Sunday, July 31, 2011

The small world of London

Today's post is mostly a collection of random observations, because this week has been a collection of random incidents. I'm getting the hang of changing tubes (I hope) and I almost know which direction is north when I get out of a tube station. Unfortunately 'almost' can mean east or west a few degrees, or sometimes south.

It's a small world. I worked with a girl yesterday who'd been a year above me at my high school, which is common enough at home but quite a coincidence on the other side of the world. I now have a fifth potato peeler, which is much sharper and more effective than the other four, and it is also blue so it matches my prized blue knife. I made a Moroccan chicken tagine for dinner, with raisins and onions and Tuimato sauce and Worcestershire sauce, and it was pretty good despite following the barest minimum of the recipe (which did not call for Tuimato sauce or Worcestershire sauce. I disagree. Everything calls for Tuimato Sauce and Worcestershire sauce). Punk Lawyer Girl would not approve of the raisins, however.

Some general London facts you may not know: The windiest place in London is the tube, most days. Buses are a flat rate wherever you want to go, so you only have to touch your Oyster card once (not twice as I did on my first bus trip, to the bemusement of the driver. I'm still bemoaning my lost £1.30...). There are foxes that live in the city - they are my next wildlife goal, as well as my future pet (I read in National Geographic about a special breeding programme in Siberia where they have mimicked the domestication of dogs with foxes!). I will have to train the foxes not to eat the flying squirrels, which I have learned are domesticable. The post office does not sell brown packing paper or writing paper, or at least my local one does not.

I think I've made friends with a nice little black cat down a few doors, but I've only seen her once so I've yet to find out if it is permanent friends or just temporary-while-you-pat-me friends. No more squirrels, though. You can be sure to be updated if there are any.

Have a good week!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book Rave: The Secret Garden

(By Frances Hodgson Burnett)

I recently read this again, as you can see in my nice books-I-have-read widget. When I was six, it was my most favourite book and the best I had ever read (which wasn't hard, considering it was the first 'proper book' I read, i.e. it had chapters), and I still think it's one of my all-time favourites. It is possibly the cause of my obsession with squirrels (I saw another one today! And got really close and took a picture!) because Dickon has TWO PET SQUIRRELS THAT RIDE AROUND ON HIS SHOULDERS, and it features Magic with a capital M and secrets and funny accents.

In between googling 'pet squirrel' and thinking about squirrel breeding programmes (do they exist? If not, why not?), I have been wondering what it is that makes The Secret Garden so enjoyable. I have never really been that enamoured of gardening, though I like to look at flowers, so it can't be the emphasis on green things. I'm a fan of fantasy, but the Magic in this book is of the kind you can easily find in real life, if you look for it, and not the stuff of myth.

Here are the elements I think attract me:
  • a secret place all one's own that grown-ups can't find (even though I am currently grown-up. I think.)
  • following on from that, a secret that grown-ups don't know
  • transformation from horrible person to nice person
  • rude main characters, so great dialogue - things you'd love to say but never would
  • life lessons - and these are quite overt. I've always remembered the bit about having your quarter of the orange, and not the whole orange. I wonder if you could have such obvious lessons in a contemporary book... Or maybe it's the age it's aimed at combined with Edwardian sensibilities
  • determined main characters, who follow their whims and Do Stuff
  • exotic locations: India and the Yorkshire moors
  • the characters themselves are the antagonists - they must overcome their own faults to reach the happy ending
  • a happy ending
Though I'm always a bit disappointed by the ending, which seems abrupt. I want more, FHB. At least a page more (I am told several authors have written sequels, so maybe I should search them out).

I see some of these things in my own writing (though hopefully not the overt life lessons - I'd rather people thought about things than be told what to think), and I think it's a good exercise to do: examining your favourite books to see what attracts you so much.

If you have not read The Secret Garden, it is in the public domain and worth a look.

What are some of your favourite books? Why do you think you like them?

    Sunday, July 24, 2011

    Wandering the City and Brighton

    That is the City, as in City of London, which is quite a small and distinct area. A lot of it was bombed during the Blitz, and as I walked through it with a vague destination/direction in my mind I came across the ruins of a church and a bit of Roman wall that had been exposed by the bombs. There are a lot of buildings built in the last sixty years, and then every so often you'll come across a building that's been standing for the last six hundred, surviving both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz.

    I started by the Monument to the Great Fire of 1666 (London burnt to sticks), which is a surpisinglly tall pillar in among equally tall buildings. I followed random streets in the general direction of Oxford St, in among office buildings and the Museum of London, which can be accessed by taking lifts up to skywalks, walking across them to a building in the middle of a roundabout, and then across another skywalk to the museum. This seemed too hard to get to at the time, so I'll have to go back another day.

    I caught a glimpse of St Paul's Cathedral, and then walked quite a way with it right in my vision and my head ringing with 'Feed the Birds' from Mary Poppins (it seems I know most of the words). The roads around the City are relatively empty and quiet around 3.30 in the afternoon - it reminded me a bit of central Tokyo, which is a bit like a ghost town when all the workers are in their office buildings. It's strange to know that there are thousands of people around you, but not be able to see or hear them. As I got closer to the shopping and tourist districts, people became more noticeable, and I didn't have the streets entirely to myself.

    At one point I saw this rather large and wonky building that looked like it had been built some time in the sixteenth century, but it was obviously being used as offices because you could see office lights through the windows. From the street, it looked like a lot of the floors would slope, and I wondered if they had office-chair races down the rooms. It began to rain, so I pulled open my umbrella only to find that it had become an anti-umbrella in multiple pieces, and in the end I had to use it as a rather floppy and semi-dangerous sombrero, which is rather diffcult in blustery wind. London really needs to accept its rain and get porches/verandahs/overhang things for its streets so that you can walk around without getting wet.

    I made it to Oxford St without getting too wet and huddled in a shop until it slackened off, along with a few thousand others.

    Part of the reason that this post comes on a Sunday rather than the promised Saturday is that I went to Brighton today, and saw my first glimpse of the sea in two months. Brighton's beach has pebbles of a good size but no sand, and the wind coming off the sea was quite strong. Even so, we watched a man dunking himself in the sea fully-clothed. Seagulls whirled overhead, calling to each other, and to one side of us was the new Brighton Pier, to the other the blackened, skeletal remains of the old pier that burnt down a few years ago.

    Brighton's streets are mostly little, quaint and one-way, with a hodge-podge of different buildings crammed in together. The promenade along the waterfront is wide and lined on the land side with huge hotels with sea views, and below it little shops and galleries open right onto the beach. We watched one of the rides at the end of the pier fling people about, and discussed whether we should go on it after our full Sunday roast dinner.

    Brighton is surprisingly close to London - in fact everywhere in the UK seems to be surprisingly close. I think I'll have to go down there again and peruse the shops for longer, and possibly go on some of the rides.

    Before lunch.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011

    My thoughts on squirrels, active characters and life in general

    First, before any more coherent thoughts,


    Let this day go down in history as the day that I, for the first time in more than ten years, saw a squirrel.

    I was wandering through my local park, listening to music and trying to avoid construction works and raindrops. And then, there on the path ahead of me, was a squirrel!

    We eyed each other. It dashed off towards the safety of another tree, and I followed it as innocently as I could. It disappeared behind one tree, emerged, disappeared again, and the next I saw it, it was sitting in the crook of a branch eyeing me as innocently as it could.

    I stopped pretending I wasn't following it and circled round and round the tree, trying to get a better look and possibly coax it down to be my pet.

    Yes, I know squirrels don't make good pets.

    It had seemed grey on the path to my barely-legal-to-drive vision (I promise I wear glasses when I drive), but up closer its head looked kind of reddish brown. I wondered if red squirrels and grey squirrels could mate, and if so, was this one of their offspring? Furthermore, was the union condoned by squirrel society, or was it a Romeo-and-Juliet situation?

    It retreated further up the tree and I lost sight of it, so I stopped harassing the poor squirrel and continued my walk.

    Today is Wednesday, which used to be Round the World Wednesday and is now just Wednesday. Why waste the alliteration, though? Starting from this week, I will try to post something writing- or round-the-world-related on Wednesdays, and Life-in-London-related on Saturdays, because there is no day of the week starting with 'L'. For those living in the future relative to London, this will probably mean Thursday and Sunday.

    I realise squirrels are not particularly writing-related (though they are masterfully used in many stories, such as Up and Squirrel Nutkin), so I'll get on to the writing stuff.

    People like to read about active characters: characters who fix things, or have adventures, or make stupid choices that lead them down hilarious paths you're glad you never had to go down. Unless your story is the kind where heroines (or heroes) wail 'woe is me' and wait for the handsome prince/princess to rescue them, your main character should be active. If there's a problem, they do something about it, even if they do the wrong thing.

    I've been editing some of my old writing and realising that, even though I thought my character was 'active' (that's what I write when I describe her personality, after all), in a lot of places she doesn't really do anything. I create situations for her to be in, she is present while things happen around her, and then she does a bit of complaining and drifts to the next situation. Every so often she makes a choice, but they're all offered to her. She doesn't go out and grab them, or think seriously about what to do next.

    I'm missing an opportunity here. She needs to be a proper participant in her scenes, rather than someone that things just happen to. It'll be more interesting to read, I hope, and might bring up some new, character-driven situations.

    This is a good way to look at life, too. Don't just sit and wait for things to happen to you. Get out there and do it.

    Friday, July 15, 2011

    Exciting packages and adventures with Royal Mail

    Still no squirrels.

    This week I've been trying to decide how I should deal with money. Should I enjoy the sights of London while I have time on my hands? Or should I hold on to every cent (um, penny) until I have more predictable, reliable work? I guess the best solution is somewhere in between. So I have home days (when I apply for jobs, and talk to lovely people on Skype) and days out, when I should really try to make the most of London.

    Today was a home day. My plan: groceries, stalking jobs (not jobs in which you stalk, but jobs that are being stalked) and various other things which may have been put off until tomorrow. As I was tripping out the door with my groceries bag, I came across a (724?) form informing me that a package could not be delivered because it was TOO LARGE, and that it would be waiting for me at the sorting centre.

    (This is, of course, the exciting package that was promised in the title of this post.)

    I was excited. I decided to do the groceries, and then go to get the package as a reward. I know (or at least, I think I know) some of the contents: a proper potato peeler and some Whittakers Peppermint Block (yummmmm). With my proper potato peeler, I would now be able to buy potatoes, which I have put off for weeks on the logic that you cannot eat that many potatoes if you cannot peel said potatoes. Yes, I suppose I could get a scrubber and scrub the potatoes, but shhh.

    I managed to do my weekly shop for under 13 pounds. Then I packed everything away and went to stand in line at the post office, until I realised (with the help of the lady in line behind me) that the post office was not the sorting centre, and that the sorting centre was some way down the road and was closing in twenty three minutes.

    So I powerwalked to the sorting centre, presented my (724?) form and waited while the lady looked out the back.

    "I'm sorry," she said a minute or so later. "But the driver for this hasn't come back in yet, and isn't likely to come back before we close. I can get him to drop it off tomorrow for you?"

    I deflated, agreed, and wandered slowly back home in the not-quite-baking sun. Wondered why, if the driver had had the package with him, he didn't just knock on the door and present it to me? The form said it was too large. Was it the size of a fridge? A car?

    I do not know. I am waiting with bated breath for this gigantic parcel. I hope it isn't too big to be delivered tomorrow....

    I'd like my chocolate, please.

    Update: I have my box! I lay in wait for the postman at the front door, and caught him when he went past. I am now the proud owner of FOUR potato peelers, a Whittakers Peppermint Block and a bottle of Tuimato Sauce. Also some tongs, with instructions printed on the back of the peeler packet. Not sure why.

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Applying for jobs: ambition

    I've decided to do two posts today, because they're about vastly different things. This post is about applying for jobs, and application forms! Really, it will be interesting. Or at least I'll try to make it so.

    I have been filling out a lot of these, and taking tests and thinking about the qualities companies want in their employees. Specifically this last weekend: ambition.

    It's quite a common thing to want, and I always stare at it and think, okay, I suppose so *sigh and look to the ceiling*. Then more recently I had to do a values test where you (quickly, truthfully) rate how important things are to you. I realised I was consistently rating ambition low, and that this probably wasn't in line with the job description. But then I was already halfway through, and changing things now would not only look strange, but not be telling the truth.

    I have since been thinking about ambition, and my perception of it. To me, it has negative connotations - power-hungry, money-grabbing people who are only out for themselves. Various comic-book villains come to mind. If I'm asked if I'm ambitious, my immediate thought is, No, I'm nice.

    So I looked up ambition on Wikipedia: "Ambitious people seek to be the best at what they choose to do for attainment, power, or superiority."

    I've been ignoring the 'attainment' bit, and focusing only on the power and superiority.

    I don't know whether this is just me, or my culture, or a combination of both. Kiwis tend to value modesty and egalitarianism, and suffer from tall poppy syndrome (if you climb too high, we'll cut your heads off). Conversely, we like to do really well, quietly (huge generalisations here). If I use the 'seek to be the best ... for attainment' definition, I am ambitious. I like to succeed, I like to be good at things. The problem is, it's hard to change a concept definition in your own head. I'm trying.

    But in the meantime: if you're answering a values questionnaire where you're supposed to be truthful and take whichever option feels most immediately correct, what happens if your definitions and ideas about values are different from those of the person who made the test? And what if you know they are different, and you are reasonably sure you know how they differ? If you shift your perceptions and answer the questions according to the test's value framework and not your own, are you being truthful?

    What do you think?

    Harry Potter premiere

    So. A confession. I was at the Harry Potter premiere (or at least in the general vicinity), and I did not know until yesterday.

    It was 5.30. I was in Piccadilly, and my dinner of choice was Burger King - I hadn't yet had it in the UK. I searched for BK on my phone (ah, internet on your phone is a wonderful thing!) and set off in the direction of the nearest establishment.

    I was almost there - could see the sign just 30 seconds walk ahead - and my way was blocked by police officers and fences. I couldn't decide if it was road works or a crime scene, but I figured out a detour and took a back street to BK, past a long line of Mercedes. BK and the area around it was packed, and it was a struggle to get to the doors, and then the lines inside. I considered going somewhere else, but it had been such a lot of effort getting there I decided to stick it out.

    They'd closed off the top storey of the restaurant, and I asked the guy standing on the stairs why there were so many people. "Premiere," he said, and as I was in the West End I assumed it was a theatre premiere. Oh, I thought, Thursday is a strange night for a theatre premiere. It's usually cinema premieres on Thursdays.

    Yes. Yes it is.
    So I took my BK and sat in China town and ate it. It was quite good, although much more expensive than NZ. Then I walked back to Piccadilly, past the line of Mercedes and the police officers and fences and crowds upon crowds of people, and esconced myself in a bookshop for a few hours.

    I didn't realise what it all was until yesterday, when someone mentioned the Harry Potter premiere on Thursday in town.
    Kinda explained things...

    Saturday, July 9, 2011

    Parks and buses and bears, oh my!

    Well, actually no bears. No squirrels either.

    There are two helium balloons stuck in the tree outside my window, bobbing back and forth in the dusk. One is white and one is blue, and they look like friends. The moon is just peeping out from the clouds and the light is getting to that stage where things seem to glow. Twilight is a lot longer in the UK than in NZ (that'll be because of the latitude...) - even at 11pm at midsummer you can see a soft glow on the horizon.

    Small anecdote of my week: I replaced my toothpaste yesterday. I spent a good while in the toothpaste aisle, staring at the different brands and products, and finally decided on one that seemed as near as possible to my current mint toothpaste. I tried it this morning and discovered it is the wrong flavour mint - not the nice mint, but the mint that tries to kill you. I may have to get another one.

    I went to a writing group on Wednesday and had a really good time, and I attempted to go to Tai Chi this morning but failed. I'd forgotten most of the western tube lines are closed this weekend (or rather, I'd never really taken it in... I vaguely remember posters?). It wasn't until they made us get off at the last stop that I realised I'd have to catch a bus, and then another bus, to get to Richmond Park.

    Buses are slow. Very slow.

    I was a little over an hour late, so I decided to give up on the Tai Chi idea and just wander through the park, which promised herds of deer with babies. I took the main route across the top of the park, which comprises a road with pedestrian walkways on either side, and runs through quintessential English fields with oaks and foxgloves and other pretty things. Lines of cars promenaded down the road at low speed, some flashy and some not, and I thought it was a bit like people dressing up in their best clothes and strutting around a century ago. Cyclists shot past at much higher speeds, looking very fit.

    At one point you could see the whole London skyline in the distance, nothing more than dusky silhouettes. I took a few photos before my phone died (I wasn't having a particularly good day, looking back on it. But I made the best of it). About halfway through the park I came across a herd of deer munching away at the grass and giving all the pedestrians suspicious looks. They're bigger than I thought, and some of them had impressive antlers. I stayed on the opposite side of the road and ate my lunch, which was difficult as I had to hold an umbrella in one hand whenever the rain came. There were some fawns prancing about behind their mothers, and they really did look a lot like Bambi.

    Further on I saw a man with a windsurfing kite, fighting to keep his footing on the grass, and I sat down to read The Secret Garden with my back against an oak (I thought it was appropriate). Sitting under the oak meant I was out of the intermittent sun, so I had to wear two jerseys. A spider and some other creepy-crawly thing became interested in me, so I decided it was time to go and made my way to the gate.

    Since I'd had so many transport changes that morning, I'd realised that my return journey would put me over the flat-rate day pass where your Oyster automatically stops charging you. I caught a bus to Hammersmith, tried to think of ways to use public transport to go places I hadn't been, and decided on Greenwich. At South Kensington, however, I changed my mind at the last minute and got out - the lady said 'alight for museums' so I did.

    They have a very long pedestrian subway that I took to the Victoria and Albert museum, which I really enjoyed. I think I remember going once before and seeing an exhibition on Art Nouveau, though I may be imagining it, but I hadn't realised that the V&A is an art and design museum. I spent a happy few hours wandering around gazing at statues and Mughal costumes and samurai swords, climbed a ceramic staircase and found a gallery filled with gold and silver ornaments, and further on another filled with incredibly ornate snuff boxes, some studded with diamonds and rubies and others bearing micromosaics, where the pieces are so small you have to use a magnifying glass to see them.

    Next I found a 20th century gallery, and saw some very famous chairs (a glass one, and one made out of resined rope, and some Eames chairs, and a Panton chair and some others I can't remember) as well as some bookcases and furniture I recognised from somewhere.

    My feet were getting sore, so I emerged from the V&A into sunlight (sunlight!) and walked in the opposite direction to the tube station, partly because I wanted to see the Royal Albert Hall. On the way I was sidetracked by the Science Museum, which has things like the Rocket steam engine and a Model-T Ford as well as one of the first missiles (Gigantic. Didn't quite fit in the 20m high gallery) and the actual model of DNA by Watson and Crick. It's a huge museum, and I came across it about 15 minutes before it closed so I didn't get to see much of it.

    I did get to see the Royal Albert Hall, albeit briefly, because I hopped on a double decker bus to King's Cross that happened to be there. Originally I planned to visit Platform 9 and 3/4, but got bored of sitting in traffic so hopped off.

    So began my journey home, which involved another two tube rides and a bus ride. London transport is fine as long as you don't need to get anywhere on time...

    Saturday, July 2, 2011

    The Changing of the Guard and the National Portrait Gallery

    Still no squirrels.

    But I had a very productive day on Monday (yes, I know it's Saturday, but I am slack). First I talked to PhD in Caffeine Alternatives Girl (thoughts on your code name?), who reckons a movie should be made out of this blog, and that I should be played by this actress from the OC:
    (she's also in Jumper, which is an enjoyable movie and I approve).

    You'd need more of a beginning, middle and ending to make a good movie, though. Rising tension... climax... denouement. Ooh, maybe in the movie I don't have my visa, and I have to figure out ways of getting into the country illegally! That might work.

    Anyway, after talking to PhD in Caffeine Alternatives Girl, I signed up to a dentist and made my way into the city for the changing of the guard.

    Just to mention that Monday was a very hot day: 32 degrees Celsius. I got to Buckingham Palace (Christopher Robin went down with Alice stuck in my head) at about 11.15, and found crowds and crowds of people waiting outside. I ended up picking a really good spot, because by the end I was right against the railing and could see everything. The guards marched down the Mall (I think, I couldn't see but I could hear), around in front of the fountain and in the gates of Buckingham Palace. The gates closed. Very impressive.

    I didn't know the changing of the guard took an hour. I'd thought it was ten minutes or so, but we were left outside in the blazing sun until half past twelve (though we did get to see lots of marching people and horses and hear the trumpets and things). Maybe they go and have lunch inside or something. I was very glad I'd put on sunblock, and felt sorry for the guards and beefeaters standing stock-still in their heavy uniforms.

    The trumpets played things like a Grease medley, Can You Feel the Love Tonight and I'm Walking on Sunshine. Whenever the gates were closed, they opened up a walkway along the front of the palace so people could get through, and police yelled 'Move along please!' at people who tried to stop and take photos (kept thinking of Professor Branestawn and Pass Along P., and created an entire history of police presence at Buckingham Palace where police used to say 'pass along please' but changed it to 'move along please' when kids kept laughing and yelling 'pass along p!'. Probably not true. But it could be!!).

    I nearly got to pat a horse named Katrina, but she was too far away.

    Finally the guards marched back out through the far gate and we were allowed out of the pen-for-tourists. I had plans of a movie on Regent St, so I hurried through Green Park past all the lawn chairs for hire, past the Ritz (the actual Ritz) and on to the cinema.

    The cinema was strange. You went down to the theatres, not up, and they played classical music while you waited for the curtains to open. I had a Haagen Dazs icecream (which I thought was well-deserved after standing for more than an hour in the heat wave sun. I hope the beefeaters get Haagen Dazs) and watched the movie, which was X-Men and very good.

    Afterwards I wandered the streets, which is how I came upon M&Ms World. This is a four-storey store devoted to M&Ms merchandise: jewellery, t-shirts, golf balls, dispensers... You can buy M&Ms in any colour you like, and they have a large glass window through which you can stare at people in white coats.

    Next I went to the National Portrait Gallery, and specifically the Tudor gallery. It's here they have all the famous pictures you think of when you think of the Tudors. The classic picture of Henry VIII standing with his hands on his hips is present in the form of a bigger-than-lifesize sketch, which would have been used to make the original mural which is now lost. A bit further around is the painting of Shakespeare.

    I walked up the street and found what seemed to be most of the bookshops in London, had a peruse through, and carried on to a choir, where I met lots of nice people, and then home.