to London Heathrow, which would thereafter give us a 45-minute to an hour’s dash to another Terminal to catch the British Airways (BA 11) flight back. BMI brought us to Heathrow with no issues, or so we thought (having passed through Edinburgh’s security yet again). A 10-minute bus-ride from Terminal 1 to 4 led to a mad dash to a premier lounge that told us the BA 11 gate was closed and a boarding pass might possibly be obtained at the gate itself – and the outcome speaks for itself – where the flight was fully booked, and the computer system had either apparently bumped us off, or we were in fact, never really booked on BA 11 at all.

The hunt for KLM’s Heathrow office began before the office shut down for the night, in a version of what TC described as “The Amazing Race gone so terribly wrong”, taking us through wrong turns, closed offices, false directions, a reverse route through the surly immigration desk, (telling our story as we go along, each step lengthening it all the more) explaining why we are going through customs not having left the UK at all, and finally, the ticket desk in the departure hall.

The explanation of the missteps so far (that was starting to become the default explanation to every person we met) ensued once again.

The customer service officer booked a room with breakfast in the Hilton Heathrow without preamble, an admission that nothing more could be done for the night, and she was gone for an amazingly long time after which she had arranged everything rather pleasantly for us. Possibly pitying our ragged, vagabond state, she frankly told us that Edinburgh Airport made no mistake in the booking, but as all airlines are overbooked, British Airways had given up our seats as we had probably reached the gate too late.

An available flight next morning was to be our lucky card. TC was grudgingly impressed with the overhaul of the BA/QF flights, and while griping about the recent safety record (or lack thereof), admitted that the leg room and the entertainment system were decent – until we were told by the pilot rather apologetically that it wasn’t working. Only 3 movies could be shown at a time and while TC busied himself with “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”, the only excerpt I watched throughout the long, long flight was the last 20 minutes of “Kung-Fu Panda”.

Our bags’ location however, remains a mystery still after enquiring exhaustively at every turn.

Commiserating people have come and gone, but it was horrifyingly mind-warping to hear the family talk about this absolute nightmare as if it were a ‘good’ learning experience.

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The Tale of a Country Bumpkin

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I came, and saw (Les Miserables at West End with John Owen-Jones a.k.a. God) and fell into raptures. Bought the Les Miz ticket at Queen’s Theatre Box Office and got a restricted view but first-row seat, with some of the set reaching past the few rows. Call it a true experience when you get to see the much more than the going-on in the foreground.

I was close enough to claw him into erotic submission each time “God” sang, but decided to restrain myself at the last minute for fear of losing some dignity.

I think the compelling force of the Les Miserables story (besides John Owen Jones who actually made Valjean almost desirable) lies in the thorough exploration of what redemption really constitutes: the fullness of the liberal offering of forgiveness is never realised and can never be embraced when the self still attempts means and ways to unconsciously justify what it perceives as undeserved.

Does it not already sound so…biblical?

I went back to the hostel thinking about the tiny details I have missed, and how several motifs surrounded the characters so strongly – for Javert, the unfailingly stars strengthen and reflect (pun fully intended) his resolve to capture Valjean – the Javert Leitmotif in the score also weaves itself in the scenes where he draws back to question himself; for Valjean, the silver candlesticks that the priest gave to him reappeared a couple more times as he sought to find his redemption, not knowing he had found it and not quite accepted it long ago. He dies in his adopted daughter’s arms at the end of the show, and believes finally that paradise is his to enter.

I had the lousiest shower of my life no thanks to the little space in the bathroom – thought once more about the hallowed way Valjean kept the candlesticks on his deathbed scene as a stinging reminder of his final crime – no, I suddenly stood corrected – as a sobering reminder of the underserved action of grace and forgiveness that the priest showed to him when he most deserved punishment.

And it came to me in the midst all that water and soap, that we never forget the incidents in which you have been shown the fullness of grace.

On a side note, the criteria for playing Marius are simply – look good and be a bit hyper. Singing well may or may not be a pre-requisite.

In any case, the vibrancy of London makes me feel like a country bumpkin but I think in the space of the few hours that I’ve plonked myself – it has all been very agreeable.

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The chunnel crossing from Calais was the greatest disappointment of the Eurostar; those who wished to see sharks and other fish will catch naught but the blackness of a tunnel for about 20 minutes or so. The cheap thrill lies really, in the rather short-lived experience of the train’s acceleration up to its full speed of 300km/hr along the Belgian countryside.

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A whole new world opens after I emerged from London Waterloo International – a world where everyone speaks English (though some of it can be incomprehensible), where there are grumpy faces and not-quite-up-to-par service, where 3-pin plugs rule, where cars drive on the right side, where the weather is dreary despite the summer…

I love it all.

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I’ve just blown a ridiculous amount of money to see Les Miserables, Othello, and Equus. The Equus ticket was decided on a whim, but now I have an appointment with a naked Daniel Radcliffe on Wednesday afternoon.

With the crazed speed I suddenly found myself covering many places on foot and iconic sights just passed me by – Trafalgar Square, the Westminster bridge, Parliament, Fish & Chip shops, great supermarkets, Marks & Spencers, Tower of London, Tate Modern, 10 Downing St, the Big Ben, the cute London Cabs, Red Doubledeckers, and Covent Garden (stepping into at least 2 Whittard of Chelsea stores for personal, orgasmic bliss).

And there are the bookshops at Charing Cross – Blackwells, second-books, bargain books – probably cheap by English standards but not mine.

There is just so much to see, and so much to do. 4 days as I have determined, cannot contain London.

 

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