Bellack in London
Week Eight: December 25-31, 2000

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dec 25-26 - dec 27-29 - dec 30 - dec 31
   
dec 25-26 The UK closes down for Christmas -- not even the tube is running. Christmas does double duty in the UK -- it's not only the religious holiday, but it's also the holiday that brings the whole family together, like Thanksgiving in the US. Almost everyone goes home to their families and basically camps out for three or four days.

I didn't due much due to the quiet. A few pubs open for Christmas Day, so I went to the Spotted Horse on Putney High Street in the early afternoon and drank a few pints of Guinness while I read more of Martin Amis' "The Information." The pub got pretty crowded by 2:30pm, a real mix of friendly old gents and groups of young folks.

I went down to Oxford Street for Boxing Day (the day after Christmas), hoping to do some shopping, but most shops were still closed, including the big department stores. All in all things stayed pretty quiet. And nobody's been able to explain to me why Boxing Day exists. The best I've gotten is that the name dates back to old Christmases, when the churches would open the poorbox on the day after Christmas and distribute the donations.

dec 27-29 With everyone on vacation, the office was almost empty this week and very quiet. With Christmas Day and Boxing Day making the week short, and New Year's Day fast approaching, almost nothing gets done in the UK during the so-called "Festive Season." I did have some work to do, though, mostly preparing a project plan and statement of work for recovering the BT project. All in all it was slow. Vim's girlfriend, Julia, came into the office one day and we had a nice lunch at Cafe Rouge. Julia is a salesperson at Sun in the UK, which is apparently doing well and has lots of need for Java people.

Ossie got back to the office this week, which was good since he'd been out the whole week before. It turned out he had some kind of liver trouble, and that he was now on medication which should fix his symptoms.

I took advantage of the slowdown to do some personal things. I booked a flight to Angouleme, France, for July 25-28. Angouleme is a little town near Bordeaux that hosts the world's largest comic strip convention (100,000 people). This is a bit of a lark, considering that I don't know a word of French. I've been to the San Diego Comic Con for the past three years, though. The San Diego Con is the largest in the US but it's only about 50,000 people.

Vim also showed me some good clothing stores so I could look for a jacket & another suit. I discovered again that European clothes just don't fit me right -- in this case, my shoulders are too big. I have to either get something custom-made ("bespoke" in the terminology) or order something from the States and have it fitted here. Very frustrating.

I bought a bunch of books -- "Appetite" by Nigel Slater (the cookbook I also bought my mother for Christmas), so I can start learning to cook; and a set of French language tapes, plus some French dictionaries and phrasebooks, so I could learn a little French before my trip to Angouleme. The cooking has involved a fair amount of burning, but progress is being made.

My friend Justin and his wife Debra had a baby girl (Leah) on the 27th, so congratulations to them. Justin's the first of my college friends to become a parent, which is another sign of time passing.

dec 30 I finally opened a UK bank account today (at NatWest). Easy enough. I went back to Oxford Street to complete shopping I'd intended to do on Boxing Day. There are big sales running for a week or two after Christmas. I needed some sheets, but had trouble finding what I wanted. It seems that the UK generally offers fitted sheets and duvet covers, rather than fitted sheet, flat sheet, and a comforter. I had to hunt through Selfridge's for a long time to find a set of the comfortable "flannel" (really T-shirt material) sheets that I wanted. I also bought a heavy iron grill pan (like a frying pan but with ridges in it so you can grill) as part of the learn-to-cook initiative. I went to John Lewis (another department store on Oxford Street, with a very good electronics department) to buy a cordless phone and answering machine. I also dropped off my Spain photos for developing and scanning.
dec 31 Finished the National Gallery today by going through the 1700-1900 section. Some great British art, including Stubbs' "Whistlejacket," which is a nearly life-size painting of a rearing racehorse on a featureless tan background. It's a powerful effect. Also gripping was "An Experiement on a Bird in the Air Pump" by Joseph Wright of Derby. This is a very large canvas that shows a family crowded around a table, where a dodgy-looking lecturer is demonstrating a vacuum by pulling the air out of a glass bubble containing a cockatiel. The room is lit only by candle, and everyone in the room is finely detailed and utterly lifelike -- the mother and father, two little girls watching through their fingers, a young couple turning to each other in surprise, and the lecturer himself.

On the other hand, Canaletto's paintings of Venice are remarkably clean renditions of monumental architecture. He uses larger blocks of single colors without much blending at the edges, reminiscent of paint-by-number. Everything is precisely rendered, and remarkably large crowds populate every canvas. The figures are tiny against the architecture, and they're all standing quite upright. For some reason I was reminded of the little computer people in "The Sims." You can see the world start to change in paintings as well -- for example, Turner's painting of the Fighting Temeraire, which shows an old man-o-war being towed up the Thames for the last time, by a steam-powered tug boat. Another painting of Turner's, "Ulysses deriding Polyphemus," depicts the mythical elements as translucent, ephemeral elements on the periphery of the painting -- the Cyclops might be nothing but a cloud formation above Ulysses, the nymphs in the water before the boat might just be the sun glinting off the waves. The age of myth is almost a memory, just a trick of the light. By the time of Seurat's "Bathers at Asnieres," factories, chimneys, and black smoke is just part of the background, blended in with the trees, the sky, and the clouds, without any special comment.

It's probably fitting that the last painting in the National Gallery is an early Picasso.

It was still fairly early in the afternoon so I went around the corner to look through the National Portrait Gallery, which is focused on paintings of kings, nobles, and other famous people through the ages. I went through most of the Tudor gallery, which was interesting (especially the Whitehall Cartoon, a line drawing of Henry VII and VIII for a huge mural in the Whitehall Palace, since burned to the ground). I also enjoyed discovering the motto of Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury (1563-1612): "Sero, sed serio," which is Latin for "late, but in earnest." Sounds about right.

Jeremy (fellow director) invited me to a New Year's get-together at his house, but it was in Marlow (outside London past Maidenhead), which was going to be very inconvenient to get to without a car, not to mention the trouble getting back since the trains stop early on New Year's Eve, so I ended up bailing out and just going back to my flat. Relatively dull, all things considered.

next week New Year's Eve