Right. So, Thursday, after finishing up at the Library, I was, strangely, still awake, having taken an overnight flight from Newark on which I didn’t get much sleep. In other words, I had a full night’s sleep in a proper bed Tuesday night, was up all day Wednesday as normal, barely slept on the flight (which was only about 6 1/2 hours anyway, not long enough for a proper full night’s sleep), and then stayed up all day Thursday. Yet, strangely, I wasn’t feeling it too badly. I visited the new shop at Platform 9 3/4, like you do, and otherwise just poked around the general King’s Cross / St. Pancras area. Didn’t go very far. Took tons of photos of the two stations, both of which have been seriously redone since last I was here. And then, finally, eventually, I came back to the dorm to crash, and attempt to sleep a normal night’s sleep, to reset my clock. Honestly, I don’t really remember if I succeeded. I think I slept a few hours, and then maybe got up from like 2-5am, and then went back to sleep… but, in any case, I made it through the full day the next day, Friday, without any trouble.
Over the course of these days, I’ve had so many thoughts about being back in London, how it’s weird but not weird, how I wish I were staying longer – a lot longer… I should have been taking these thoughts down as I had them. But, of course, I had these thoughts as I was walking around and experiencing the city, not as I was relaxing in front of my computer. So, that made it a little tough. Also, all of my nights here have ended up being either quite busy, or just that I’ve been too tired to sit down and write like I’m writing now.
Even though I’m only here for five days or so, and even though it’s been eight years and who knows when I’ll be back again, somehow I couldn’t bring myself to run around and see all the things; somehow, I couldn’t help but to feel like I will be back, relatively soon, hopefully maybe even for a rather longer time, and so I just saw whatever I saw, met up with friends, and took it relatively easy. (And, actually, not even that easy – these all turned out to be long and tiring days, even without running all over on the Tube or doing particularly touristy things.)
I find myself really tempted to want to live here again, for a real length of time. I have no idea if that will ever come to pass – it all depends on what job prospects appear, and so forth – and I also have little idea as to the nitty gritty of apartment hunting, taxes, politics, who knows what. Certainly, when I was here the previous time, I was dealing with the very particular political environment of the SOAS campus; the horrendously inept SOAS administration; culture shock and relative inexperience on my own part as to travel, life on my own, and so forth; and a very limited budget. I had a lot of cultural clash sort of interactions, sometimes over very minor things, such as ordering a Pimm’s & lemonade without knowing that’s a summer drink, or never knowing whether to pay at the table or on the way out, or just how to properly plan for trying to get the cheapest train tickets (sometimes I paid eight quid going, and thirty for the return trip, for the same pair of destinations, the same distance). If I were to live here again, who knows what kind of things might come up, with the banks, or policies at work, or just little cultural things that despite being little can be really quite frustrating or embarrassing. I remember at one point being just so frustrated with London that I absolutely had to get away, and spent a wonderful weekend in Dublin with my flatmate Jess. … But, London is truly one of the great cities of the world, and I want so badly to just live it. Not the crap bodegas (or whatever they call them here), and the crap student dorms I’m staying in again this weekend, but a decent flat, and local friends to meet up with for drinks, to explore cute shops and neat restaurants, to maybe even get involved somehow in the local arts scene (e.g. if I meet an artist or musician or thespian who invites me along to shows), and, to have a base in London from which to explore more of the UK, Ireland, and Europe. Who knows if it’ll ever happen, or what dark sides might emerge. But, when it does come time for me to apply to postdocs and tenure-track jobs and so forth, most historians it seems end up in small liberal arts colleges somewhere in America for a year or two or three before they nab their tenure track position – I don’t know how reasonable I’m being, but am I crazy for thinking that I would absolutely take a year-long adjunct position in London, or Dublin, or Dusseldorf, or a postdoc in Norwich, over teaching at some middle-of-nowhere place in the US?
It’s great to be back in a proper city again. Santa Barbara, and especially Goleta, just really doesn’t do it for me. London is the kind of city I feel I would love to live in – there’s so much going on. Museums, arts, theatre, and beyond that, just vibrant life. Always new restaurants to check out, events, whatever. And they’re not of petty local relevance – this is London. I can go back to New York, or Tokyo, or Santa Barbara, and years from now talk to others who’ve been to London about how I remember this or that neighborhood, or this or that restaurant, or event. London also has such amazing architecture, and history, which makes for a vibrant, vital, atmosphere. I just love the atmosphere here. You feel like you’re walking around in a seriously major city both of the present and of the past. You can just imagine its history, how it developed, how a given building might have seen such changes over time. And, the buildings just have such style, such character. Plus, the fashion! Yeah, a great many of the young people are wearing horrific fashions, and many of the older people are wearing the most mindnumbingly mainstream stuff. But, some others really look quite great in their unique hip fashions, or in their classically sleek tie & waistcoat. This is something I was thinking about in New York the last couple weeks, too. New York has a deep and classy history, too. Pass by a ritzy hotel, look at the staff in their fine ties and jackets and hats, and you can imagine a New York of yesteryear… this is something Santa Barbara, with its t-shirts and shorts, doesn’t have. Or, it does, it does have its own history of course, but of a very different flavor from the classic London / New England / New York sort of flavor I grew up with (in a sense), and love so much.
Right: The campus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London.
London is also very international, and in particular in a sort of cultured, globally-minded, and directly inter-connected sort of way. My friend Min was kind enough to invite me along to her friend Ian’s flat for a get-together, and I met people from Germany, South Africa, Iran, California, Australia, and a few different parts of the UK, and all of them had a certain well-traveled, cultured sort of way about them, and in particular about their viewpoints on interacting with one another, and on their place in this diverse, multi-national world. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s all about which circles you move in, and I’m sure you could find those circles in New York just as easily, and I certainly did feel I had such circles in Tokyo, and in Honolulu, though not really in Santa Barbara – and I am equally sure that there are plenty, plenty, of people in England who are not like this. But, still, even so.
I wonder if I’m being taken in by the British accent, which to an American ear makes everyone seem classier, and more cultured. I dunno.
But, anyway, Friday involved meeting up with Min for brunch at a wonderful café called The Riding House Café (I thought it was Riding Horse – she had to correct me), followed by meeting up with my old friend Ana, and Hugh, and walking around some of the central parts of London. It was really great to just walk and experience Oxford Circus, and Tottenham Court Road, and so forth, over again. I think all in all, the last few days, that’s been, strangely, one of the most enjoyable parts. I guess I take after my dad that way, as he also really enjoys just walking around and getting a feel of a city. Ana and Hugh introduced me to a Diner right near Forbidden Planet, where we had boozy milkshakes (yum!), and then we popped into Orc’s Nest briefly to ogle some strategy games that are expensive enough in the States, and all the more unaffordable when priced in pounds. On that note, while I have spent a lot more than I was expecting to in the last few days (officially authorized Ravenclaw neckties will set you back), a lot of things are quite a lot cheaper than I remembered, or expected. My memory of eight years ago is, admittedly, quite fuzzy, but I’m pretty sure I recall paying something like £4.50 for a latte at Starbucks, £7 for a sandwich, and so forth – typical prices, but in pounds instead of dollars, meaning they were effectively double the price. Now, by contrast, not only is the exchange rate much more reasonable ($1.62 instead of $2.00+ per pound), but I went to Pret, which I remember as being quite expensive, and found sandwiches for as little as £1.90 or £2.35 or something like that. Rather reasonable prices.
Anyway, my time with Ana and Hugh was all too short, as I had to get back to Min’s, to join up with her and her friends, as mentioned above, for Ian’s little house party. We basically just sat around and chatted, and had a very nice time. Reminded me of being back at East-West Center, talking to people from all different countries, all engaged in culture or politics or at the very least just well-traveled… And while I don’t know just how regularly they might have these kinds of get-togethers – it could have been a rather special thing – I definitely got the sense, the feeling, of joining in on real, regular, London life. A guy could get used to this. Thanks, really, so much to Min for inviting me, and to her friends for welcoming me, making this truly a very different experience from that of the tourist, who might only interact with his own friends (Min, and Ana) alone, or with other tourists, backpackers, whatever, or with no one at all.
Saturday, I spent on my own. I returned to the British Library early in the morning, and finished up things there, then spent the whole rest of the day at the British Museum, making my way through all of the East Asian and Pacific-related galleries, and taking tons of photos. I saw more or less nothing of any other part of the museum – it’s just far too large to do in a single day. I have another post in the works as to my thoughts on the museum, but in essence, I love that the British Museum is a museum of the world’s cultures, and not a museum of “art.” It doesn’t focus itself overmuch on aesthetic appreciation, on masterpieces and beauty, but instead on teaching people about the other cultures of the world. As the Museum says on its website:
It was also grounded in the Enlightenment idea that human cultures can, despite their differences, understand one another through mutual engagement. The Museum was to be a place where this kind of humane cross-cultural investigation could happen. It still is. …
… This is engagement … [with] the cultures and territories that they represent, the stories that can be told through them, the diversity of truths that they can unlock and their meaning in the world today.
This is what is sorely missing, I think, from the core mission, the core attitude and approach, of too many of the greatest museums in the US. And it is this absence, I think, this difference in mission and attitude, which leads our museums all too often into dangerous territory, in terms of essentializing, romanticizing, and Orientalizing cultures, and ignoring political complexities and difficult subjects. But, I’ll talk about that in another post.
After the British Museum, I wandered over to the Angel area, just to the other side of the areas I used to most frequently frequent, and poked around there for a bit. I had been planning to just find some dinner and then head back and make it an early night, but as happens all too often with me, I get terribly indecisive about where to eat, and end up wandering further and further in search of a place that really appeals to me, that looks not too fancy and not too expensive, that looks like a place where someone could eat alone without it being too awkward, but which is also upscale enough to not be just a basic sandwich shop or pizzeria or whatever – I want to enjoy myself and experience what the city has to offer, but I need to do it in a place where I won’t feel awkward sitting by myself.
Inevitably, I ended up back at some of the places I remember, including a small Japanese art gallery where they assure me that all the woodblock prints are authentic and genuine, but they also sell them for amazingly reasonable prices. Tons of prints for only £20 or £30, and then even the expensive ones, the lavishly gorgeous full-color Hasui’s, are only £800 or so. I’m no expert on the market, but I’d imagine that something by Hasui, though it’s not so old (1920s-30s), is still by a hugely famous artist, and so it’s gotta go for upwards of a thousand at least, right? No? … Boy, if I felt I had the money to spend, and I really really don’t (in part because I bought that Ravenclaw tie), I would want to buy up so many of these prints… It really makes me wonder just how many other stores of just loads of old Japanese prints are still out there in the world, out on the market. To be honest, I’m glad they’re still accessible for a young, independent guy like me to be able to have some, and that they’re not all locked up in museums, but on the flipside that also means that scholarship as a whole, academia, is not aware of the full range of what’s out there. Who knows how many unknown pieces, or variations, might exist, that could impact the scholarship? Of course, museums also frequently re-discover things in their own collections, so just because it’s in a museum doesn’t mean the academe knows about it, either.
In the end, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I ended up at a burrito place, and then just made my way back, quite a bit later than planned. This happens to me in most cities.
Sunday, I met up with Min again for lunch, this time on Marylebone High Street, which was quite close to her flat but which feels a little like entering a little world unto itself, like the High Street of a provincial city or something. Lots of quaint cute shops… we went to Daunt Books, a nice local independent bookstore where a large portion of the books are arranged by which country or region they’re about. I guess, in a sense, maybe this isn’t too radical an organizing scheme, but, still, it’s neat to see all the Japan travel books, novels, and non-fiction all in one place, an excellent source for someone looking to travel, and take a Murakami Haruki novel with them to help set the tone, as well as a great source for someone like me, who’s more culturally/geographically oriented, rather than topic or discipline oriented – I’d rather have all the Japan books in one place, rather than have to go look separately at History, Art, Theatre, Asian Studies, etc.
We had lunch at a Fromagerie, precisely the kind of thing that just feels so London to me. If it were in New York, it would be pretentious or hipstery, or something, an emulation of European modes and not really, truly, a New York thing, and if it were in Goleta or Isla Vista, ha, who am I kidding, such a thing would never exist out there. We had a choice of British & Irish, Italian, or French cheese samplers, all of them comparatively ‘local’, insofar as we’re in England, right near Europe – it may be “imported,” but it’s not nearly as distant a separation in terms of cultural spheres or whatever as importing it into the US. While Britain may not necessarily be “Europe” according to various particular notions or definitions, there’s still a certain genuineness, authenticity, to doing this in London, over having it in the States. And, it may just be my US-centric perspective, but even having a cheese shop like this in Tokyo, if it existed, would be a product of a particular Japanese Anglophilia, and perhaps with associations of Japan’s long history of connections with the UK, to my mind… more so than in New York, or LA, where it just feels like hipstery emulation or aspiration.
In most cities, when this happens it’s unusual. It happens only when the river’s particularly high, e.g. after a storm, and it’s considered at least an inconvenience, if not a true problem. Here in Putney, though, it’s apparently par for the course.
Next, went down to Putney, a very different part of the city, where Ana and Hugh had just completed their sailing adventures for the day, and I got to join them and their Sailing Club for a little informal barbeque. Again, the sort of thing you only get to do by having friends in the city, or by living there yourself, and not something you’d get to see/do as a tourist. As it worked out, I didn’t really get to talk to that many of the other folks – not nearly as intensively as at Ian’s get-together. But, still, trekking out to the South Bank, walking past all these different rowing and sailing clubs, along dirt paths and sidewalks sometimes just right open to the river to come splashing in, it was a very different side of London life.
Monday, I went back to the British Museum, where I had the privilege of getting a hands-on look at a pair of handscroll paintings of relevance to my research. Turns out they’re fully visible online. Oops. Who knew? But, it was still really great to see them in person, to get a sense of the size, to see the textures and the fine details up close, and to get to talk to one of the curators about them – I really learned a lot from his insights. Once that was done with, I headed over to King’s Cross Station, Platform Nine and Zero-Quarters, for the train to Cambridge.