Monthly Archives: December 2012

Book review: Londoners

LondonersI have this love/hate relationship with London. I have days when I love this city and I feel like it loves me back. Those are usually the rare days when I feel elated by the thought of the spring and summer ahead, when the transport works, when I walk through its maze of streets and feel awed by its history.

The rest of the time I think that London asks too much of me. It wants, it takes, it frustrates, it leaves me angry and exasperated. ‘Why do I continue to live here?’ I often ask myself. One book has gone some way to answering this question eloquently.

Londoners, by Craig Taylor, is as diverse as the city. The book is a series of interviews with real people, all of whom either live in England’s capital or have had a brush with it. There are interviews with a city planner, a nurse, a few taxi drivers, artists, actors, market traders, a dominatrix and even a Wiccan priestess.

The interviews are illuminating and memorable, and I came away from this book feeling like I knew London just that little bit more. There was the day I was introduced to Emma Clarke, the voice of the London Underground. I was reading her interview on the way to work on the tube, feeling tired and bleary-eyed. Suddenly I hear the familiar voice announce the next station and I realize it’s Emma, the girl I was reading about. It was a surreal moment. I can’t get on the tube without thinking of her now.

Or there was the transsexual from Balham who scavenged for food. I learned, to my great surprise, that transsexuals are obsessed with electronics, old radios, old motorcycles and old cars. A lot of them are trainspotters. Who would have thought that?

I laughed at an interview with a former Londoner, who was glad to have escaped from the city’s clutches. In him I recognized some of myself. Speaking from Cape Town, Simon says: ‘Most of my friends from university had gone to London around the same time as me, and everybody had left except for two people – they stayed and they love it there. These are two of my closest friends in the world but they are both somewhere along the autistic spectrum. What do they call it? Apserger’s Syndrome. London is a city full of Asperger’s people.’

I also loved an interview with an artist who collected human hair from the underground for a piece of art. He was talking about all this hair that collects in tube tunnels, something which I have always noticed with disgust. Immediately I am thinking of all the hair I see in the tunnel that connects the Central Line to the Victoria Line at Oxford Circus. A moment later he mentions this very same thing and I get ridiculously excited about it. It’s a moment of recognition. I was also, quite fittingly, on the tube when I read that passage.

I don’t think you need to know London well to get something from this book. Ultimately, this book is about humans living in a big cosmopolitan city. But I think Londoners will certainly get something deeper and will relate to it on another level.

I found myself talking to people about this book, mentioning the little bits of trivia I learned. You don’t have to read it all at once, but can also dip in and out of it. At 400 pages, it’s fairly dense, but I thought it read pretty quickly.

London is a city that often defies logic or understanding, but this gets close to underpinning the heart and soul of this ever-shifting and yet timeless place.

Did I fall in love with London again, like I did so many years ago as a young 22-year-old? Not exactly. But I fell in love with these stories and lives that miraculously felt both alien and familiar to mine.

I’m still not sure what I’m doing here sometimes. There are days, even weeks, when I long for something else (a bit of sun, maybe). This book did make me see the city through the eyes of others – and that has given me a new perspective on where I live, which could just get me through this very long winter.

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A random round-up

Christmas tree

Our little Christmas tree is squeezed between the radiator and the sofa. I hope this isn’t some kind of fire hazard.

I feel like I’ve crawled my way to the end of this month. It has gone in a blur and now we are staring down the barrel of Christmas Eve. I am going to give some brief highlights of the last week because I am short on time and am slightly panicking about the presents I’ve yet to wrap. I’m not even sure I know where they all are, since I’ve hidden them away like a squirrel hoarding nuts. Here goes:

A trip to the theatre: The English Husband and I treated ourselves to a very rare trip to the West End to watch a play called A Chorus of Disapproval. It stars Rob Brydon, an actor known for playing comedic roles. I like watching plays if they don’t drag into the three-hour range. This one stayed within two hours and was amusing, if not earth-shattering or life-changing. The biggest shock wasn’t provided by the actors or the plot, but the cost of two (large) glasses of wine and a bag of crisps: £21 (about $35). No wonder we never go to the theatre. It will send you into bankruptcy.

Parenting lows: head lice. I’ve heard other parents talk with horror about lice. I’ve read threads on the internet about dealing with the parasites, with a growing sense of horror. Yet I always hoped it would miraculously pass me by. A few nights ago the Chatterbox says to me: ‘My head is really itchy.’ I dragged her into the bathroom and steeled myself for the very worst. I tentatively inspect her head, parting strands of hair. First clue something is wrong: I think I see small, brown, sesame-like things attached to her head. And then something that makes me scream: there is no mistaking movement, and I could swear something was looking at me. I literally jumped, drew back and went into a slump of depression for the rest of the night. We think we have caught it early, but I have spent the rest of the week sporadically itching my head and wondering if I’ve caught it. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful early Christmas present? I have read that as a mother you have an 75-80% chance of catching it, as do siblings. Fathers only have a 20% chance. Do men ever draw the short straw?

A bit of celebrity gossip – Courteney Cox has even had head lice and she caught it from her daughter. Goes to show that nothing, not even wads of cash and the best schools, can keep you safe from human fleas.

The kids go to the theatre: We decide to treat the kids to a trip to a local theatre for a production of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, the classic children’s book that has been translated into I don’t know how many languages. For those without children, it’s about a family who go looking for a bear and encounter many obstacles along the way. It’s written by poet Michael Rosen (a Londoner), who has undoubtedly made a fortune from this simple story which I wish I had written.

Michael Rosen, it turns out, is performing his story with no additional props or sets. We file in to watch him talk through some of his material against a stark-black backdrop. It’s like a kiddie stand-up show. It’s entertaining for about five minutes and then the Raging Bull starts to squirm. I think she was expecting someone dressed as a bear and some live-action entertainment. Frankly, so was I. Just before the end of his routine, nearly one hour later, the Bull turns to me and says: ‘When is the show going to start?’ Says it all, really.

The six-year-old doubts Santa Claus: I truly didn’t know how long it would be before the children started doubting Santa Claus. Six years old does seem a bit young to start voicing doubts. I mean, I’m hardly bringing up a genius here. But the other day she asked the English Husband about the jolly-faced man, because someone at school had said he didn’t exist. Of course, this is usually when I curse inner-city schools and the streetwise kids. I have no proof it has to do with this, but I like flinging blame on my London life when I get the chance. What do I do to get her to believe? I’m thinking of muddy footprints. It’s totally plausible given how much rain we’ve had. Unfortunately, we don’t have a chimney so anything coal-related does seem out of the question. Any tips from wise parents are very welcome.

Merry Christmas, everyone: In England people still wish each other a merry/happy Christmas. They haven’t got into the ‘happy holidays’ thing. Unlike in the United States, you would be hard pressed to find a card without a ‘Merry Christmas’ greeting. I like it. Why are we so hung up on the message? It’s a greeting card, for goodness’ sake.

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Generation rent

London garden

The garden of our old flat. We were told to leave when the flat was sold to another couple.

I grew up in the same house for practically my whole young life. It was an ordinary house – nothing grand or special – but it has some sort of mythical quality for me because it represents stability, childhood and a time in my life which I associate with innocence.

That’s why ‘home’ is always my parents’ home. I don’t know why I can’t shake this feeling, despite now having children myself. Why isn’t my adult home on the same level as theirs? The simple answer is because our home is rented.

I am part of a growing number of people who have been nicknamed ‘Generation Rent’. The media love to put labels on things but this one seems apt for describing those who have missed the boat on owning their own property and who are now stuck in the vicious renting cycle.

According to the latest census figures in the UK, home ownership in London has fallen below 50% for the first time in 30 years. Today, just 1.6m out of the 3.3m homes in the capital are owned by the people who occupy them. In just a decade, properties owned with a mortgage have dropped nearly 20%.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people renting from a landlord is up 62% since 2001.

The English Husband and I are one of those people and it’s not always a comfortable place to be when you have children. Hanging over your head is the threat that you will be evicted with little notice. It’s something we’ve been through twice before, once before kids, and once after. This kind of insecurity makes you reluctant to invest in both your home and the neighborhood you live in. Why bother when you don’t know how long you will be there?

I admit, there’s something rather scary and grown-up about writing off the next 25 years to a mortgage. One thing that has held us back is the feeling that perhaps London is not the place where we see ourselves growing old. I’ve never quite been able to commit to it fully. But now that we have kids I feel like we should make a stab at living somewhere for more than a few years.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me just say that we do own a small one-bed flat not far from where we live now – we bought it over 10 years ago and it has appreciated in price. We now rent this out to a friend. This small flat, however, is unlikely to help us move sufficiently up the property ladder in this expensive city I live in. No wonder I fled to California last year – to the parents’ home no less – which is hardly bargain central.

It’s a hike

Here’s another stat for you: according to Barclays bank in London, moving up from a one bed to a two bed will cost an extra £100,000 (or about $160,000). A third room will cost £154,000, while a move from a three-bed to a four-bed property will incur a whopping price hike of £259,652 on average across London.

I suspect the figures will be even more stark where we are now, an upper-middle-class London ‘village’, where our closest neighbors are probably sitting on a house worth close to £2m. It’s a nice house, a very nice house, but it’s certainly not palatial. And that’s why everyone with an ordinary pay packet lives in flats.

It makes me wonder if the dream of owning your home is over. Forget it, especially if you live in a big city like London. The same would apply in other world cities such as Paris, New York or San Francisco.

You’re fine if you bought your house many, many years ago when lending was less tight and prices hadn’t literally skyrocketed. The recession, for all its played up, has done little to dent the rising cost of living in London.

I like our flat for the most part, but I am dead tired of renting. The pro-renters will argue that you don’t have to make constant repairs to the house or worry if your boiler breaks down on Christmas Eve. But try getting a landlord to fix things quickly. It’s like willing the tortoise across the finish line against the hare – it will happen eventually but not at any great speed.

I look around my flat and I see mold everywhere (I’m afraid I’m fixated on this). Never mind that it’s a health hazard. Our landlords keep promising that something will be done, but nothing happens. A builder came round and half-heartedly painted over some of the worst signs of damp, but did little else. Will the problem get solved? It’s doubtful.

In the meantime, I am surrounded by noise, the noise of the family upstairs who I believe might actually be killing each other if their arguments are anything to go by; and the noise of another neighbor who lives above our bedroom and keeps rather strange hours. Some nights he gets home late with his on/off girlfriend and amuses himself til 4am, some mornings he’s up around 6am. God help me but I do want to maim him, if only I could recognize him on the street.

Maybe one day we will own our home, like my parents’ generation could. I hope for it. But if the average mortgage is 25 years, we’ll be paying for the house well into our retirement. In fact, we might never get it paid off. If things keep inflating year on year, maybe we won’t be able to afford to heat it.

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Christmas nativity play

Raging Bull as shepherd

The Raging Bull as a shepherd (and one proud parent)

I have no evidence to back this up, but I am convinced that the most overacted, over-produced play in the world is the Christmas nativity play. It’s otherwise known as baby Jesus in a manger with Mary, Joseph, an angel (or several), three wise men and a smattering of animals and shepherds.

A large percentage of school-aged children in the Western world participate in some variation of this – and the Raging Bull is no exception. Being only three years old, it’s hard to get concrete details about the school’s Christmas performance. My interrogation only draws blank looks. Finally, after the third consecutive day of questioning, there is a breakthrough. I feel like a cop who’s finally secured the confession to a grisly murder.

The Raging Bull looks up at me earnestly and tells me that she’s going to be an angel. If she’s making this up, she has a future as a poker player – her eyes are the picture of innocence.

So when the English Husband and I traipse to her preschool on the day of the show, I was fully expecting to see her dressed up in a white sheet with an aluminum star adorning her head.

Guess my surprise when I realize that she’s not an angel, but a shepherd. I suppose they’re quite interchangeable. After all, they are both only there in the background and to kind of move the plot along.

Nevertheless, the Bull looks absolutely adorable in her get-up. Her composure lasts all of three minutes before our appearance sets off a flood of tears and stage fright. Another shepherd seems to be having some sort of breakdown as well, so I can’t hear anything that’s being said or acted. A few of the angels scream. It’s not Christmas, it’s chaos.

Everyone pulls out cameras/recording equipment. We mumble a few festive songs without much conviction and then the whole thing is over. Praise God, Amen.

Afterwards, there were mince pies and mulled wine. If you’re unfamiliar with mince pies, they are an essential part of any Christmas in the United Kingdom. Not many people seem to like them, yet they are sold in dozens of variations.

One of my first Decembers in this foreign country – a clueless, uncouth American – I was asked by colleagues in the office if I would like a mince pie. I politely declined. ‘I don’t eat meat,’ I told them. Turns out they aren’t savory/meat pies at all, but a sweet, fruit-filled, spicy pie (made with shortcut pastry) that’s usually sprinkled with sugar on top.

mince pies

We found these mince pies outside the school – not even the pigeons want them

They are, to put it mildly, an acquired taste. If you don’t like a lot of raisins and orange peel in your desserts, give them a wide berth.

All the parents munched on the pies with very little gusto. The kids ended up with mini chocolate cupcakes. I did contemplate taking one of these cupcakes from the unsuspecting stars of the show, but the phrase ‘stealing from the mouths of babes’ stopped me. It’s Christmas after all. I might not feel so charitable in January.

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Christmas lights

The Oxford Street Christmas lights are switched on in central LondonIt’s starting to look a lot like Christmas…

This is Oxford Street in London. It’s the busiest shopping street in London (possibly in all of Europe) and crammed full of tourists. Add to this the thousands of shoppers that visit there every day and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a marriage made in hell.

I made the mistake of going there this weekend. It’s bad any time of year, but in December it’s the kind of stress-inducing activity that could send you running for the closest pub or to swear you off shopping for life.

Every year the lights get turned on with some big show and some minor celebrity. This year it was Take That’s Robbie Williams, who entertained people with catchy pop songs. He said that turning on the lights was ‘pretty special’. I fear the quote lacks pizzazz, but I can only work with what I’m given.

The lights are always sponsored by a company. One year it was Bird’s Eye, the purveyors of quality frozen food (cough). I vaguely remember Bird’s Eye fish (or maybe it was birds), strung up in lights, beadily staring at me. It was a low point in Christmas lighting.

This year it’s Marmite, a company known for producing a yeast extract spread that you could use for cooking or, if you really want to torture yourself, on bread. Their slogan is famously: ‘You either love it or you hate it.’ I can tell you right now that I hate it.

I remain undecided about the lights. Could they be trying to send us a subliminal message about shopping or Christmas?

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