Week the First

So I’m sitting here, warm and comfortable in my new Hammersmith flat, belly full of tasty take-home curry from Bloomsbury, and a week’s worth of international travel under my belt. The last six days have been incredible. When you’ve got to get yourself from place to place, country to country, with your stuff and your sanity intact, you get very rooted in the moment, very focussed. Which is a good way to begin an odyssey like this, learning to live and work in a whole new nation. Here we go.

My lovely wife (I miss you so much) saw me off at the skytrain station and I rode the Canada Line (my, those trains are wide) for the first time. Got to YVR three hours ahead of flight time and made it through baggage check and customs in about 20 minutes.

World's Greatest Wife. Mwah!

Here I am in International Departures:

Go Eagles!

It was smooth sailing to Chicago, a little under four hours.

All I had time for at O’Hare International was to hop from terminal to terminal, grab a fruit salad with my American bucks, and hop right onto the next plane. It was incredibly empty… two seats to myself. Didn’t get much sleep though – and thus began the 36 gruelling hours I would stay awake on my initial journey. Before we left the windy city I tried to make the most of my view out the window, since I didn’t get to get out and see Chicago. I think this might be the water tower that once bore a sacred inscription:

Maybe not. But it made me smile.

The flight attendants on the longer United flight were much cheerier and more fun than those on the short one to the States. If United does indeed break guitars, it wouldn’t be any of these sweet folks doing the smashy smashy. There was even one, whose picture I wish I took, who was a dead ringer for a hairier, stockier Robert Downey, Jr., voice and all. When I and the gentleman from Manchester sitting in front of me expressed our delight at the emptiness of the plane, steward-RDJ told us a great story about when they used to taxi empty planes across the States – pre 911, I’m assuming – and as they were taking off and landing they’d grab meal trays and slide up and down the aisles!

Speaking of which, food in England, contrary to popular reputation and the vehement protestations of my hero Douglas Adams, is really quite good… the meals out so far have been great, and while fast food is stupidly expensive (I’m fairly sure Burger King simply changed the $ to a £ without changing the numbers), groceries are more than reasonable. A standard grocery shop in my local neighbourhood, including some really nice fresh, local(ish) produce (and free range eggs my darling!), cost me about 30 quid. Not too shabby.

When I got here my lovely friend Cara, late of Coles Lougheed (Burquitlam represent!), and her father Malcolm came to the airport to greet me. They were wonderful, giving me a place to stay, helping me get my bearings and even heading out to Hammersmith (a good hour from their part of the city, Catford) and waiting while I took a look at the flat I’ve now moved into.

I think I managed to comport myself alright as a grateful guest, even with the fact that by the time I collapsed on Malcolm’s couch around midnight, I’d been awake for over a day and a half straight.



And special thanks for introducing me to The Dove, a pub down along the river just a few minutes from my new place, where you can grab a Guiness and see the original sheet music for Rule Brittainia (1740).

The area was also home to designer William Morris in his heyday, which might account for the overall pleasantness to the eye around here.

My room is wonderful… narrow, but nice and long, perfect for me and my stuff. A quick trip to Ikea North Ealing got me some bedding, and it wasn’t til I got home that I realized I’d bought a Canadian themed set – so i guess my subconscious was taking care of the patriotism angle!

The building is on a quiet, lovely little street just minutes from Hammersmith tube station, and the building itself, as well as much of the surrounding neighbourhood, is beautiful old (and only slightly decaying) Victorian brownstones – complete with silver skeleton keys and high, ornate ceilings. The neighbourhood is great – safe, interesting, full of shops as well as an adorable library (I’ve already got my card and some travel books, of course), cinemas, Lyric Square where there’s a farmer’s market every week, and the London Apollo, home to many A-list acts over the years and currently hosting Britain’s Got Talent (yep, the show that anointed Susan Boyle). It’s also only about 20min on the tube to central London.

an idea of where i am from central london... i plan to try walking from Hammersmith Bridge (read on for more) to London Bridge.

my window is on the far left, second floor

our kitchen

my keys. yeah, that's right.

my patriotic bed... don't worry, there's more room - i'm standing in it!

victorian high ceilings

B1 and B2, outside the local supermarket... just for you Theo!

hammersmith public library

My flatmates are nice young women. Candace does PR for non profits,and Urmi works as a construction project manager – and there’s certainly no shortage of works being done around the city. From what I read in the Evening Standard, “Detour” signs have become something of a running joke in this metropolis, as have casual references to “Boris” – it took me about three articles before I realized they were talking about the mayor. But it’s not necessarily a disappointment, living in a city so constantly under construction: I had the pleasure of walking right down the centre of Hammersmith Bridge, the oldest suspension bridge along the Thames, because it’s closed weekends for construction.

Hammersmith Bridge, on the River Thames, by night

the view down the centre of the bridge

One of the most interesting things I’ve seen, a subtle cultural difference that’s shocking when you think about it, was what the construction workers were actually DOING. In Vancouver, and certainly in most North American cities, our roads are simply roads, ways to get from A to B. But here so many of them are places in themselves, full of history, dating back to various points in the city’s history, walked over by generations of Londoners both common and great, and all part of a long and often grand tradition. So while we would fill in our roads with a jackhammer and some concrete, as quickly and efficiently as possible, these guys in their yellow helmets and vests were kneeling on the ground, one at a time, and painstakingly prying out and malletting in individual cobblestones, fitting them carefully, restoring the street’s character and history along with its function. I thought that was nice. It’s one of the things I already love about London – the way the modern city twines so organically around and through the layers of its history. Not all of that history is pleasant, nor is all of the present – but they don’t try to hide it, or relegate it to some externalized, touristy zone… it simply is.

The next day, my second in the city, it was down to brass tacks – a meeting with my consultant at ITN Mark Education. The office is in an adorable part of West London called Brentford, not far from Hammersmith.

Even with so little sleep I think I made a good impression – they certainly impressed me with their friendliness and professionalism. Nearly all my paperwork is now squared away, and I’ve already got a week of work coming up on the 22nd. I’m nervous, but mostly I’m excited. I’ve met a few other teachers also new to the area and to supply work here in West London, and they’ve been having good experiences so far. I know I have the ability and the attitude to make this work.

But really, what I’m here for is to soak up this city. And I’m already getting started.  At the end of that first week of teaching I’ve got a ticket to see Ian McKellan and Roger Rees in Waiting for Godot. I’d like to get out to some musicals soon – Wicked, Chicago, The Lion King, Billy Elliot. The Globe’s theatre season hasn’t quite started yet, but they’re doing my favourite play, Henry IV Part One, in June, so that’s something to look forward to!

One British export that has always been dear to my heart, as most of you know, is the writer Douglas Adams.

He left us far too soon, during my senior year of highschool and just shy of his fiftieth birthday and eighth novel. So I had been racking my brains, now that I’m a resident of his beloved city, to think of an appropriate pilgrimage – most of his work takes place elsewhere and elsewhen, and while heading to Fenchurch Street Station or the Beehive Pub in Hertforshire might be good for a giggle, I wanted something a little more meaningful. So imagine my delight when I found this.

The Eighth Douglas Adams Memorial Lecture, with proceeds to one of the charities nearest to his heart, Save the Rhino, will be taking place on what would have been his 58th birthday, March 11, 2010. The subject, appropriately enough, is slated to be the number 42. I’ll be there. I’ll also be making a day of it and visiting his plot in Highgate Cemetery to pay my respects. The man is a large part of the reason I fell in love with the English language, and thus my presence here, in this city, this job, and this place in my life, is at least a little due to his influence.

Today I did my first bit of real tourism – headed to the the unfortunately acronymed but nonetheless breathtaking British Museum for the first of what I anticipate will be many visits. I was impressed again by the casual passion for history shown by those who run London’s major attractions. The place is free for all to enter, yet clean and well run. I plan to see every single BM exhibit in my time here – to give you an idea of the scope, that’s the entire span of human prehistory and history. Over seven million objects spanning over 15, 000 years. If nothing else keeps me in good shape, walking through all that over the next several months sure will!

I spent just a couple of hours there today, arming myself with maps and brochures, and wandering through the ground floor. At the moment, a highlight item is the oldest sculpture in the collection, a male and female reindeer pair carved of ivory around 15, 000 years ago and discovered in 19th century France.

the object itself

artist's rendering

Another current point of interest is a viking hoard uncovered in York. The most interesting part of this exhibit for me was the contrast between unpreserved pieces of viking silver –

– and those that have been properly conserved and restored:

I think we sometimes make the mistake of assuming that historians and archaeologists simply find these things, slap dates and names on them, and place them into glass cases… When, truly, there is a lot more to the artistry and science of preserving and displaying the past. At least we’ve got Harrison Ford and Nic Cage out there, fighting the good fight for the discipline’s reputation.

Another amazing thing about this country – it’s so old, and so built on top of itself, that as recently as the 1970s, a young boy stumbled upon a viking sword while walking his dog. WALKING HIS DOG. Can you imagine that ever happening back home? That’s how much history there is here, just laying about…

Even more fun is the King’s Library, meant as a showcase of the history of the British Museum itself. It’s full of all sorts of treasures, as eclectic as they are bizarre, which represent the collective collector’s instinct’s of the institution’s founders. The informational sign at the Library’s entrance explains that part of Enlightenment ideals was the need to understand, collect, organize and catalog the world around us – an impulse, I think, that continues to drive many of us in the West to this day. I always feel a little burst of triumph when I manage to force myself away from the instinct to catalog or record or tweet about something, and instead just let that thing in through my old fashioned eyes and ears, let it become an internal part of me rather than a cumbersome external attachment. Don’t you? 🙂

Anyway, it’s a pretty intense place, full of stone busts of the Sirs and Lords who began the Museum, and packed to the gills with the stuff they put in it. There’s this little guy –

– and his not so little neighbour:

And there’s also this drawer from the personal medicine cabinet of one Sir Hans Sloane, which among other things contains powdered mummy fingers for treating bumps and bruises, and a mossy human skull to rub on that pesky epilepsy.

My personal favourite in this varied collection was this little gem:

They called it the “Chaucer Stone” because the white discolouration looks just like him –

– just like the witch in the side of the Chief!

A few more highlights:

Plain old five toes, unfortunately. Damn. Here I thought I might get a jump on the final season’s mysteries.

And of course, no gallery initially gathered by a bunch of old, Victorian men would be complete without…

The sign on these babies discusses Charles Townley’s insistence that the origins of all religious thought lie in priapism – the worship of the phallus as a symbol of the creative principle. I like it – it’s a not overly unfeminist way of folding men back into the worship of procreation and its symbols, an area often dominated by female imagery. What do you think, Erin?

A quick, amusing look at a few Coast Salish pieces in the Americas section – known back home as the wall of my parents’ living room (Popa, I wish you could come to the Museum with me; you’d get enough inspiration for ten carver’s lifetimes) – and I was through for the day.

Except for this little inexplicable awesomeness, right across Great Russell Street from the BM:

As I took the tube home at the end of my first week here, I reflected on how easy it’s been to learn my way around. Part of that has been the attention paid to the condition of each line and each station by the employees of Transport for London… whereas back home it’s pretty uncommon to hear a real human voice over the loudspeakers, here at peak times it’s pretty normal to have actual – and rather harried-sounding – Transport employees come over the speakers, incredibly clearly, to give updates on the service on all lines of the tube… even if that service is running smoothly.

It’s interesting, though. At first the personalized service over the speakers seems quaint, polite, human, attentive… Very English, on one level or another. And it is all those things. But it’s also indicative of the same thing that all the layering in London is due to – the double decker buses, the underground stations that keep going under and deeper under til your ears pop, and the widespread practice all over Europe of having the lavatories on a higher or lower level rather than giving up valuable ground floor space – this city is packed to the gills. Part of the reason they keep reassuring us that all is well on the lines is that with this many people this close together, it would be – and has been, at various points in the city’s history – very, very easy for all to become UNwell, incredibly quickly and chaotically.

But on the flipside, this crowded and precarious state also makes London an incredibly invigorating place to be. Samuel Johnson famously said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life – and so far I’d be inclined to agree. And with so much around you, all you have time for is your own adventure. Perhaps this is the less sinister explanation for Londoners’ famous indifference… Their city is such an easy place to be yourself in. Ironically, being so surrounded by so many people from all over the world, far from being claustrophobic, is absolutely reassuring, and present-rooting. They’re all going about their own business, all doing what they want and need to do, all moving with their own purpose… Looking out at all of them makes me look inward, too, to my own desires, my own reasons for being here, and gives me a push to do what I want and need to do, deliberately and in my own way, rather than caring what other people think… Because everywhere I look there are other people, and they don’t give a shit what I do, or what I think of what they’re doing. Who knew the impersonality of a true metropolis could be quite so empowering? Hmm.

So that’s all for now. If you got through even a tenth of all that I’m touched (and impressed with your attention span!). I can’t make any promises that this sort of wordiness won’t pop up again… but I will try my dardnest to keep it snappy and interesting.

Just so it’s all in one place:

email: spinning.straw@gmail.com
skype: thenakedwriter2007
aim/ichat: captainstadi

If you’d like to chat, download Skype and add me. It works as both a text messager and audio/video communication, and I’ve already had some successful chats with family and friends. Here’s my dad taping me from the computer screen while I take a snapshot of him:

…and Eli, stuck on a smile.

Love to all, ta for now,

Sam :]


7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Neigele Gregoire on February 15, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Hey Sam…that was wonderful…it is funny you talk about how construction workers are their to preserve the city….the same thing Seville…and i think this is great that we are doing to different journeys yet still the same path. I can´t wait to see your place in April…oh and if you want to see a musical or theatre…i would totally be down with that to! im glad that you are doing a blog. talk to you soon, luv, Neigele


  2. Posted by Dianne and Ivan Mills on February 15, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for including us and sending us your blog. Please keep them coming.
    Most enjoyable. We envy you for this experience. Make the most of it. It is a chance of a lifetime.

    Love to you.

    Aunt Dianne and Uncle Ivan


  3. Posted by Erin N. on February 15, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    Hey Sam!

    Wonderful post! London sounds awesome with many things to see and do. I would love the BM, it has now officially made my bucket list. It’s funny that your heading was “The BM” and the first object you show looks comically similar to a turd upon first glance. Ha!

    And you mentioned me by name! How exciting! (Unless you know other Erin’s who are in to feminism….)

    Keep posting! It’s fun for us people who have boring lives to read the adventures of others who don’t. And have a great first day at work (the 22nd is your first day you said?)!


  4. Posted by Aunt Georgia on February 16, 2010 at 1:50 am

    I am very envious and totally admiring of you !!! I love how you write and get a kick reading what you write…even if some of the references that may have once, when I was an English major…seemed familiar… now have escaped my feeble old brain!!

    I can’t believe all you have managed to do and see in such a small time frame…. looking forward to your next post….


  5. Posted by Wife on February 16, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    ‘Twas fabs talking to you last night- I will be sure to take lots of exciting Olympics pics for you tonight 😉
    Love you, miss you, really wanna kiss you.


  6. Posted by Wife on February 16, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    ( I forgot to check off the email notification box)


  7. Posted by Uncle T on March 22, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Wow. I mean it. Wow! It’s about 4:30 EST. All my students are gone and I’m trying to keep my eyes open while reading R.J.Marzano (the ultra-dry high yield strategy guy) when suddenly….ping….my beautiful brilliant niece makes my day. Your blog is fantastic. I can feel how excited you are about being in London. I can smell the chips. I can taste the Double Maxim. Have a wonderful time sweety. Can’t wait to read more. Love Uncle Taso. PS: My Brit golf pal calls crappy shots “shite” but really good shots “the shit”. What’s up with that?


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