In which we leave London and begin to settle in San Diego

Our first full day in San Diego is drawing to a close. Briony’s lying on the air mattress we’re borrowing from our landlady and reading One Day, cars are cruising up first avenue outside our window, and I’m sipping vinho verde ($3.99 from Trader Joe’s. With that, you cannot argue). 

Our journey begins yesterday at about 11:30, UK time. Briony, her parents, her youngest brother, his wife, and I all set off for Heathrow with everything we are taking with us: six suitcases (each carefully measured on our bathroom scales, and weighing almost exactly the maximum of 23 kilos), one carry-on suitcase (full of books, and weighing approximately six metric tons), one carry-on saxophone (slightly oversized, but fingers crossed no-one will say anything), and two laptop bags (one is stuffed so full it barely shuts, the other is big enough to fit a laptop from 1989). I am wearing my hiking boots (too heavy to pack), my zip-up hoody and light hacket (ditto) and my straw hat from Morocco. Briony is similarly laden with extra clothing, yet somehow manages to make it look not just sensible, but stylish. 

We get all our bags checked and get onto the plane without anybody objecting to the quantity of baggage (or, for that matter, clothing) we have on our persons, and get to our seats. I hoist the sax, the unbelievably heavy suitcase, my excess clothing and my boots into the overhead locker, and we take our seats. It looks like we may even have a full row of three seats to ourselves, when a breathless man appears and says ‘Hey, sorry, that’s my seat but I’ve gotta piss like a racehorse, so can you just put my bag on it? You can steal what you like – you’ve got about five minutes.’ We take his bag, and he’s off. He turns out to be awesome. He’s just finished rodie-ing for a band whose name he refuses to reveal for about thirty seconds, before saying ‘OK, it’s Bruce Springsteen, but you can’t mention that name for the rest of the flight’. He’s also a ballet dancer, an actor, and a surfer, and lives in Encinitas, a ‘surfer town’ (his words) just north of San Diego. He reveals the following showbiz information: Bruce Springsteen never gives anybody any warning about what song they’re playing next – when the song in question is a spontaneous cover, this is a nightmare for the guys who run the autocue (I had no idea rockstars had autocues, but it makes sense). The E street band are a great bunch of guys to work for, except for the fact that they play long into the night when everyone needs to be up early the next morning. Madonna insists on having a backstage bathroom built for her at every venue she plays.

Our seatmate also recommends local beers and breakfast places, and teaches me to plié during one of our longs stretches hanging out in the area outside the toilets in the back of the plane (at one point we are asked to ‘keep it down, because people might be trying to sleep’). And he has a twisted and filthy sense of humour. All in all, he’s a great guy to sit next to for an 11-hour flight.

We arrive in San Diego to the smallest passport-check room I’ve ever seen in an airport. Briony goes to the foreigners line, and I go to the citizens one. When my turn comes, the woman taking my passport tells me to pull Briony out of her line to join me. This is the first time that our insane quantity of hand-luggage becomes a problem, as she performs a spectacular feat of queue-jumping. Then we both get sent to the ‘visa room’ (or whatever they call it). It quickly becomes clear that they don’t get a lot of immigrant visas at San Diego airport. My favourite line comes from one of the border officers, who says ‘let’s make a copy of her passport, just for the hell of it.’ But what really makes it is the response the line gets from the subordinate officer: ‘Umm, the room with the copier’s locked. Do you have a key?’

By the time we get to the baggage carousel, everything’s been taken off and set on the floor. Among the assembled bags are five of our six items of luggage. That’s right, one is missing – the biggest one, the one that has nearly all of Briony’s clothes. Things start looking very bad when the woman behind the BA counter informs me that all of our bags are listed as having arrived in San Diego. Eventually someone else brings in all the bags that haven’t been claimed from our flight. Among them is a big black suitcase that looks a lot like ours. The woman from BA calls the number on this bag’s tag, and asks the woman who answers whether she meant to leave one of her bags, and if not, whether she could bring the bag that she took instead back to the airport. The woman doesn’t speak very clear English, but makes it clear that A) the bag she took is ‘in the back of her truck’ (which is really not a reassuring thing to hear), B) she’s driving to her home in Oceanside (over an hour away from the airport) and C) she won’t be turning around until she’s got her kids home. So, we are advised to go and get something from McDonalds (the only place still open in the food court) and await further information. I borrow a cell phone from a woman whose friend’s bag was left in London and call our landlady to tell her we will be late arriving to the apartment. Shortly after this, the woman whose phone I borrowed, and her friend, are given a reference number and told they can leave. Unfortunately, when they try to leave through the only doors out, they set off an alarm that had been set by accident. At this point, these two people – who have been waiting for over an hour because their bags didn’t make it onto the plane – are told they can’t leave until the harbor police come and speak to them, so they can explain why they set of the alarm. I suggest that as witnesses, Briony and I could explain what happened, seeing as we’re hanging around for a while anyway, but no dice. This has become a matter of national security, so common sense has been replaced by inviolable protocol. We are all assured that when an alarm goes off, the harbor police come in ‘about thirty seconds’. In this instance, they arrive in about a half an hour. Briony and I go up to McDonalds, I order some food, and before I have even had time to begin eating it, a man appears with the suitcase! So it’s off to the super shuttle, and then to our new home.


Here's the courtyard as viewed from the balcony. The entrance to our apartment is about fifteen feet to the left.


And you can just make out the bay in this shot (taken from the same balcony)




We unpack a bit, now delirious with exhaustion. I stuff sweaters into tee-shirts for pillows and Briony opens up my sleeping bag for a blanket, and we crash out and sleep fitfully. I wake up roughly once every half an hour, thinking it’s 7 AM and then thinking ‘damn, I need to go pick up a rental car, but I’m waaaaay, too tired to drive’. At about 3, Briony tries to rouse me, saying it’s after eight and we need to get going. I suggest to her that she has another look at her watch.

Eventually, we give up on sleep, get up at 5, do a bunch of unpacking, and then go to Hob Nob Corner for an awesome breakfast. Then a stroll around Hillcrest, some coffee beans bought from a lovely guy at Peets coffee, and our courtesy pick-up from ‘Dirt Cheap Car Rentals’. The guy who picks us up is from Tijuana, which, he tells me, is full of Padres fans who come over for the games. I’m pleased to hear the Padres have a devoted fan base. The guy also demonstrates to me what conversational ‘Spanglish’ actually sounds like: ‘Mira that restaurant’, he tells me at one point. ‘it’s muy bonito, the best Mexican food in San Diego.’ With the woman behind the counter at ‘Dirt Cheap Car Rentals’ we talk about schools (her kid’s only three, but she’s thinking about kindergarten already) and I jot down High Tech High’s website for her. Regarding the car, she explains that ‘it’s got some dents and scratches, but there’s no deductible on the insurance, so we don’t need to mark them all down’. Evidently, ‘Dirt Cheap Car Rentals’ doesn’t deign to bring in the mechanics for something as trivial as dents and scratches (at only $399 per month, I’m definitely not complaining). Our car is a Suzuki Swift (Suzy Swift, as we now call her). Suzy has her fair share of dents and scratches, a grey paint job that looks like those pictures of statues that have been damaged by acid rain, a tape player, and no central locking, air conditioning, or, I believe, power steering. She also has the turning radius of a much larger car. Perhaps one with more than four wheels. But having said all that, she’s got a lot of style – and a surprisingly roomy trunk when you drop the back seats down.




Here's Suzy


We go with Suzy to the local AT&T outlet, where I fear the worst, but am proven wonderfully wrong when two guys with an immense and not entirely legit technical knowledge set us up with iphones (what do I mean by 'not entirely legit?' One of the guys told us about how he 'hadn't played World of Warcraft in ages', before adding 'Yeah, I had this program going that kept it running while I slept, I was raking in money... I'm not allowed to get an account on World of Warcraft anymore.'

Then it's on to Trader Joes! (More to come, when I've got time).




Feedback on my pecan encrusted chicken

Every so often, we get EXTREMELY long comments on the blog posts I write for work. These comments occupy a liminal space between spam and mad rants (maybe we could call them 'spants'). They suggest that there are quite a lot of people with a lot to say, in desperate need of someone to listen to them. I always skim these before 'unpublishing' them, but this one (posted underneath a post I had written about the argument to teach computer coding in schools) had a line that caught my eye:

I just had your Pecan Encrusted Chicken   good stuff even though 
I used a toaster oven 

It's nice to have the affirmation, even if the pecan encrusted chicken here referred to is not my own.

Five go to the seaside: Leigh on Sea and Southend on Sea

Last week, we took our first seaside trip of the year. In the party were Lucy, Jeremy, their (rather unwell) boxer dog Callie, Briony, and me.

As is our custom, we met at the Broca, outside Brockley Station, and bought coffee and vegan cupcakes to take in the car.

Our initial destination was the Leigh on Sea Vintage and Handmade Fayre - 'vintage and handmade' meant that there were stalls selling handmade jewellery, clothing, and homewares, stalls selling vintage examples of same, and stalls selling things handmade using vintage materials (the two-tier cake stand made from an old LP and EP was a particular favourite of mine). But the highlight of the fayre, to my mind, were our fellow-shoppers, many of whom had dressed for the occasion - saddle shoes, pomade, and elaborate hairstyles were much in evidence.

Then we headed to Southend for lunch at the Railway Tavern, a vegetarian pub with anarchist-punk roots, and live music in the evenings. We were told that dogs were sometimes allowed, but not today (what time would have been better than a sleepy Saturday afternoon is a mystery to me. Perhaps Callie would have irritated the meeting of militant vegetarians sitting at the table next to ours (overheard: 'I think, probably, everyone who works in a slaughterhouse is psychotic'). 

Our waiter looked like he was probably still in his teens, and was visibly relieved when we all ordered the same drink (fresh-squeezed orange juice). 'Well, that's easy to remember!', he told us. After a slightly less straightforward food order (three 'crassburgers' - one without sauce, and a goats cheese burger), he brought out our cutlery, wrapped in purple napkins, My little bundle was, to be frank, a bit of a mess. 'I know it's not very neatly done', he apologised, 'but I do try!'

The kitchen staff didn't look any older than him, and as we waited for our meal I caught the occasional glimpse of a 6th-former pan-frying onions or deep-frying chips in the kitchen. As our waiting time lengthened, my expectations for our meal diminished.

How wrong I was - those teenagers can cook! The unfortunately-named crassburger was a big, soft, flavoursome patty in a warm bun, served with caramelised onions. It was miles ahead of any other veggieburger I've had in years. The chips were hand-cut, fresh, and delicious. 

After our meal, we headed to Southend's seaside, strolled a bit, sat on its (small and crowded) sandy beach, then headed back to Leigh (but not before a convertible drove by filled with teenage girls all singing along enthusiastically to Tenacious D's classic, 'Fuck Her Gently' (with its eminently sing-alongable line 'What's your favourite dish? I'm not gonna cook it but I'll order it - from Zanzibar!')

All day we'd been discussing good coffee, and Lucy told us she'd scoped out Leigh and Southend for good cafes with no luck. But as we drove past it, I spotted The Coffee Bean Company, so we found a place to park and Jeremy and I doubled back to the cafe while Lucy and Briony browsed a vintage shop we'd happened to park next to. 

When Jeremy and I returned with our (very good) coffees, Briony had gone into 'It's Teatime', a German tea shop, to buy loose leaf fruit tea. Briony beckoned me in so I went inside, acutely conscious that I was carrying their competitor's takeaway coffees. 

'What is that you're carrying?', the proprietor asked me. He was an imposing German man wearing a rather incongruous Calgary Flames t-shirt. 'It's coffee,' I said sheepishly. 

'Hmmph! You have it in a paper bag,' he observed. 

'Umm, sort of...' I replied.

'The taste in a paper bag is no good. But even here, we give customers paper bags when they ask for them. I was in American - and Starbucks, they had to stop serving coffee in paper bags, they went back to porcelain, because their customers did not like the taste.'

He was on a roll, so I didn't correct him, just made noises of assent and told Briony I, and her coffee, would wait for her outside. 

We waited for quite a while, because after painstakingly measuring out Briony's tea into foil packets, he took her through the brewing instructions for all three types of tea. This was going an especially long distance beyond the call of duty, since the instructions for all three teas were identical.

'For this tea, the water must be 100 degrees, yes? Put one teaspoon for each person, and one for the pot - this is very important. Then let steep for five to ten minutes. Five will be weak. 10 is better.' It's worth mentioning that this information was printed, with numbers and graphics, across the bottom of each label - but this man was leaving nothing to chance.

Finally, he reached the last packet. 'Unfortunately, this is in German only,' he apologised, before pointing to the graphics and numbers printed at the bottom of the label: ''For this tea, the water must be 100 degrees,' he recited. 'Put one teaspoon for each person, and one for the pot - this is very important. Then let steep for five to ten minutes.' 

Having since brewed the tea at home, I can say unequivocally that it was worth the wait. And if I return, I will take time to have a tea or coffee (in porcelain cups) at one of their tables. 

Then it was on to the day's final pre-planned destination: What the Butler Saw, an old-style arcade of small vintage shops. It turned out that a recent barista-school graduate (and serious coffee aficionado) has set up a little cafe in the arcade, so we felt compelled to have another coffee. I sampled her first-ever attempt at a soya flat white, which was delicious. We had a hypercaffeinated browse through the arcade (Briony wanted to buy the reclining dentist's chair, Jeremy and I were tempted by the Super Nintendo system (with a note saying it had been tested, and was fully functional!). At the back of the arcade, we came across a rather sinister sight:

(Photo by Jeremy)

We finished our trip with a walk by the seaside as the sun went down. It was low tide, and lots of boats (including one battleship) were left standing up on the sand. As we walked, a group of local youths were shouting abuse at some poor guy walking near us. Eventually, one of them shouted 'Oy, briefcase wanker!', which I can only assume referred to me. I guess there's not much to do in the evening in Leigh on Sea if you're a teenager. Though at least one local resident has an elegant way with a spraycan: 

(Photo by Jeremy)

After our walk, it was time to head home, with Zeppelin on the stereo and good cheer in our hearts.

Emmy the Great at Queen Elizabeth Hall

Last Sunday, Briony and I saw Emmy the Great play a gig at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, backed by four female backup singers and an all-female string quartet (I mention the gender because she kept mentioning it - it was significant because the gig was part of a festival marking International Women's Day. 


It being an era of digital record-keeping, there is some pretty good smartphone video footage of the gig on this youtube channel


For the record, 'Emmy the Great' seems to refer to the band, rather than to Emma-Lee Moss (the singer/songwriter) - well, obviously it does refer to her, but in the same way as 'the Jimi Hendrix Experience', which was a band, not an individual. I think it's a really unfortunate name - it has the air of something you wrote down on a Battle of the Bands signup sheet because you'd been arguing over names for weeks, and you were about to miss the deadline.


My favourite Emmy the Great song is 'Paper Forest (in the Afterglow of Rapture)', off her latest album, Virtue. Partly, I like it because its written with a lyrical rhythm that I used to write in back when I was in a band in high school (Bah-dah-dah-dah-Bah-dah-dah-dah-Bah-dah-dah-dah-Bah). Unfortunately my lyrics tended to be, almost literally, gibberish. The only instance I can recall word-for-word was a short verse within a song written by the guitarist (the bassist had a verse too - our songwriting had a kind of Wu-tang Clan 'everybody take a verse' egalitarianism). Here's my bit:

If the tractor is attractive ride it like it was the one

Because the ashes still are glowing even when the fire's done

And if nowhere's where we're going then you know you better run

and now my soul's on fire and it's burning like the sun

Looking back on it, I can't find any way to read the first line other than as an invitation to have sex with farm machinery. What on earth was I thinking? The answer, I believe, is that I was thinking that 'tractor' and 'attractive' have an appealing consonance. I find this line exceptionally embarrassing, but there's stuff to like in the passage too - I like the tight internal rhyme between 'glowing' and 'going',  and the way that 'soul's on fire' slows to eighth notes, breaking up what has been a steady sixteenth-note flow. But that's all to do with sound and rhythm. On the level of meaning, there's less to love - the first and second lines are connected by a 'because', but I defy anyone to find a reason that one should ride a tractor because ashes are still glowing. The third line is a sort of grunge-era stab at a Wildean epigram, and finally, maybe I've just been living in England too long, but 'my soul's on fire' seems like an awfully bold claim to make, especially from someone rapping in a deep, deadpan monotone.


Which brings me to my final note in this tangential reminiscence - the song was a dark and downtempo - trip-hop as played on guitar, bass, soprano saxophone, and conga drum (we didn't know any kit drummers with experimental enough tastes to join the band). This leads me to puzzle a bit over influences. I think I must have bought Tricky's Pre-Millenium Tension by this point, or I have absolutely no idea where this sound would have come from (the other big influence, I believe (chronology is a bit fuzzy) is the Killah Priest track off of a Jon Spencer Blues Explosion remix album). Though I don't think anybody would've picked up on these influences from hearing us play - we had a pretty distinctive sound. There's something to be said for the idea that originality comes from trying and failing to mimic your influences. My Dad first presented this idea to me after he'd read that the Beatles wrote 'Got to Get You Into My Life' in an attempt to write a 'Motown number'. If you listen to the tune with this knowledge, you can hear the Motown influence, but it's definitely NOT a Motown song. For more on the complicated relationship between originality and imitation, have a read of Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism


This brings me back to Emmy the Great, who are intensely (and wittily) imitative and referential, though they never sound like anyone but themselves. The first song Briony and I heard that really blew our minds was 'Hallelujah', which is about listening to Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah' (interestingly Moss specifies that it's the 'original Leonard Cohen version' - I would've assumed she'd prefer Jeff Buckley's version to Cohen's dry, synthy original). 


In general, Moss's lyrics are pretty oblique (more so on Virtue than on her first album, First Love), but they have the quality of entering a conversation midway through, rather than of somebody stringing words together more at less at random for the sake of their sound - which, apart from being my preferred approach to songwriting, also characterises a great deal of songwriting (especially in America). 


Another great thing about Moss's songwriting is that she's interested the act of writing itself. There are two couplets in 'Paper Forest' which, together, are my favourite lyrics about writing in any song that I can think of. First, early in the song, she sings the following:

It's like these days I have to write down almost every thought I've held,
So scared I am becoming of forgetting how it felt,

Then, later in the song, she sings

It's like the way I have to write down almost everything I see,
So that the record does obscure the thing the record used to be,

I used to write fairly compulsively in a journal - not as often as I felt I ought (it wasn't necessarily a daily thing) but a lot more often than most people - and I did it for precisely these two, apparently contradictory reasons: to make sure I didn't forget how my life felt, and to rewrite my life in the terms I wanted - which is to say, translated by my literary and musical influences. Thus, quite a lot of my high school journals are written as if they were being kept by the least dissolute member of Jack Kerouac's circle. In University, I tried on Joan Didion's matter-of-factness, and picked up the genial curiosity and off-the-cuff analysis of Henry Allen, a Washington Post writer who taught one of the first seminars (and possibly the best) I ever had. Actually, it goes deeper than this, because something doesn't just become 'my version of events' when I write it down, the very act of perception is an act of interpretation (for evidence of this, walk around anywhere, and I mean anywhere, with the James Bond theme playing through headphones). And yet, there's something more deliberate when you actually write things down - it is an attempt to refashion the world, as well as to record it. 


Having said all that, 'Paper Forest' has much more to it than those two couplets - in fact, for the most part it isn't a song about writing. You should listen to it - here it is:


Some stories from the 176 bus

The first time my Mom rode the 176 bus was like meeting a celebrity, because she'd heard so much about the extraordinary goings-on aboard it. It's the only bus that runs all night between us and central London (from Penge to Oxford Circus, to be precise), and all-night buses get pretty wild, but the 176 seems to attract a certain amount of chaos at any hour. To give just a few examples:

There was the broken window. There was the guy who freaked out and lightly hit a ticket inspector in the chest, leading to a swift evacuation of the other passengers. Then, there was the ex-bus driver who held the bus doors open in protest after the current bus driver inadvertantly shut the doors on a woman who was trying to get off. The ex-bus driver knew that the bus couldn't move with the doors open, so he and another concerned citizen kept the bus motionless and called the police to report the assault of a young woman by a bus driver, heedless of all criticism (including from the woman herself, who was shouting at them to stop being idiots and let the bus leave). When the police arrived, they detained the two men who were blocking the doors. However, they weren't held for long, as we discovered later in the evening (it took a looong time to get hoem that night), when we found ourselves again on the same bus as these two concerned citizens, who had never met before this fateful evening. I still remember one bit of their conversation, when one told the other about someone who'd killed himself by jumping off the roof of a block of flats.

'Coward's way out,' his new friend said.

'Naw, it's not,' he protested, 'it takes guts to jump off a building. Doing it with pills - now that's the coward's way out.'

Because we now live a bit further out, Briony and I don't take the 176 as much as we used to, but we still live near a stop, and every once and a while trains stop running, and we get to ride it again (in fact, I'm on the 176 as I write this in my notebok, and a few seats ahead of me a young man is loudly taunting his friend for possibly having contracted scabies over the weekend).

Earlier this evening, Briony and I set off to see Emmy the Great play at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (it was a great gig, incidentally). When we arrived at the train station we discovered that due to engineering works, there were no trains. So we walked to the bus stop, where there was a 176 bus with its hazard lights flashing,and all the interior lights off. At first we thought it was broken down, but Briony's pretty sure that in fact, the driver had taken a break in order to pray. In any case, after a few minutes, we set off.

A little while later, a guy came on talking on his mobile in a state of rage, and kept up an animated phone conversation about rent, and money he was owed, and somebody's illness - his (exceptionally loud) conversation so enraged the man sitting behind us that he started humming loudly to himself to cover the noise.

Meanwhile, the guy sitting across the aisle from me was playing a snooker game on his iphone, with sound effects that were uncannily similar to the sound of a heart as amplified by an echocardiogram machine (though he was wearing headphones, so he was missing out on the sound effects that the rest of us were enjoying).

After the phone conversationalist got off ('Thank God for that!' the guy behind us cried) the phone-gamer started playing some game that seemed to be all about rubbing your thumbs on the screen vigorously, and generating the sound of a TV set that's getting nothing but static. I finally caught a glimpse of the phone's screen: it was taken up by four photorealistic pink udders.

The guy was milking a cow on his phone, for entertainment.

Taxi stories: Drunks

In a cab in Stoke-on-Trent. The driver had been working since 6:30 AM (it was nearly 5 in the evening). He said it'd been the busiest day they'd had since Christmas.

'Any interesting customers?'

'No, no-one interesting today, except a couple of schoolkids got into a fight.'

'What, in the cab?'

'Yeah, a brother and sister, she was seven, he was eleven. I get some real characters though, especially since we started taking NHS contracts. I pick people up from AA meetings, first place they go is the off license. Then they want to drink it in the car.

I picked up one guy, he'd had four bottles of whisky, and he'd been drying out at the hospital. I picked him up in his dressing gown - no trousers. I took him home - his place was beautiful. A big farmhouse, must've cost a million quid, I reckon. He didn't have any money to pay me. Didn't have his keys either, I had to help him break in.'

'Are you sure it was really his place?'

'Well, he seemed to know the name of the cat.'

Some places I'd recommend in Paris

Two summers ago, Briony and I spent the weekend in Paris. I did a then-uncharacteristic amount of advance research (which I then repeated in advance of the Morocco trip - I'm a changed man) and since then, I've been sharing this list with people who are departing for Paris. I kept losing the email, so I'm now putting it on the blog - which seems appropriate, since it began as a blog about travel.

Right, the first thing is to read David Lebovitz’s blog. Here’s the section he calls my Paris. Most of what I visited came from him. For gigs and general cool stuff, read Vingt Paris magazine. Take note that David Lebovitz occasionally gets very excited about cafes that will be extremely familiar to any habitué of East London. My suspicion is that this is because if you live in Paris, the Parisian-ness of everything gets a bit overwhelming. This is not a problem for the weekender.

 Also, check out Chocolate and Zucchini – mostly a cooking blog, but this section is all about things to see and do in Paris.

Now, some highlights from our weekend: 

Amorino is a chain of gelaterias – not exclusive to Paris, but damn good (in fact, there’s one in London, I just discovered). Anyway, you’re bound to pass one while you stroll in Paris, and you should go in and get a cone. Having said that, the best gelato we had in Paris (or in my case, sorbet) was at Grom (81, rue de Seine (6th))


There’s great coffee at Cafeotheque (52, rue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, 4th), though it’s a rather un-Parisian café (kind of American, actually).Rather than sitting inside, I’d recommend getting your coffee to take away and going to the Seine (very nearby) and dangling your feet over the side. To really get the most out of this experience, get some pastries in advance.


Since I'm allergice to dairy, I've never experienced the crepes and gallettes at Café Breizh, but I'm reliably informed by Briony that they are amazing (109 Rue Vieille du Temple, 3rd). They also serve oysters on the half shell, and delicious cider, so I did OK. Take note that they're closed on Monday and Tuesday.Post-crepe, take some time to wander around Le Marais (the neighbourhood that spans the 3rd and 4th arrondisements). Lots of cool shops and galleries, and a Picasso museum, though it was shut when we were there.


Had a great time at the Bastille Market, which goes on a Sunday. Lots of tasty food (and lovely fountains). We bought mushrooms and garlic and took it back to our flat, where we made pasta in a kitchen that was literally inside a cupboard.


Shakespeare and Company (37 Rue Bûcherie) is possibly the most famous English-Language bookshop in the world (almost certainly the most famous outside Anglophone countries). Has a great history, and still has the bohemian vibe (there’s a piano upstairs that anyone can play, most of the books upstairs are for browsing only and can’t be bought, and there’s a typewriter which, again, anyone can use. I love it.

Monet's water lilies in the Orangerie gallery are absolutely brilliant, and worth queuing for.

If you've got time, and the weather's nice, just go hang out by the Canal St. Martin in the early evening. Chez Prune is supposed to be particularly nice. I’ve never actually had a drink in the area but I walked through, and I was really impressed.


And I'll conclude with a practical tip:buy one of the Paris A-Z’s (they aren’t called that, they're called "Plan de Paris par Arrondisement" but they’re the same idea). You can get them from most newsagents. They’re divided up by Arrondisement, and they make life simple (my copy is blue softcover).


The Libraries of Atlantis: Discovering Ellen Willis’s radical feminism

Thanks to Emily Books, I was recently introduced to the radical feminist essayist Ellen Willis. Reading a collection of her essays, No More Nice Girls, has been only my second prolonged exposure to radical feminism.* That sounds like an unlikely statementfrom someone who has spent as much time collecting English lit. degrees as I have, but there is a world of difference between reading an academic paper that applies feminist theory to a text in order to illuminate certain aspects (rather like an archeologist might fire carbon ions at a fossil in order to ascertain its age), and reading dispatches from within a radical movement dedicated to dismantling our fundamental assumptions about human relationships, and  refashioning them on more equitable terms. Willis's work is full of insights that feel desperately important to our culture, but I can't find their imprint anywhere in the world around me. My overwhelming feeling is 'What? You mean somebody already worked all this stuff out? Well then why the Hell are we in such a mess?'


That's why I called this post 'the Libraries of Atlantis' - because reading Willis feels like suddenly coming across a body of knowledge from a highly sophisticated, utterly alien culture that sunk into the sea years ago, and discovering two things:

  1. Intellectually, they were way ahead of us
  2. The crises that threatened them are almost exactly the same as the crises that threaten us (in Willis's case, the rise of the New Right, in Atlantis's case, well, rising sea levels, I suppose).


There's a great deal that I could quote from what I've read of No More Nice Girls (and I'm only halfway through reading it), but I'm just going to present two excerpts. The first is about abortion. Willis recognised at the beginning of the eighties that attacks on abortion would be at the heart of the right's cultural charm offensive, and she explained why access to safe, legal abortions for all women must be a central priority for anyone who believes that equal rights apply to all people, regardless of their genetic makeup. Here is what she writes:

I had a baby last year. My much-desired and relatively easy pregnancy was full of what antiabortionists like to call "inconveniences." I was always tired, short of breath; my digestion was never right; for three months I endured a state of hormonal siege; later I had pains in my fingers, swelling feet, numb spots on my legs, the dread hemorrhoids. I had to think about everything I ate. I developed borderline glucose intolerance. I gained 50 pounds and am still overweight; my shape has changed in other ways that may well be permanent. Psychologically, my pregnancy consumed me—though I'd happily bought the seat on the roller coaster, I was still terrified to be so out of control of my normally tractable body. It was all bearable, even interesting—even, at times, transcendent—because I wanted a baby. Birth was painful, exhausting, and wonderful If I hadn't wanted a baby it would only have been painful and exhausting—or worse. I can hardly imagine what it's like to have your body and mind taken over in this way when you not only don't look forward to the result, but positively dread it. The thought appalls me. So as I see it, the key question is "Can it be moral, under any circumstances, to make a woman bear a child against her will?" 

[…] All antiabortion ideology rests on the premise—acknowledged or simply assumed—that women's unique capacity to bring life into the world carries with it a unique obligation; that women cannot be allowed to "play God" and launch only the lives they welcome. Yet the alternative to allowing women this power is to make them impotent. Criminalizing abortion doesn't just harm individual women with unwanted pregnancies, it affects all women's sense of themselves. Without control of our fertility we can never envision ourselves as free, for our biology makes us constantly vulnerable. Simply because we are female our physical integrity can be violated, our lives disrupted and transformed, at any time. Our ability to act in the world is hopelessly compromised by our sexual being.

-from 'Putting Women Back in the Abortion Debate', 1985

I'll finish with a quote that sums up what Willis does so well. It's an incredibly simple, irrefutable observation, with (literally) revolutionary implications:

A familialist society assigns legal responsibility for children to the biological parents; the society as a whole has only minimal obligations to its children, and people rarely make deep commitments to children outside their families. This system puts women at an inherent disadvantage: Since it's obvious who a child's mother is, her parental responsibility is automatic; the father's is not. And so the burden has always been on women to get men to do right by them

-from 'Looking for Mr. Good Dad', 1985

I'd never encountered the phrase 'familialist' before, but I love it - especially because it completely transforms the notion of 'personal responsibility'. The right has maintained a monopoly on 'personal responsibility' precisely because they deny the possibility that one's responsibilities might extend beyond one's immediate family. But once you ask 'why is this the case?' and 'should this be the case?' a whole world of possibilities opens up. 






*The first was reading a single-volume collection of Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel's magnificent weekly newspaper comic


5 minutes of thoughts on Mulholland Drive as a 'nineties film' (even though it isn't)


Last night I watched Mulholland Drive for the first time, on the British Film Institute's main screen.

I think of Mulholland Drive as a film that came out in the nineties (though if it were, it never would have made The Iron Lists' top 100 films of the noughties). However, I wouldn't think of it as a film 'of' the noughties, because I think of David Lynch as an artist in the same category as Samuel Beckett (for better and worse, in both instances): someone who creates from out of a personal world with only oblique connections to what else is happening at the time. Both of Beckett and Lynch draw on cultural touchstones (silent film, in particular, for Beckett, 'Golden Age' Hollywood films for Lynch in Mulholland Drive) but they are intensely personal touchstones, not elements of the general zeitgest of the time.

But having said that, Mullholland Drive has odd affinities to two of the nineties' most decade-defining films, Pulp Fiction and Big Lebowski.

The Pulp Fiction connections (off the top of my head): most obviously, the scene in which the hitman gets the 'black book' looks and sounds like Lynch just invited Tarantino in to take over the direction while he went for a cup of coffee - the seedy seventies feel, the banter, the comedy that comes from accidentally shooting people, it's all there. More broadly, you have the blue box in Mullholland Drive and the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, and the repeated return to the same diner.

The Lebowski connections: The big thing here is that Lynch and the Coen brothers have an incredibly similar directorial style - steeped in a particular sense of Hollywood nostalgia that focuses closely on the unpleasantness, with a fascination with absurd characters who repeat semi-coherent phrases over and over. Both films have a powerful sense of attempting to tease a coherent narrative out of utter nonsense, and both film Southern California in a very similar way. I think there's a lot more to be said about the Lynch/Coen crossover (and doubtless it has been said in many blogs, magazines, and peer-reviewed journals), but I'm out of time.

Spider-Man, Batman, and what it means to be part animal

[Note: I don't know much about comics, so to say I'm writing this in a state of ignorance is to put it very, very mildly.]

A few days ago, while cycling home in the dark, I had an insight about Spider-man: outside of his ability to climb walls, his 'spider sense' and his 'proportional strength of a spider', there's nothing spider-like about him at all. He doesn't have the appetites of a spider - he doesn't suck carcasses dry and he only ever wraps people up in order to leave them for the police. In other words, he got all the physical benefits of being a spider, without contracting any essential 'spiderness' from his radioactive spider-bite. In contrast, think of the werewolf: werewolves (who also gain their powers through a bite) become 'wolf-like' according to a very particular understanding of what it means to be a wolf (an understanding that comes from the perspective of potential prey). So, werewolves are overcome by an urge to hunt and kill. 

My initial feeling about this (and I say this as a fan of spider-man) was that this lack of 'spider-ness' meant a loss of depth to the character - I was thinking of fairy tales, archetypes, shamans with animal masks (bear in mind that I was on a bike, it was cold and wet, and I was tired). But when I thought about it a bit more, it struck me that it was a very liberating (and liberal) approach to superpowers - Peter Parker doesn't develop an essential spiderness because there is no essential spiderness - a spider in an American horror film means one thing, and I tend to think that this is, universally, what spiders mean. But Anansi, the trickster spider of Ashanti mythology, is very different. If spider-man can be described as having established a mythology, it seems to me that fundamental to that mythology is the assumption that it's not how you were born (or what you were bitten by) that matters, it's what you choose to do with your life (and I don't think it's entirely coincidental that the ever-cantankerous editor with a heart of gold Jonah Jameson was a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement).