Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Living in London

I had to return a rental car to Central London at 10am on Sunday morning. I don't often find myself in Central London on a Sunday morning at this time of day and it seemed foolish just to go home so I thought I'd make the most of it and go for a bit of a walk.

You may think it's unusual that I live in London and say that I don't often find myself in this position but this is the reality for most Londoners. They tend to go into the centre for work and maybe go out once or twice in the evening after work but tend to avoid the place at weekends, and especially in the Summer.

The main reason for this is London is full of tourists at the weekend so the actual residents tend to stay at home or are content to go somewhere closer to home to find their fun. It's not that we dislike tourists but there is the distinct feeling that, when thrown into this collective polyglot maelstrom you rapidly become part of it and end up feeling, rather uncomfortably, like a visitor in your own house which has been strangely taken over by foreigners.

It's funny that most Londoners, when they have vistors from abroad or from out of town, are at a loss with what to do with them. Vistors arrive, goggle-eyed and anxious to see the sights but their hosts can think of nothing more uninvigorating than visiting tourist attractions in their own city.

It's a constant source of amazement to Londoners why anyone would want to visit Madame Tussauds or the Tower of London. Sure we'll take you on The London Eye and take you to our favourite pub and maybe even a visit to the theatre but likely as not, we'll send you out of the house in the morning with a tube map and a prepaid Oyster Card and tell you to go off and find your own entertainment and be home in time for tea.

This, I admit, is a poor state of affairs. We live in one of the world's greatest cities yet feel like strangers there at the weekend.

What did I end up doing on Sunday morning? Well, I walked along Oxford Street - the shops were closed at that time on a Sunday morning. I wandered down a few side streets I was unfamiliar with - London is big and there are plenty of these. I then went down Regent Street to Piccadilly Circus, then into Leicester Square which was already crowded and then down towards Trafalgar Square where I dived into the National Portrait Gallery which I have never visited in all the time I've lived here.

The National Portrait Gallery is crammed with about 500 years worth of mostly paintings and a few photographs of variously, royalty, aristocracy, military heroes and assorted other great and good characters who have made contributions to the nation. Explorers, scientists, writers etc. You get the idea. Whilst the various realisations were interesting enough and I learnt a great deal reading the condensed history of each picture I have to report that this nation is founded on a spectacularly unattractive gene pool. The men looked invariably portly, humourless and brutish and the few women portrayed were variously bug-eyed, doe-eyed or cross-eyed. I actually find cross-eyed women incredibly attractive but I'm prepared to admit I may be unique in this particular peccadillo.

I spent a good two hours in there and despite the slightly negative sounding above paragraph I rather enjoyed it. I actually behaved like a tourist, enjoyed the paintings (not so much the 20th century stuff) and believe I blended in quite nicely with all the other visitors, none of whom were from London. I then went walking again - Trafalgar Square, The Strand, Covent Garden, Charing Cross Road before hopping on a bus to go home as I was getting hungry.

I wonder if this feeling of mild alienation in your own city is common to urban dwellers all over the world or is it unique to London. I'd be interested to know. Whatever happens, next time I have visitors I promise to make more of an effort.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


I'm braw scunnered wi' London so I'm awa' tae Scotland fir th' next ten days.

Fare thee well. Back soon.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Fantastic Service

I'm impressed.

My wonderful dentist (I must blog one day about her wonderfulness sometime) recently referred me to a hospital specialist to investigate a tiny lesion in my mouth that would not go away. The hospital consultant duly inspected it, pronounced it a minor and treatable condition and said she would send me a letter in a few days time with a fuller diagnosis pending a few tests they had to run. The comprehensive and well written diagnosis duly arrived a few days later explaining I needed a prescription which I would have to collect from my GP (family doctor).

I dropped off the letter at the GP's surgery a few days ago and duly collected the prescription this afternoon and took it to my local pharmacy which is actually a major chain store with a branch in every town in the country. They told me they did not have the medicine in stock but they'd order it and I could collect it a few days later.

The pharmacy just 'phoned me (I didn't even know they had my number) to say the product I needed was no longer available. My mind raced ahead at this point and I thought to myself I'd probably have to go back to the pharmacy, collect the unfilled prescription, then take it back to the doctor, I'd probably have to make an appointment, the doctor would then have to sort out another prescription and then I'd have to go back to the pharmacy to have the new prescription filled. Tiresome but you kind of expect this sort of thing.

Not so. The nice lady pharmacist said she had already 'phoned my doctor and they had agreed an alternative treatment. The pharmacist would personally go to my doctor tomorrow, collect the new prescription on my behalf and I would just need to go back to the pharmacy any time after midday tomorrow to collect the treatment.

Isn't this a fantastic level of service and all for the state-regulated cost of my prescription of £7.20 (about $10 US)?

It has restored my faith in our much-maligned state-run health system and also given me a nice feeling about the good people at Boots as well.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

South Africa 2010

Well, we're one week away from the mildly interesting but on the whole, mostly risible spectacle that is the football World Cup. There will be some good, possibly wonderful football - I really hope so. There will certainly also be a lot of average or poor football as well. I'm mostly indifferent to the game but can appreciate the skill and pleasure it can bring. However off the pitch - and very often on - the situation is becoming faintly ridiculous and often rather unpleasant.

Teams rarely lose gracefully. Very few coaches will state in the post-match interview that they were beaten by a better opposition. They will usually complain that the referee made a bad decision or that an opposing player cheated to score a crucial goal. Being a bad loser is rarely considered unsporting. It is expected.

It's a cliche that football can bring out the best in people. A little bit of patriotism is good but this can easily descend into jingoism, xenophobia and simmering, ill-informed resentment.

England have a few teams we traditionally consider our greatest rivals. The French are traditionally disliked, often for no other reason I can fathom other than they are French. We consider we saved them in two World Wars (singlehandedly you might believe if you read some of the rhetoric written in the popular press) and some people seem to expect them to therefore simply roll over and let us win. Some will claim a lack of fighting spirit is an inherently flawed trait of the French national character. This is in direct contradiction to the fact that France is the number one holiday destination for the English and for the three years and eleven months out of every four years that do not involve a World Cup we secretly admire the French for their nonchalance, indifference to authority and spectacularly good food and wine.

We consider Germany our greatest rival. Germans are invariably portrayed as unemotional automatons who play the game with ruthless efficiency. We consider that having beaten them in two World Wars (singlehandedly again) that it is our right to beat them at football. Interestingly, Germany are indifferent to matches against the English and usually somewhat surprised by the degree of emotion the English invest in a fixture against them. Their true rivals are the Dutch.

Argentina are particularly disliked. A war with Argentina (are you noticing a theme here?) in 1982 in which we drove a mostly poorly-equipped and demoralised conscript army out of The Falkland Islands means we now consider the Argentinian people and players mere pawns, manipulated by an inherently corrupt state. They are not and we are the fools for ever imagining this to be true. We played Argentina in 1986 and as a nation, we still resent a goal scored by one of their players in which he illegally manhandled the ball into our goal. This goal is replayed on television whenever Argentina is mentioned even if the subject is not football as if we want to imply that foul play is endemic in the Argentinian psyche. If one of our players had done the same thing to Argentina he would have been feted as a national hero. We lost again to Argentina in 1998. David Beckham was personally blamed for the defeat when he was sent off for retaliating against a foul on him. It was a harsh sending off resulting in some particularly nasty behaviour directed at the referee, the Argentinians and also Beckham whose effigy was hanged in public. To his credit, Beckham came back the following season and went on to become a hero for club and country and for that he should be admired. He could easily have just walked away but he was determined to prove he was a stronger man than many would wish to portray him.

Invaribly, because the press whip up an emotional and sometimes worryingly jingoistic fury, whenever we meet any of the above teams we lose against them. Anger and barely concealed hatred get the better of everybody and whilst passion and emotion are important in football, an excess of these usually produces poor football and the wrong result. We lose significant matches because of the ridiculous national pride we invest in them and rarely win them because we believe we can play better football.

By far the most ridiculous and contrived spectacle you will see in this World Cup is the sight of grown men weeping at the outcome of a fixture. If a team is defeated having reached a significant stage (usually any match beyond half way through the competition) their players will be expected to weep openly on the pitch after the final whistle blows. The supporters expect this or they will consider the players did not care enough about the outcome. The players oblige because fundamentally they are performers, it is expected of them, and they know a few crocodile tears now will enhance their reputation on their return.

The cameras will also scour the terraces for evidences of weeping supporters. Ever since the death of Diana, melodramatic and over-emotional displays of collective grief have become commonplace. Since genuinely distressing events are thankfully rare, major football matches are now used as a barometer of the national mood. Invariably politicians get involved as well.

This time the English team has an Italian coach. He seems a mostly unflappable, enormously sensible and pragmatic individual. His monosyllabic post-match pronouncements are beautifully concise, mostly due to his poor English vocabularly. This is refreshing in a game that is ridiculoulsy over-analysed. I hope, despite his limited lexicon, that he motivates the team to believe they're playing a game of football and not out there to prove anything other than that. This has been the downfall of previous English born coaches who believed football to be a metaphor for national pride and not just about simple, good, honest sporting endeavour.

I hope England do well in the World Cup. I hope we win. But it's only 22 men running around on a field playing a game. Nothing more, nothing less. It's about time a few people realised that.

Cricket is far more important.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Body Perspectives

"Ever wondered why a man can look at an advert featuring a six-pack and laugh, while a woman might look at a photograph of female perfection and fall to pieces?" A mildly interesting opening line to an intriguing article about the different perspective men and women have on body images.

The basic premise is that women are constantly bombarded with pictures and magazine articles telling them how they can have the perfect body. This makes them vulnerable and insecure because they know they will probably never attain that body. It's not enough that their partner may love them them just way they are. In fact, being told "I love you just the way you are" whilst intended as a compliment from the man could easily be taken as an insult by the woman.

A man is in a more fortunate position knowing that although he may never look like Brad Pitt, his body is merely a machine. If he gets fat and out of shape then that can be fixed by exercise and that's as good as it'll get. He'll still not look like Brad Pitt but he's looking as good as he'll ever look. There's no pressure to achieve the unattainable.

It's a sad state of affairs and although I was aware of the above contradiction I'd never really thought about. Perhaps we haven't really moved on that much in the last thirty years. Society still places unreasonable expectations on women - probably even more now than ever, and men still get the easy ride.

It's rather more depressing to read some of the misogynistic views in the Comments section suggesting that women who are susceptible to this are shallow or stupid or lazy.

Read the whole article here but I don't suggest you bother with the 200+ comments - the ones I read didn't really add much value.