Wednesday, 12 November 2008


What Would Tim Do? That's what I wonder when I see the bums begging for money on the streets of London. Tim is an old friend and soon-to-be police officer. While discussing his work on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, some months ago, we asked him what, if we relented and dug out some change, a bum was likely to buy with the money he begged us for. Tim's answer was unequivocal: drugs.

If the bum really WAS hungry, Tim said, there were numerable shelters and churches throughout the city. Of course, about the only bum I ever ran into back home was the singing bum of High Street, so until I came to London I had few first-person interactions with bums.

Now, I try to channel Tim when I'm asked for "10p for the bus" or whatever. With the bums I see regularly pitched up in the same places—outside the Costcutter on Hackney Road, often instigating scuffles with other bums; camped out on the sidewalk at Borough High Street and Southwark Street on weekday mornings; with a suspiciously nice backpack across Bishopsgate from Liverpool Street Station—it's not difficult.

At other times, I actually consider donating to the cause:
—On Curtain Road, I was asked point-blank if I'd "like to contribute to the doner kebab fund." Admiring his honesty, I briefly considered, but then declined.
—On Fenchurch Street, I was given an elaborate song and dance about how he wasn't going to waste my time, he was very sorry, he was just trying to get something to eat... My jaded London heart could only think: "If you're going to ask for money, for Christ's sake get ON with it," and I shook my head no.
—On Shoreditch High Street at St Leonard's Church, as the usual schpeal was beginning, he showed me his arm and I must've literally recoiled. There was fresh blood and gnarly gashes up and down it. He just needed a few quid to, as the British phrase it, "go to hospital." I actually reached into my pocket to help but, finding no change there, politely declined and moved on.

Only once have I relented. Walking down Old Street toward the tube early one morning, I was stopped by a distraught man brandishing a South African passport and frantically explaining how he needed to get to Heathrow. For some reason, his tale moved by cold heart. I reached into my pocket and handed him a
£2 coin. Only later did I wonder how he had been able to purchase a plane ticket back to South Africa but couldn't afford a tube ride. I wonder what Tim would have done?

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Pomp and circumstance

I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for a parade. So despite the intermittent rain and forgetting to bring an umbrella, I still made my way down to the City for the Lord Mayor's Show.

The Lord Mayor isn't the political leader of all of London (that's the mayor of Greater London, Boris) but historically of the City of London that roughly equates to the boundaries of the ancient Roman city. Today this "Square Mile" is also synonymous with financial services and business interests, so the Lord Mayor acts primarily as their advocate in a largely ceremonial role.

A new Lord Mayor is elected each year, and to celebrate his appointment a massive procession winds from the Guildhall through the City to the Royal Courts of Justice—where the Lord Mayor swears allegiance the Queen—before returning to the Guildhall just before fireworks are launched over the River Thames.

In addition to the usual parade fare of scouts, charities, old cars and the requisite cheerleaders, there were also trade guilds, ward clubs, livery companies (dressed in a wide range of outfits reminiscent of academic robes or period costumes), military regiments, effigies of Gog and Magog, what seemed like every marching band (sporting about every kind of hat imaginable) in the South East—including one band on horseback—and many more, with the Lord Mayor himself bringing up the rear. The length of the procession was about twice as long as the route itself.

Even with the rain and lack of candy (although I was given a sausage on a stick), it was a great afternoon. Next time, though, I'll bring an umbrella.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Remember remember the Fifth of November

I don't know how the rest of that little ditty goes, but it's the rhyme traditionally sung on this day. I haven't heard any Englishmen say it, but they certainly haven't left out the best part of this British holiday: fireworks.

In 1605, Guy Fawkes and other conspirators plotted to smuggle gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament and blow them up in an act of proto-terrorism. They were caught and executed, but continue to live on through the annual celebration on 5 November, called Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night (seems a little like calling 11 September "Osama bin Laden Day" or "Shock-and-Awe Night" to me).

The important thing, as in every holiday that incorporates them, is the fireworks. For almost three weeks now, I've heard occasional pops, booms and crackles in my neighborhood at night. The most confusing was about a week ago when, looking out my kitchen window, I saw two children chasing each other around the street, shooting fireworks out what looked like long paper-towel rolls at each other—most of them veering off towards apartment buildings or parked cars, setting off wailing car alarms.

Sunday I was able to watch Tower Hamlets' amazing fireworks display in Victoria Park from my bedroom window, and now I can hear—and sometimes see—people setting off fireworks all around in what feels like a lower-level version of Valencia's Las Fallas, which i attended in 2006.

But I'm a little distracted by yesterday's events back across the pond. "Remember remember the Fourth of November..." as one newspaper here put it.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Veg Box Scheme 101

It's simple, really. I give £6 a week to Growing Communities at the cafe in Hackney City Farm, they give me a bag of fresh, in-season, local vegetables, and I complete my slide into grandmotherhood.

Although there are numerous hippie, Athens-esque justifications for the veg box scheme, I joined for one reason only: I like to eat. It can be a hassle to try to constantly try to keep fresh vegetables in the house, but the veg box scheme takes the hassle out of it for me. The flipside of that, of course, is that I don't get to chose the vegetables that are included. But I like that, too. Instead of deciding what I want to eat each week and picking out the necessary veggies, it goes the other way: when I open up the bag, I start to brainstorm possibilities for the week ahead. It's also led me to try numerous new vegetables that I never would have been brave enough to try otherwise, including Romanesco broccoli, celeriac, leeks, and kale.

Since I began receiving my weekly veg box about a month ago, it has contributed, in whole or part, to coq au vin, chili, pumpkin bread, black beans and rice, salads, pasta sauce, and soups of the potato, leek, carrot and broccoli varieties. It's also on deck to help me out with some apple coffee cake and a revival of coq-au-vin week.

For too long now, I've been more talk than action in the "I-like-to-cook" department. Now, in large part thanks to the veg box scheme, I hardly eat out or buy prepared food anymore. In other areas, too — but especially where food preparation is concerned — I really like the person that I'm becoming. It's nice to know that I like to cook not only in the abstract, but in the daily reality of it, too.

Now, if I could just brew my own beer and wine, I'd never have to leave the house!