Sunday, September 30, 2012


I got off at Leicester to try and find the Spanish guitar store.  Surfacing on Colbourn, I found casinos, theatres and a sea of tourists.  It felt pretty different than Covent Gardens, only one stop up the Picadilly line.  Trying to find the address, and inadvertently walking past the guitar shop at least three times without seeing it,   I finally gave up, having spotted a bookstore that I told myself didn't look promising.

Making sure not to get too far away from the underground entrance (I left without a map yesterday) I went to the bookstore and it turned out to be quite an interesting one.  It was an old/used/rare/secondhand type shop and there were some pretty old looking books on evolution by Darwin and a couple of editions of Lyell's geology book.  Many of the books looked like academic remainders or cheap paperbacks though and I wonder if the better books were not being sold online.

I asked a man running the book store about the guitar shop and he knew right away what I was talking about and steered me in the right direction.  I found the tiny shop entrance and worked my through the tourists to get to it, then up the winding old narrow stairs past a painted lion to the shop entrance.  It's a tiny place with ukeleles, banjos, stratocasters and dobros, as well as classical guitars (which is what I am in the market for). I did not end up buying a guitar yesterday but I want to soon.

As I told the instructor at the shop, I've been messing around pretty seriously with classical guitar for about 20 years now, and I can play a couple of pieces at the 5 or 6 level of the Royal Conservatory series (Canada).  But I've never had more than a couple of lessons, though I've been very dedicated and disciplined about it.  One problem I have is that I can't play without sheet music in front of me.  It's almost embarassing when someone hands me a guitar.  The result is usually silence.

I'd like for this to change.  As gratifying as playing the guitar strictly for my own pleasure has been, I think it's time to let the cat out of the bag.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Picadilly Line

Mostly I'm sticking to the Picadilly Line, but my mental map is expanding as I work my way outwards from what I consider my personal downtown ground zero.  The tentative kickoff point was Russell Square, of course, and from there I was off to the British Library and Museum, as well as the University of London buildings.  I met a friend there last weekend and he showed me around a little bit.  It was great to catch up with him and talk about 'the old days' back in Montreal when we were both grad students.  I told him it felt easier being here in some ways because I mostly understand everything people around me are saying.

Today, my mental map will expand a bit as I hit the Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Holborn areas.  There are a few shops down there that I need to visit.  After that I'll try my hand at taking a book out of the Senate House library, or any one that will let me.  Books are my thing, as many of you know, and I can't help acquiring them through purchase, lending, begging, borrowing or stealing.  I don't plan on begging or stealing, and I will only borrow with permission.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Adventures in Bloomsbury

I haven't been there, but I'm going tomorrow. After riding the Picadilly line tomorrow morning, I will meet my friend on the steps of the British Library and, most likely, recount stories from my first week in London and environs.

 This first week has been mostly about words. It is culturally insensitive to use the wrong word in certain social situations, especially when others realize that the mistake is being made more out of laziness than ineptitude.

So, while two of us queued to get our tickets for Leonard Cohen last Sunday, the night before my first day of work, the third person went to 'fetch' 'chips,' a task that involved 'queuing up' by the chip truck (chip 'lorry'?).

 We actually made it in with plenty of time to spare before Cohen came on and he went on to play for 3.5 hours (with a 15 minute intermission). It was an unforgettable show and it was a great way to start my new job, feeling just a little bit tired the next day.

Often I'm anxious at a new job, but here I'm not. It could be that I have more confidence now, or it could be that I seem to take to the sense of humor I'm finding here. I seem to be able to bring up the issue of words without it becoming too weird.

 'Bespoke' is another one, and then there's 'surgery.' Surgery is apparently like clinic, insofar as a North American might use the word clinic as a sort of metaphor for diagnosing something other than a human body. The British use 'surgery' this way.

So I made up the phrase 'bespoke surgery' which may or may not be funny, but we found it so (the three of us, my roommate and his wife who so generously showed me around London my first couple of days here).

And what, after all this, do I know of Bloomsbury? Next to nothing, other than that it is the literary heart of London, and that is saying something. I'm hoping to find bookshops and cafes, but I can't even picture the place in my mind. When I think Bloomsbury I somehow always think Leopold Bloom from Joyce's Ulysses.

Which is entirely inaccurate, but not entirely inappropriate, at least not for me.  It has an appropriately literary quality and it is, I hope, a peripatetic reference because I seem to remember characters in Ulysses walking around a lot.  But it has been a while since I read it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Image: Harvard University Press web site

I have never been to London, nor have I ever been to England, Britain, the UK or Europe as of today.  By Thursday morning all of this will change when I touch down at Heathrow Airport on British Airways flight 94.

If London consists of a set of circulating discourses, representations and spatial recipes for cooking up 'London-ness,' just what precisely, if anything, comprises the 'essential' London?

As I mentally flip through what has registered in my brain 'about London' or 'about England/Britain/UK' over the years what can I say I truly 'know' about this place (or set of places)?

There's John Snow's cholera map, an early example of a mashup or even a GIS, in which new point data (cholera outbreak locations) was overlain upon an existing base map to solve a spatial problem.

The result has been an outbreak of the idea of a 'vector' of transmission (for Snow it was water in the local wells), and the birth of epidemiology.

The following 'memes' are just a sampling of some of the things that go into the makeup of the place we call 'London'.

They are 'place memes' in a giant place-meme-plex, the epidemic of London-ness, with vectors like the internet and TV pumping out ever-evolving exa-bytes of images, maps, stories, sounds and other information about this place.

Can I truly say I've caught the bug?  Have the set of practices, cultures and paradigms that make up London ever taken hold in me?

For me, there are a few books, some literature (though I've not read Dickens) with scattered references to the city.  There's The Map That Changed the World (Winchester), London (Ackroyd), and the new London: A History in Verse (see video below).

There's the London on the maps, that giant pulsing cell, that octopus, that big messy sprawl with the Thames winding through it like a strand of DNA.

There are all those songs from the 'new wave' of music I used to listen to in the early eighties, most of which were British, rediscovered this past weekend in a rented Fiat with satellite radio installed.

There is, of course, the London Olympics, still fresh in my mind, all those competitions, victories and scorching defeats I saw on TV while shuttling between Montreal and Vancouver to visit my ailing father.

The recent special report on London in the Economist is another point of interest in my mental file, the stories of which attempted to assay the fate of this vibrant and essential city.

There was the book by Self, illustrated by Steadman, in which he 'walks' from Heathrow to JFK airports in an attempt to 'critique' and contrast ideas of movement, constriction and control associated with notions of travel and wayfaring we find in modern (British and American) life.

And all of this gathered without ever having set foot in the place.  How will my view of things change once I actually get there and begin to gather firsthand knowledge?

Will I be better informed, with the secondhand knowledge beginning to take second seat, rounding out the firsthand knowledge gained not merely by description, but by experience?

More importantly, what will the process of navigating a boundary every day entail, of moving from the outside in, of moving towards 'being' the insider, and an ever receding and impossible goal of assimilation?

This will involve much reflection, beginning tomorrow when I step on board that plane.  Then, a new journey begins, and I intend to record, in writing and maps, the things I see and experience along the way.

The boundary crossing I will experience involves leaving a place where I am already a minority anglophone in  a French speaking nation (Quebec) that is itself a minority within the English speaking former British colony of Canada, and entering the domain of that former colonizer and fallen imperial power, where I will again be in the majority, linguistically speaking.

That linguistic compatibility could serve to mask some cultural incompatibilities and to provide a false sense of security in what will surely be at times a tense negotiation, but which will be smoothed by making friends and making an attempt to understand, to fit in.

As I make London my new home, my home away from home, my home-within-a-home of the cozy transatlantic world served by British Airways and the like, I will send off missives and inscriptions to try and give you, my reader, some sense of what I'm going through, the sense of adventure, frustration and discovery that always goes with the territory of being between two places, in transition moving back and forth between the two.