Bellack in London
Week Eleven to Fifteen: January 15 - February 20, 2001

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what happened - flatwarming party - pete visits - my left foot - superbowl -
blake - work - cooking - yale club - the city - barbican - dead (sick) again
what happened I wish I could say I've been too busy to update my journal, but that wouldn't be accurate. It would be fair to say that I've been too distracted to update my journal. Instead of reconstructing a day-by-day itinerary, I'm going to cover the past month thematically. I intend to get back to the day-by-day format moving forward. We'll see how it goes.
flatwarming party I had my flatwarming party on January 20. I had a cleaning woman show up at 8am, which at least forced me to get up and get moving. The rest of the day was an endless flow of errands and purchasing. I made the critical error of picking up two cases of bottled beer, thinking "oh, this isn't that heavy," and trying to carry it 1/3 of a mile back to my flat. I made it, but only with frequent rests and some heavy panting. These things always seem like good ideas at the time. Strangely enough I had trouble finding decent party plates -- the supermarkets only had the flimsy paper picnic plates that have been obsolete in the States for ten years due to the fact that they disintegrate if they get moist, and have the approximate tensile strength of thick tissue. I bought wine and some liquor at Oddbins, one of the big wine chains in the UK. I've realised that there are at least six wine & spirit shops within easy walking distance of my flat and at least as many pubs. The grocery stores and corner shops sell alcohol as well. This is a lot compared to Pennsylvania, where I grew up -- in PA wine and liquor are only sold in State Stores, beer only by designated beer distributors, and both business are fairly spread-out. New York and California have more locations, but stores there are often grubby compared to the London stores, which are usually part of a chain of High Street stores. Anyway, back to the flatwarming party -- in addition to wine, I did some hunting to dig up litre bottles of vodka, gin, etc -- most of the stores top out at 700ml bottles, so that's one place where the UK is relatively sober. I picked up the Italian food I had ordered for the party, which was excellent. Everything was really fresh, such as the basil on the pasta salad. The roast peppers were melt-in-your-mouth good, and the cheeses were all excellent. Unfortunately they weren't labelled so I have no idea what they were. Other miscellaneous errands were run for detail items (doormat, boards for the cheese + meat, napkins, blah blah blah).

The party itself was good. People started showing up around 8pm. Attendees included: Simon & Rebecca, Rob & Victoria, Vim & (girlfriend) Julia, Jeremy & Rebecca, Manisha (first floor neighbor) & a female friend whose name I've forgotten, and (coworkers) Claire, & Gerard. It wasn't huge, but it was enough to feel like a good healthy gathering. To be honest, I'm usually torn by this sort of situation. I really wanted to have a big blowout, so I was disappointed that I only got half as many people as I'd hoped. It's hard to remember that I should be happy for the 12 people who *did* come.

In any case, the party was fun -- only one major spill, and Claire & Gerard managed to finish an entire litre bottle of Absolut between then with the help of some cranberry juice, extremely large plastic cups, and my fairly satanic drinkmixing skills. The party broke up around 11:30pm, after which Claire and I decided to hit the town and keep the party going. Our intent was to find someplace in Putney, but Claire asked some guy on the street where to go and we found ourselves falling in with a pack of ten Spainiards and Australians who were heading to an after-hours Spanish dance club on the King's Road in Fulham (north across the Thames from Putney). After a quick bus ride and 30 minutes waiting outside the door, we found ourselves in a jam-packed low-ceilinged bar slash dance floor slash late-opening restaurant. The DJ seemed to be playing Spain's greatest hits, because the crowd cheered and sang along to most of the music. I had a brief conversation with an American expat who seemed to be there just to sit and the bar and drink, but otherwise most of my time was spent shuttling drinks around, feeling pretty knackered, and remembering how much I don't like trying to meet people in bars. I'm exaggerating a bit, since I did have about five minutes of fun trying to flirt with a Spanish girl I had no chance with. By the time the club closed it was around 3am and Claire & I were both thoroughly drunk. Somehow we found a cab. Claire crashed in my guest bedroom for convenience.

The next morning I did indeed have the wretched hangover I had predicted the week before, and spent most of the day lying around and groaning.

pete visits On Monday 22 Jan, Pete Arden showed up for a few days. Pete was the Director of Marketing at NPO and a pretty good guy who's still living in San Francisco. He was in town for a trip his rugby team was making to Manchester, and since he grew up as a huge Anglophile he showed up early to take in the town. I pretty much gave him a set of keys and dashed off to work. We did grab dinner that night at the Coat & Badge, the cosy pub that I'd seen back when I was still considering where to live, and had helped convince me to come to Putney. The food was very good, and it was nice to catch up with someone from SF. It was also funny how quickly we fell into talking about SF companies, the Internet industry, & so forth. After that first night Pete's rugby team came to town, staying in central London, and I pretty much didn't see Pete again until he left. Still nice to have a friend drop by, though.
my left foot One lousy thing happened when Pete was in town. That Monday night, I was running downstairs to catch my cellphone and slammed my left foot into a doorjamb *hard*. I had clearly stubbed hell out of it, and developed a pretty bad limp. The next morning my foot was so swollen I could barely fit it into a shoe. I won't even try to explain the bruising. I spent the whole week limping around, cracking jokes about being "the gimp." Honestly it was pretty bad. I thought I had just stubbed my little toes badly and that it would feel better after a few days. Unfortunately by Thursday it hadn't gotten any better. Thursday afternoon I was due to fly to Angouleme, France for the BD Angouleme comic convention -- the largest in the world with 200,000 attendees. I had even asked two of my artist friends to draw panels illustrating my trip for this journal. I've been going to the San Diego Comic Convention for several years, so I was expecting to have a blast in France. The problem was, when I left work on Thursday to go home & pack, I realised that my foot was hurting so bad when I walked, and my limp was so bad, that it was ridiculous to plan on spending three days wandering the floor of a convention. To make matters worse, I discovered that the hotel that Travelocity had said was 3 km from Angouleme was actually something like 97 miles away on the West Coast of France. The final straw came when I tried to make some phone calls to France to find an alternate hotel. I quickly discovered that they didn't speak English in Angouleme and the French tapes I'd been listening to were useless when it came to understanding a native French speaker over the telephone. The whole thing was hopeless. All the same, I had a non-refundable airline ticket and really wanted the quick vacation. This was one case where not having close friends nearby was stressful, since there was nobody I could easily contact to get some common-sense advice. I ended up calling my father and bouncing the situation off him, and he quickly agreed that it was crazy to go to France. So I regretfully gave up, cancelled the trip, and went to work on Friday.

That Saturday I spent sitting around feeling morose. Vim told me that late afternoon was the best time to go to Casualty (the British term for "emergency room"). So I looked at a map and the nearest hospital was, conveniently enough, called Putney Hospital and was only 1/4 of a mine further West on the Lower Richmond Road. I limped there as dusk set in only to discover that it was closed down and pretty much derelict. I bet it was a really convenient hospital back in 1800-something if you needed treatment for consumption, catarrh, cholera, or smallpox. This was obviously fairly discouraging so I limped home and had a few left-over beers from my flatwarming party.

Sunday morning I woke up early and took a bus to St. Michael's, a real live hospital. They had a convenient minor-injuries ward that was totally empty. A nurse looked at my (still bruised & swollen) foot, and sent me down the hall for an X-ray. Again, there was nobody ahead of me and no waiting, and within 15 minutes I was back with the nurse, who discovered my 2nd-smallest toe was fractured, which is a pretty good reason for a week of painful limping. She taped up the busted toe and told me it was OK to walk on it, just not to do anything my body told me was painful. This was a relief because I knew what the problem was, and the taped-up toe actually hurt a whole lot less because I wasn't putting pressure on the fracture any more. I continued to limp a bit for the next two weeks, but I gradually went from Igor to Samuel L. Jackson in "Unbreakable" to my old pell-mell self. The hardest part was actually readjusting to walking normally -- three weeks of weird walking was enough to screw up my muscles a bit. I have a better understanding of why serious injuries require so much physical therapy to get people back into shape as they recover.

One vaguely amusing irony here is that at the same time I was going through this, my brother was having another operation on his ankle and was on crutches, so my parents had two gimps in the family. For those of you who don't know, my brother, Adam, was wrestling with a friend while he was a camp counselor about five years ago when they both fell down. Adam twisted his ankle on the way down, and then the friend landed on the ankle, resulting in a really nasty set of fractures. Adam was in a cast on crutches for several weeks, and when he started trying to walk again the ankle ended up infected. The net result was that doctors put some metal plates & screws into the ankle to stabilise everything, and Adam was on crutches for about six months. For some reason now is the time that the doctors decided to go in, remove the metal, and check on the ankle's progress. My brother now has the metal pieces in a jar somewhere for a souvenir, but he's back on crutches for another six weeks or so. He's taking it well considering that the situation basically sucks -- all he can do is sit around, watch TV, and try not to eat too much (easier said than done). The upshot is that my 3 1/2 weeks of fractured toe have given me a lot of sympathy for what my brother has gone through, especially what a tiny amount of whinging he's done considering what he'd be entitled to.

superbowl One small blessing of my foot situation was that I was able to catch the Superbowl. Sort of. I started off by buying nachos + salsa, and making my Grandmother's sloppy joe recipe, in order to capture a bit of that Superbowl Sunday ambiance. Unfortunately you can't get the Silver Bullet over here. Anyway, the sloppy joes miraculously came out pretty close to my childhood memories. Thanks, Grandma. That took up the afternoon, but with a five-hour time difference the game obviously started very late at night, and I could only get a static-y radio broadcast. Nonetheless I stayed up late to hear as much of the game as I could, and even called my parents once to get that old "watching the game together did you see that pass?" feeling. I dozed off before the really exciting bits had happened. After a little gloating at work the next day (Jeremy had been boosting the Giants pretty fierce the week before), I was able to stay up late on Monday night and catch all the highlights on the late-night US sports show that Channel 5 broadcasts (the one that shows hockey games and showed the World Series back when I was first visiting London). Hell of game, especially those three successive touchdowns. Channel 5 even broadcast the entire halftime show, which I suppose was a mixed blessing. For the record, I still can't believe that Britney Spears claims she hasn't had breast implants. She looks positively pneumatic, like she flips open a valve and uses a bicycle pump before her concerts or something. Yeesh.
blake The next weekend I got out a little bit, mainly to make sure I saw the William Blake exhibit before it closed. Blake is known variously as a "visionary artist," a "follower of the Gothic tradition," even as "the last Medieval man." He lived in the late 18th century, and is known for his highly idiosyncratic drawing style (almost primitive but strangely compelling), meticulously designed and printed illuminated books, and fantastic poetry containing entire allegorical cosmologies of his own creation. Blake was strongly influenced by Gothic architecture and style, and thought it was a more real form than the predominant "rational" values around him. His art is an odd mix -- not always very detailed, an odd mix of full muscular detail but somehow not anatomically right, strange images and scenes. Overall the effect is somehow "off" but also highly evocative and strangely compelling. The only touchstones I can really draw on are the sort of "primitive" art made by untrained artists (like the artist who did the cover of Talking Heads' "Little Creatures" album), and the art of mental patients (think John Wayne Gacy's clown pictures, but not as creepy). Blake claimed he saw visions throughout his life, and that they were real things (not just flights of fancy). Some of his works have this vision-like quality. A famous work is "The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun", inspired by a line from the book of Revelation. The Great Red Dragon is seen from behind -- a heavily-muscled back, with legs like a mans spread wide, a thickly muscled tail bending out behind, and great muscular wings instead of arms. The head is hard to get a fix on -- one or more pairs of great, curled ram's horns. The image is incredibly foreboding -- you're fascinated by the creature that can't be right, drawn to the idea of what he looks like from the front but also horrified at the thought of actually seeing him face-to-face. Thomas Harris, author of "Silence of the Lambs," used this watercolor to great effect in his first Hannibal Lecter book, "Red Dragon," on which the movie "Manhunter" was based. Many editions of the book reproduce the Blake image on the cover -- it's worth checking out.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that I really enjoyed the Blake exhibit. It was at the Tate Britain, which is on the bank of the Thamesa good walk away from any tube stops, which proved a bit challenging with my foot. The exhibit was really comprehensive, covering every period of Blake's career and every major work. Other exceptional images included the densly illustrated "Songs of Innocence and Experience," one of Blake's illuminated books containing his famous poems such as "Tyger, Tyger"; the spooky "Ghost of a Flea," allegedly a painting of one of the creatures which appeared to Blake in a vision; "Newton," a relatively uncomplimentary allegorical image of the scientist as enemy of the true way of the world; and "the Ancient of Days," a powerful image of a bearded "God" type man crouched in the sun, lightning bolts shooting out his fingers like a compass. Comic fans will note that Alan Moore uses "Ghost of a Flea" to good effect in "From Hell," letting Blake have a visionary foreglimpse of the killer behind the Jack the Ripper murders.

work While work takes up so much time, it's often the subject I least want to discuss these days. I've had my ups and downs. Our office is finally starting to get busy, which is excellent news since that's the goal. We've actually gone from 0% utilisation (meaning nobody in the office was doing any work that was billable to any customer at all) to 80% utilisation in 12 weeks, which is a pretty amazing turnaround. It's only the beginning, though, and we'll probably drop off again once our current projects are done, since the pipeline is still not full and it turns out that the sales cycle in the UK is much longer than in the US. For example, we did a Java code review for Littlewoods last year and delivered our report in mid-December. For two months we could barely get them on the phone, and were starting to worry that they hadn't liked our work. Finally, they called to set up a meeting, and we ended up spending two hours getting a very positive review, and the opportunity to bid on more work. In the US, being ignored for two months would usually be a really bad sign, but in the UK that's just the way it goes. The trick is going to be keeping management in the US aware of how we're doing in the midst of the turnaround, so that they don't overreact if we have some down weeks, or if it takes longer to get everything back on track. I'm only four months in to a turnaround that I had assumed would take six months or more, so by those standards we're actually doing quite well; but with the market downturn and CHC's miserable stock price, it's going to be hard to convince US management to give us a chance if we're not profitable in the near term.

The other challenge in the office is just getting the staff up to speed. We have some very good people on the team but overall quality is uneven, mostly because some people are in jobs that they've never done before, so there's a lot of teaching to be done. I'm used to having the opportunity to hire in a staff, usually of people who already have good skills, so this is a challenge, especially in keeping the work product up to the quality I want to see (which is admittedly a fairly high standard). We seem to be having some success, however, and I hope that we'll keep building as we move forward.

That being said, I did a fair amount of travelling about in the past month. I went up to Oxford twice to meet with FamilyGenetix, a startup working out of a very swanky science park. Ironically they're so far out of the main town that I didn't see a single dreaming spire either time I visited. I also went back to Liverpool, where it turned out the Littlewoods code review went very well, which is good news. On one of our drives Vim & I passed the Hoover Factory, which is one of the only art deco buildings in England. It's very nice and a real landmark, but it was derelict for years and almost torn down back in the late 70's/early 80's. I know this because Elvis Costello wrote a protest song about the demolition called, what else, "Hoover Factory." It's now been restored and turned into a Tesco's supermarket, which I suppose is better than tearing it down, though the Musee d'Orsay in Paris is perhaps a better example of repurposing old architecture (the museum used to be the Gare d'Orsay train station).

cooking One small blessing of a swanky flat with a nice kitchen and a dishwasher is that I've been able to continue learning to cook more things. I haven't managed anything too spectacular, but have had some small wins -- finally made an edible tomato-and-basil pasta sauce that didn't come out of a jar, followed the instructions to an incredible sliced-potato-onion-sausage-and-stock baked thing, even got stupidly ambitious at some point when I was limping around and made a loaf of bread -- floury, but hell, I made bread! All I need is processed flour, instant yeast, and a temperature-sensitive oven and I can survive the apocalypse. We won't talk about my attempt at cornbread, though. This is normally a very reliable process, but there was no cornmeal to be had for love or money so I tried using corn flour. Big mistake. The result tasted a bit like cornbread, but had the thickness of a waffle and the consistency of particleboard.
yale club I finally got hold of the Yale Club of London, and even got invited to their latest meeting, which was on February 7th in the City. Unfortunately the lady at the desk of the building didn't know about the meeting, and I hadn't been given specific instructions on how to get in, so even though I was in the right place I ended up not being able to find the meeting, which was pretty lousy considering they only meet once every three months. The evening wasn't all bad because I got to explore some of the City of London.
the city The City of London is the original London built within the old Roman walls. The City today is the center of London's financial world, and like Wall Street empties out overnight. Unlike Wall Street, the buildings are mansion-sized rather than skyscrapers, and the combination of ancient buildings and narrow streets with funky names (Fish Street, Ironmongers Lane) gives the City a unique flavor.

So wandering through the city, I stumbled on a courtyard buried behind a building and a church, and found myself staring at the Guildhall. The Guildhall is one of the historic centers of London government, site of some famous meetings and trials. It's a gothic stone building originally built in the 1400's. It was gutted in the Great Fire, and the roof was bombed in during the Blitz, but both times the medieval walls held up to the damage, which speaks well of 15th century masonry. There's a big portico entrance on the square which is very impressive, and the overall effect is heightened by the fact that the hall is totally surrounded by modern buildings -- it's almost like it was purposefully hidden.

You can't walk around the city without stumbling on at least one Wren church. Christopher Wren was the architect who was given responsibility for rebuilding the 20+ churches destroyed in the Great Fire (including St. Paul's Cathedral). He used almost every conceivable architectural style, and most of them are inspired pieces of work. I passed two just wandering home after the Yale Club fiasco, and it's impossible to walk around the City without catching glimpses of other spires, like that of St. Mary-le-Bow. Mary-le-Bow's spire is tiered, and is said to be the inspiration for the traditional layered look of wedding cakes. The church is also known as the proof of the true Londoner -- it's said that a Cockney is anyone who is "born within sound of Bow Bells."

barbican I've been to the Barbican three times in the past week or so for theatre and music performances. The Barbican is a sprawling development built post-war to replace a totally bombed-out area just north of the City. It has everything -- shopping, residential blocks, offices, and an arts centre not unlike Lincoln Center in NYC. The net effect is a thoroughly confusing multi-building, multi-layer mulch -- all the travel is on a set of raised walkways, and you have to follow painted lines on the ground just to find out where you're going. The main complex took forever to build, only being completed in 1972, and the arts centre wasn't finished until 1982. It's bad enough that the architecture is ugly 70's, but the insult is that it's *expensive* ugly 70's -- cherry, walnut, and brass instead of pine, veneer, and chrome. What a waste.

Anyway, I had tickets to the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] productions of Henry IV Part I and Part II on successive weekends. I ended up not finding anyone to go with me, basically because I only asked a couple of people and didn't start casting the net for friends until late in the week. I ended up seeing Part I with one of my co-workers, which was better than nothing though not really the point of the evening.

Henry IV Part I was excellent -- the RSC did all of Shakespeare's history plays in Stratford-Upon-Avon last year, and now they're bringing the productions to London. RSC actors pronounce Shakespearean verse perfectly, so their poetry and emotional impact was easy to understand. The cast was generally very good, even if Prince Hal (the future Henry V) was a bit whiny. The play features Welsh and Scottish leaders, and the actors portraying each used local accents and costumes that helped carry across the idea of warring *nations*, not just battling blank-verse Brits. There's a lot of comedy in the Henry IV plays -- this is where Falstaff shines -- and this was mostly well-done, though I think that the timing of the lines and the surrounding slapstick were probably more modern than Shakespearean. There's no denying that the lines themselves are pretty damn funny.

After the play I wandered around the City some more, walking south to the Monument, a stone tower built to commemorate the Great Fire. It's 202 feet tall, which is the exact distance of the tower's base from Pudding Lane, where the fire started. The Monument is the largest free-standing stone column in the world, and is topped with a huge golden torch. Like all major pieces of London architecture, it's brilliantly illuminated at light -- I could see the torch shining from blocks away before I found the monument itself. While it was clear that vast sums were spent to rebuild after the Fire (St. Paul's, the Wren churches, and the other 3/4 of the City that was destroyed), it was the monument that really brought home the real impact of the Fire on London. The column is called The Monument, no explanation necessary. The Monument does not commemorate a great loss of life -- only nine people died in the Fire. One side of the base of the monument is an inscription detailing the steps taken to rebuild the city, including the new building regulations (all brick or stone, no overhanging eaves, etc). And the inscription describing the Fire itself states that the Fire burned out of control for three days, until it stopped "almost as if by the grace of God." It's hard to visualise the psychic impact of watching the cradle of your civilisation destroyed by a force of nature. It probably doesn't speak too well of human nature that for two centuries after the fire Londoners blamed Catholic arsonists for the fire.

That Sunday evening I was back at the Barbican to see Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with some people from work. The performance was of a new soundtrack to a 1920's silent movie called "Body and Soul," starring Paul Robeson as a womanising, hard-drinking thief masquerading as a priest. For obvious reasons that didn't go over too well in the 20's (being black probably didn't help) and the film was heavily censored at the time. It was a good performance and the music fit the film pretty well. Afterward the band trooped off to the tuba player puffing away like the end of a New Orleans funeral march, which was cool, and then the composer came on and gave an amazing trombone solo, full of synopations and rapid-fire runs of notes that I didn't know were possible on a trombone.

A week later (this past Friday -- we're finally getting close to current) I had tickets to Henry IV part II. I was starting to feel lousy so I ended up deciding to go by myself, which felt a little odd at first but ended up being really relaxing. The dramatic parts of part II weren't as strong as part I, but the comedy was severely gut-busting. The antics include two elderly friends of Falstaff who dithered their parts to perfection, including some ludicrously senile song-and-dance moves. Part of the subplot includes a review of possible troops to join Falstaff at the front, and all five of the recruits were one-note jokes played to perfection. One was a hunchback who shuffled around hopelessly -- when Falstaff put a staff in his hands to see how he fights, the hunchback waited a half-beat, and then fell over flat on his face. The audience was rolling, and interrupted the performance a few times for spontaneous applause. The final reconciliation of Henry IV and Prince Hal (Henry V) was good, and Henry V's denial of Falstaff was affecting, but I still thought the actor playing Henry V was too whiny. I have my fears about how he'll do in Henry V.

dead (sick) again Which only leaves this past weekend. Just to keep things amusing I got sick again -- fever, flu, cough. The weekend was mostly spent slumping about feeling half-baked, but by Monday of this week I was a wreck -- one of those "man I'm so sick I can't think straight, ow my brain hurts" days. I'm writing this on Tuesday and am still home sick. I struggled out for a couple of errands this morning, and I'm cautiously hopeful that I'll be recovered by the morning, but all of the coughing has reactivated my sore throat problems and I have laryngitis again. For those of you who don't know, I grew up very susceptible to strep throat, and after more than fifteen years without a bout, shortly after I moved to California I developed an extremely persistent throat infection that might have been strep. The effects put me out of work for days at a time and eventually ruined my voice -- I was literally reduced to writing notes to communicate for about a week. This was a year and a half ago, and generally I'm better, but now whenever I get a cough my voice starts to cut out and I go silent to avoid exacerbating the situation.
next week Salvaging what's left of the workweek whenever I get done being sick; spending the weekend in Paris.