Archive for May, 2008
Victoria Beckham and British Vogue aside, the Brits do not seem to have the same sort of appearance hangups as we Yanks, particularly the women. I was surprised to see Dame Diana Rigg appear on an afternoon talk show looking like she’d just come in from working in the garden, unashamedly wrinkled and grey, and indifferently dressed. She wouldn’t be allowed look like that on Oprah or the Today Show. I watched a special on the long-running British soap Coronation Street, and marveled at the amorous adventures of Eileen Grimshaw, played by Sue Cleaver, one of several characters who are definitely middle aged and not particularly glamorous. The only American character I could even compare her to was Roseanne, and she certainly wasn’t much of a television sex icon.
Fashion on the street runs the gamut, high chic to grunge. I ran across one little ancient lady in the Tube station in a suit, scarf, hat, pin and white gloves, and many of the older Brits at the theatre matinees are conservatively attired, but most everyone else is casually dressed, often with a bit of European flair. Scarves are a big accessory, with the more texture, the better. Skinny jeans are big, as are leggings and longish shirts or dresses. Lots of ethnic influences are evident, too, particularly in the jewelry, and I’ve admired a lot of fun little swingy jackets. Big bags/purses still reign.
Most British women have thickish ankles, indifferent hair, less-than-straight teeth — and absolutely radiant skin, which just about makes up for everything else they might be lacking. I’m constantly astonished and more than a little envious, although even my desert-parched skin has perked up noticeably since we arrived. I just wear mascara, mostly, and it’s a relief. (We should put humidifiers in every room!)
It was still chilly when we landed, and everyone was in boots, but now that the weather’s warming, the trainers, flip-flops and sandals have started to appear. Flats are universally preferred, particularly on the Tube, since you can’t “mind the gap” or navigate the escalators very well in platforms or stilettos. I’m personally reluctant to go out in sandals much because the city is so dirty (I have the same problem when I go to New York), but no one else seems to mind.
I haven’t been to Oxford Circus and Regent Street yet (the “centre” of shopping), so I may have other observations when I get back. I need to find a “mother-of-the-groom” dress, and I know beforehand that I’ll have to go one size up to get anything to fit!
Our neighborhood in South Kensington has a lot of schools. There’s the Ecole Charles de Gaulle a few streets over (surrounded by French bookstores), with the Imperial College of London just a stone’s throw from that. And I’ve walked by a lot of smaller language schools and even an art school on Queen’s Way. So we have a lot of students, and the neighborhood is quite relaxed, with lots of coffee shops where the students congregate — and smoke like chimneys! (Do American students smoke that much?) Our building is run by an outfit called FIE, which rents flats to various university programs. We have at least four schools represented in our building, including Boston University, and several others are supposed to show up next week.
This is first time I’ve been to London when I’ve actually felt like I LIVED in London. I’m still trying to do my job, with help from my well-flogged slaves highly trained interns back in the office, so I spend about four hours a day on the Web. We’ve been to plays and museums, including a really interesting trip to Temple, which is the heart of London’s legal world and has some great Knights Templar history surrounding it. I’ve been buying groceries at Waitrose and Tesco, with my little recyclable shopping bag, and I’ve been reading and trying to find something interesting to watch on the telly. (No cable, just public channels, and Four and Five run a LOT of American television series.)
Food is fun here, with lots of ready-to-eat ethnic choices in the supermarkets. The scope of the British Empire can best be seen in its cuisine, which outside of fish-and-chips, clotted cream and the occasional Yorkshire pudding, is pretty global: chicken tikka, moussaka, samoyas, hummus, cous-cous and pita. Today for lunch we had onion bhirgy, sort of a knish. Delish. The deli counter at the local Waitrose is a thing of beauty, with its assortment of REAL cheeses, meats, salads and prepared meals. Although the dollar has made a few gains in the past week or so, we’re not eating out much because of the cost, and I’m not missing it.
I am relieved to report that there is no super-sizing in London, at least that I can see. No Big Gulp mentality here. (My sons think the definition of a great restaurant is all-you-can-drink refills.) It’s definitely made a difference in my consumption. Smaller portions and all the walking you normally do in the city has helped me lose probably ten pounds, so I’m going to have to rethink my American lifestyle.
The Brits are definitely more green-conscious than we are. Nearly all the washing machine soaps at Waitrose were rated “bio,” and there’s a real push for recycling even in our little building.
There’s a bank holiday next weekend, and the students will be gone, so we’re planning a trip southwest to Cornwall, which is supposed to be very beautiful and pastoral. This weekend we’ll go to the National Theatre for a production of “Fram” and I aim to stroll over to the V&A Museum for a few hours.
Freelance writer and tutor Mary Kolesnikova, writing in the LATimes, and I are desperately afraid of the same thing: cellphones and the Web are killing the English language (and probably most of the others as well).
The cause for my earth-shattering depression is an April 25 Pew Research Center study that polled 12- to 17-year-olds on their attitudes about writing. A heart-stopping 38% said they let chat-speak — such as LOL (for “laughing out loud”), ROFL (“rolling on the floor laughing”), BRB (“be right back”), TTYL (“talk to ya later”) — slip into essays and homework.
Also last month, the U.S. Department of Education released the Nation’s Report Card on Writing 2007. The results suggested that only 33% of eighth-graders demonstrated abilities at or above proficiency level. James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, introduced these findings with a comment about “the slow destruction of the basic unit of human thought — the sentence.” ROFL, James, the sentence is dead and buried. AOL Instant Messenger is dancing on its grave.
“Linguistic butchery while texting is one thing. In school assignments, it is quite another,” says Kolesnikova, who even takes on that sacred site, icanhascheezburger, with its silly pictures and LOLspeak captions, as aiding and abetting the crime. (Actually, I sort of like ICHC, but I don’t look to as a grammar or style guide, either.)
Perhaps this is an overreaction. I have all kinds of “speak” that I use in all kinds of situations: Church speak, chat speak, e-mail speak, work speak, friend speak, with all their individual emphases and vocabulary. But at least I know the difference when it comes to actual writing, IMHO.
Things I miss: My granddaughter (Oh, and I guess her parents, sort of), Taco Bell, my car, American Coke (British Coke is just not the same), my very own bathroom, my mattress, A&E, national newscasts that last longer than 15 minutes, my car, my dishwasher/washing machine/dryer, “Battlestar Gallactica,” Char and Liz (BFFs), my closet (What was I THINKING when I packed for this adventure?), American prices, my CAR, being involved in the upcoming wedding plans, living in more than two rooms, lawns, silence, central air conditioning.
Things I don’t miss: Telephones, people at work calling/e-mailing me and yelling at me because I haven’t made all their dreams come true, the construction on 800 North by our house, obnoxious television commercials (the Brits don’t have it down to an art form like we do), snail mail (all those catalogs!), freeways, certain individuals (but not that many).
While we Americans have managed over the years to perfect Cardiac Arrest in a Bag with a Big Mac, fries and a extra-large drink special (never mind the chili-cheese fries at Carl’s Jr. and Denny’s Grand Slams), the Brits have their own version of Death on a Plate: The Full English. Says London Times restaurant critic Giles Coren,
The current £7.25 “Olympic” breakfast at Little Chef comprises: “two rashers of crisp backbacon, British outdoor-reared pork sausage, two griddled eggs, whole-cup mushrooms, crispy sauté potatoes, fresh griddled tomato, Heinz baked beans and toasted or fried extra-thick bloomer bread.”. . .[W]e read that: “A good English breakfast never lets you down.” No, it kills you. That’s what an English breakfast does.
I’ve also had a version that includes a black pudding (don’t ask), but not this trip. I’ll stick with my cereal and semi-skimmed milk, thank you.
I believe I’ve mentioned that I’m a big fan of Terry Teachout, the writer and theatre critic of The Wall Street Journal, which I’ve found has some of the best feature writing in the whole industry. Because of a blog post he put up several moons ago, I ordered* a copy of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, and was delighted to receive an original Penguin Books edition that was nearly as old as I am. (It’s probably worth something…)
Despite the 1958 publication date and my copy’s yellowing pages, I was astonished to discover how fresh her writing was. Other than a very few political or cultural references, the book could have been written yesterday. Teachout calls her the “spiritual grandmother of Bridget Jones,” and he’s absolutely right.
We meet Sally Jay Gorce as she is stumbling along the streets of Paris, dressed in an evening gown because the rest of her clothes are at the laundry. (Oh, I’ve been there! Haven’t you?) And things just go downhill from there for Our Girl in Paris, who has the most appalling taste in men. She’s one of those heroines you want to throttle half the time, because she’s always shooting off her mouth and getting in the most dreadful messes.
If you don’t believe me, Maud Newton has posted Teachout’s introduction to the most recent edition of The Dud Avocado. Dundy reportedly endured a terrible marriage to critic Kenneth Tynan, had a daughter and wrote several other well-received books, but it was her fictionalized version of her life in Paris in the ’50s that made her mark. Sleep well, Elaine. Sally Jay never seemed to.
*I almost always buy books used and online. I can even get fairly recent titles if I wait a few weeks after they’re published. Saves paper and gas. My little sacrifice for the environment. And I never know what’s going to show up in the mail!
I may be on the other side of the pond, but I can hear the death knell from here: Is Hillary really finished? The NYTimes, which endorsed her early on as I recall, seems to be of that mindset here and here. (Notice the baby she’s holding in the second picture. Even a cute kid can’t even help her.) All the pundits, the Times says, are beginning to line up against her, leading off with Tim Russert — Tim Russert?! Since when is HE the Godfather of American political thought?
As adamant as Mrs. Clinton appeared on Wednesday [before West Virginia], several advisers said that how long she would stay in the race was an open question. Some top Clinton fund-raisers said that the campaign was all but over and suggested that she was simply buying time on Wednesday to determine if she could raise enough money and still win over superdelegates, the elected officials and party leaders who could essentially hand Mr. Obama the nomination.
It was just a few months ago, February I think, that I told my ultra right-wing conservative brother-in-law (to his horror) that he’d better get used to having Hillary Clinton around, because I didn’t see anything stopping her. What did I miss?
Time Magazine online lists five (only five?) mistakes she made in her campaign, the biggest mistake being that she misjudged the mood of the nation: she ran like an incumbent (I think she THOUGHT she was an incumbent) instead of picking up early that this election (like most, in my long experience as a voter) was about change. Plus she had some pretty dumb people working for her.
If this election is about change, then how is a weary electorate going to look at an aging (and allegedly cranky) John McCain in comparison with the imperially slim and usually unruffled Barack Obama?
The Brits are actually quite interested in the American race, although the whole delegate thing and the Electoral College is a mystery to them (and to me, come to think about it). We had an interesting conversation with a couple at a Covent Garden cafe Saturday about Obama’s viability. PM Gordon Brown, the man insisted, is a Communist, and the 20,000 jobs he’s allegedly created for the British economy have all been in government. “You don’t grow unless the economy helps create wealth, and you don’t create wealth by putting in more government jobs,” he insisted.
We’ll be back in time for the National Convention, which should be a real circus this year.
A word of explanation: I am in London for several weeks, trailing The Spouse, which over the years has not been a bad gig. He knows how to show a girl a good time. Anyway, I’m living in a dingy little basement flat in Kensington while he wrangles a group of college students on a study abroad program, which leaves me lots of free time to explore London, including shops, parks, pubs, museums and abundant thrift stores. (I refuse to set foot in any of the Starbucks that have cropped up on every other corner, but I’m actually getting a little nostalgic for Taco Bell…) I’ll be posting pictures and such when I get a little more organized. I was afraid of encountering some anti-Americanism, but the Brits I have met so far are very friendly, although they hate Bush, and have been very welcoming. Pax Brittanica!
The British definitely have a drinking problem. Oh, sure, living in the vast American suburbs, I don’t come across public drunkenness very often, but here I’m constantly getting jostled on the tube by noisy, well-lit people, and I’m tired of tip-toeing around piles of vomit at the train stations. The little British stores that are found two to three on every block sell ultra-large cans of 90-proof beer and lager, which means it only takes about £2 and 15 minutes to get completely sh*t-faced. (A BBC reporter during a segment on drinking tossed back three cans of the stuff in about 20 minutes, and later admitted he couldn’t remember a single thing about the rest of the night, much less how he got home and into bed.)
The drinkers the BBC reporter interviewed all looked about 100 years old, with their ruddy, lined faces and terrible teeth, and it occurred to me that they were probably closer to my age. The stores where they bought their beer were giving them the cans on credit, with interest, which meant their drinking habits were eating into their disability and housing checks.
How is this all going to play out? I remember reading a NYTimes story indicating that older addicts had much different habits and required different treatment than young meth or coke users, and that the substances of choice for older addicts are alcohol and prescriptions drugs. It is no secret that an older woman on my street has for years been hooked on prescription pain killers, and I remember one terrible weekend when her husband called just about everyone on the block, looking for pills for his likely hysterical wife. I visited her once after she’d had a bad fall, her face all black and blue, and wondered if she did it to herself to qualify for the drugs. The entire family is defined by her illness. And my mother-in-law’s elderly cousin finally came home from The Big City to finish drinking himself to death in the kind company of his sisters and their husbands.