For most Americans what's going on in London, or Europe for that matter, is of little concern. London is considered quaint and provincial, and the rest of Europe is seen as a museum with bunch of old buildings. I mean there's not that many Starbucks around, so what's the point.
It's equally unusual that Europeans are fascinated with American TV programs. It's true that most people's first impressions of New York City and the rest of America are shaped by the television programs and films that they see. Every time you walk out on the streets in New York, it's like you're in some film, or in some vaguely familiar stage production. But I'm very different than most Americans, in that I like to discover things I don't know anything about. I am fascinated with any new experience. While kids are getting all hot about Britney and Pokemon, I'm more interested in mundane things that have disappeared from the scene, or things that I may have ignored for years. I am constantly subverting myself and surprising myself.
One thing that I haven't done much in the past ten years is watch tons of television. I was cynical about television, and thought that it made you dumb. Whatever Marxist God I was praying to when I formulated those opinions has since banished me from the garden.
In the past, I watched television because I was depressed and had too much time to kill. Anything that made me forget about my life and how badly it was going for a while. I'm not really sure how I got so involved in watching television in the past year. It began I guess, when I found a TV on the street and was suddenly able to watch some football games last fall. Now I watch nothing in particular. You realize that television is like Prozac and it's not really very challenging. It takes really complicated issues and reduces them to nothing.
But when I was in Los Angeles, not only did I watch tons of television, but I watched a ton of commercial films. In Southern California they have extremely cheap places to see films and bargain matinees, which don't exist in New York or London. I saw Austin Powers with my friend Fred the day it came out. It was the only time that we paid full price for a movie. The film was empty and stupid and really about nothing. It was heavily advertised and, like Star Wars, everybody was dying to see it. Everybody enjoyed it, I guess. But it was on the internet that I won a ticket to London. I entered the Austin Powers contest. Virgin Atlantic was giving away one thousand tickets. I won one.
I had been to London before in 1998, but it's only been in the last few years that I have become really interested in the music scene there. I started buying CDs. I have a few CD players. I read magazines like Q, Mojo, NME, and Melody Maker. I have friends in London. I have pen-pals who I write to in England. We talk about our lives and new records. I have gained a reputation for being in London. Especially after I showed up at a few readings and surprised Lynne Tillman and Joel Rose there. I have interviewed writers and musicians who live in London. People write to me about what's going on in London all the time. With the internet, it's easy to be tapped into the scene there. Peter Strickland was surprised that I knew about Mark Webber's club.
But I had to wait six months to go to London. I had been wanting to go for over a year. I had already missed some Pulp shows. I wasn't able to time my visit with anything like a festival or gig. I knew that I would be going there on February 1st, 2000, for about six months, but I wouldn't know if anything was happening during that week until it was closer to the date. I had written to my friend, Roz Leach, for months, and I figured out that not much would be happening during my stay. Some other friends of mine seemed to be hibernating for the winter. I heard that Stewart Home had just had a kid with his partner. I would call people and they wondered what I was coming over for. I planned to interview some bands so that I would have something to do while I was there. Through Roz, I was able to contact Venini.
Through other people I was able to set up am interview with The Divine Comedy and Neil Hannon, and also with the band Snowpony. The last time I was in London, it didn't occur to me how lucky I was to have stayed with my friends Otter and Tony. This time I would have to find a hotel and do things on my own. I got a bunch of books about London from various sources. I decided that I didn't want to do anything too touristy. I decided to stay on the west side of town, around Chelsea and Earl's Court. During my last visit, I was in Dalston most of the time. I must mention that there was the outside chance of meeting up with Moby at some point. Also I was thinking of going down to visit Jack Sargeant in Brighton. I was going to possibly stay with him for the weekend. I was lucky when leaving New York, that I had just received a big check so I had some cash to spend there.
As for preparations, I bought some new pants, some vitamins, and a bottle of Echinacea which is good for avoiding sickness on the flight. I didn't bring much clothes or books. I just figured that I would buy stuff as I needed it. I packed in an hour and went down to the subway to catch the L train. I couldn't believe that I was going to London. I didn't need a vacation. I wasn't seeing any particular person. I didn't have any particular fondness for London, but I was more familiar with the streets there than those in Amsterdam. I was more familiar with English attitudes.
On the plane I noticed how many Americans were on the flight. It seemed like I could be going anywhere.
The flight attendants looked like military commandos. When we landed I noticed that they put their hands underneath their legs as we touched down. They gave me plenty of drinks. I was just glad that I didn't get sick on the flight.
I was seated next to this black, American girl who could have been a model. We didn't talk very much. I noticed that she had a CD player and a bunch of CDs including artists Macy Gray, Q-Tip, Dr. Dre, and Ben Harper.
There are plenty of films to choose from on Virgin Atlantic flights. On the way there I watched the Clash Documentary Westway To The World" and some videos by Robbie Williams and The Divine Comedy.
Entering the country was easy enough. Customs asked me a few questions and I signed a card and put a bogus address because I was not sure where I was staying at this point. Heathrow was familiar enough. Once you've been there, it's like your backyard. It was still early in the morning, and too early to go to the hotel. I decide to exchange some money and get on the train.
Mike Tyson had some difficulty getting in the country apparently. He had a boxing match and beat some English guy a few days before I arrived.
The American dollar has been the same value for a few years. One pound is about $1.62 or so. It is best to exchange all your money at once because they take three pounds commission. Or when you take money out of your bank account, they charge a lot for each withdrawal money at a cashpoint machine. More about this later.
The Piccadilly train line is the way in for most coming in from Heathrow. When you take this train anytime during the day, you always see people with luggage going back and forth. The problem is that on the trains, there's these little cute seats, and there's no room for any luggage if the train crowds up, which it usually does at 8am on a Wednesday. By the time you get to Hammersmith, you are going to have problems navigating you're way around. Luckily my bags weren't that big, and they could have been smaller.
The train ride seemed exotic two years ago. Now it seemed like I was going to Boston with my parents. I noticed how many English accents there were around me, like when you're in Greenpoint and everyone is speaking in Polish. I passed by Earl's Court, which turned out to be a mistake, and went to Victoria Station, so I could stop by Easy Everything, an internet cafe.
These internet stations like Easy Everything have popped up everywhere in central London. Internet service is expensive in England, so these places are good for travelers as well as the British. I didn't realize how much of a computer nerd I am. It was one pound for an hour. Easy Everything was like a Kinko's with five hundred computers. They have a little cafe too. I picked up a copy of Metro. There was a story about Madonna. It's weird that Madonna goes to a film premier and she's on the cover of a daily paper, even if it's free.
I wandered around the area surrounding Victoria Station. Even though I was armed with five maps, I seemed to be going in the wrong direction. I didn't have a A-Z map, which are always better. London is not like the easy-to-navigate New York. It's very easy to get lost. Or get turned around.
I found a breakfast place a few blocks away. It wasn't exceptional but good enough. I ordered the first of the many English Breakfasts that I would have in the next few days. An English Breakfast consists of eggs, french fries, or chips, baked beans, one large sausage, shanks of bacon, tomatoes, and a coffee, or tea. That's the basic deal.
My first big decision comes up. Do I want to walk back to Victoria Station and get back on the train to Earl's Court? I have my bags and it's crowded. I would have to buy another ticket. I look for a cab. I have no idea where I am or which way is Earl's Court.
I am picked up by an old English guy, who looks like Albert Finney. We talk the whole way. I tell him about America. He seems interested. We seem to be going in circles. We throw around generalities about London back and forth. We head down King's Road. So this is the birthplace of Punk Rock? It looks like Laguna Beach. The cab ride sets me back about ten pounds. Enough for three more breakfasts.
I find the hotel where I made a sort of reservation. There are no rooms available so they take me to another place around the corner which is very similar to a hostel. I talk with some black guy who claims to be from Brooklyn. Some Australian guy who looks like Jim Thirwell (AKA Foetus) sits at the check in desk. He doesn't seem too glad to see me. I pay for three days, which was another mistake.
I get my keys and head towards the room. As I enter, some French chick with her butt up in the air is in my room. Do I have the right room? I hope so.
I try to sleep for a few hours because when you take a six-hour flight from New York to London you lose six hours, and lose a half-day. I take a nap but am excited to be in London. I walk down to King's Road. I buy some postcards at a little shop.
I decided to go to High Holborn to the courts. I had been served divorced papers six months prior, but hadn't heard anything. After checking in with a few clerks I find out that the divorce went through back in October. I feel relieved. They give me some forms. I call my parents and tell them the news. But basically after walking around much of central London, I am very tired.
There's a TV room, where many people are. I notice that many Australians stay around Earl's Court.
During the next few days, I venture into many of the neighborhoods where I have never been like Brixton, Notting Hill, Chelsea, Marylebone, Kensington, Brompton, and Belgravia.
I went by some old haunts like Oxford Street, Old Street, Dalston, and Angel.
I bought a day pass every day and took the Tube all over.
I tried to contact some people but it was hopeless because the phone in my room doesn't work.
Most of the people I contacted by email, so it was essential that I find an internet cafe. My first discovery was that there was a lot of good shops and cafes and good stuff around South Kensington station, at the end of Old Brompton Road.
I also went by a bogus address where my ex-wife was supposed to live. Sort of above King's Cross, on York Way. Since the divorce had went through there was no real reason to talk to her. If I had to go back to court, things would have been more tense. I had called some number a few weeks previous and the people there had told me that Victoria, my ex-wife, had moved somewhere in Brixton.
When venturing around King's Cross and Angel, I realized that I was close to the offices of Serpent's Tail. I knew a girl there named Anna, so I thought that I would stop by. It was in the back of some weird buildings off the street. It seemed like an old marketplace. Anna answered the door but seemed alarmed. She remembered me but was busy, or wanted to appear so. She gave me a copy of Rap Attack by David Toop. I left and went back to Angel and Islington. I decided to take a bus and go back up to Dalston and Hackney where I had stayed previously. The weather continued to be excellent.
I got lost again. I walked up Hoxton Street and was pretending that I was Richard Ashcroft in that Verve video. The funny thing was that at a bend in the road, I got turned around. This can happen a lot in London. It happened to me again when I was going to Abbey Road. You have to make sure that you are going straight. You have to check at the bus stop and look at the red arrows. I made it to Kingsland Road and had a late breakfast at a place I went with Otter and Tony years before.
Cigarettes were about £3.50.
I didn't want to drink and go to bars. I didn't want to go to museums. I didn't want to do any tourist stuff.
It was hard to meet people.
I think that people look at you more in London when you walk down the street. Especially girls. In New York, girls have a way of not looking at you when walking down the street. Girls are used to guys staring at them. Everyone is like a sexual predator to them I suppose? In New York, girls walk around in a protective bubble, and as you walk by them, they will look at the ground, or at some building, or the furthest point away for you. If girls like you at all they will either play with their hair or they will cough. If you make any impression at all on them they will have a reaction. If they say "Hello" to you, it is nothing less than shocking. But in London, girls will look at you from a distance, as if vaguely amused. But they are probably married or in a dead-end ten year relationship, that's in its second year. Married women will stare back at you, and you can imagine that they have this fantasy world to protect them from their boring, unromantic lives.
So I end up talking to people at the hotel. I watch American shows on television with them. They like the shows that I hate: The Simpson and Friends. Any lousy British show is preferable to the like, just because the are unknown to me, and who knows when I will again see "The Bill," "Eastenders," and "The Royle Family."
I end up making several friends. Ben is an Australian who works at the hotel. Peter is a young drunk just out of the army who is from Blackpool. Bryan is another young arrogant asshole from Devon. And there is whole a group of people thrown into the mix but I don't know their names. There's a bunch of Japanese kids staying at the hotel too, but they stay to themselves and I don't talk to any of them.
Mostly I make friends with a group of English people who stay at the hotel, but have day jobs. They aren't vacationing or staying at the hotel on holiday. They live here and are from somewhere in the country, without anywhere else to crash in London.
I make the mistake of bringing three hundred dollars and not exchanging it all at once. I call my mom in LA and tell her to put fifty dollars into my bank account, just in case I run out of money. I go to a bank on Clerkenwell Road, and a bank teller opens up her booth when she sees me standing in line. I notice that girls seem to fancy me more here. I exchange twenty dollars before I meet James from Creation Books. This bank doesn't charge me.
I try to find the Mute Records office. I try to meet Sarah Lowe and hope that I can get some free CDs. Sarah is on tour with Moby, and I decide that I probably can't get up to Liverpool to see the show. I talk with a few people at Mute Records and drop off some magazines. I also go to the offices of Digital Hardcore on Dean Street. It doesn't look like anyone's in, and I lose my nerve.
I take a bus to Hearn Hill, near Brixton, and return to the sight of my last trip to London. I find the bar where I met up with Otter and Tony. I buy another candy bar. Then I call Creation Books and call Miranda. She tells me that James and Laurence are down at the bar already so I head back to Clerkenwell.
I walk around to several parts I've never been to. I go by The Barbican.
I find the bar where James hangs out. He's there with some of the locals. Laurence Raine is there as well. Miranda shows up for a while. Sander Hicks from Soft Skull Press is in town and may show up as well. Laurence is doing some coke or speed. He offers me some, but I've come to drink. I order a Stella Artois and James has a Carling. Anna from Serpent's Tail shows up and takes Laurence away. James and I drink too much and talk about books, the internet, and Oasis. Laurence had previously put a bunch of money in the jukebox and picked all the Oasis songs. So we listen to all three albums. I tell James that I just heard the new one "Go Let It Out."
I get home and pass out. I wake up at five in the morning and puke. It must have been a reaction with the vitamins I took?
I walk around South Kensington not feeling so well. I still have a hangover. I take it easy. I buy some CDs at a Tower in Oxford Circus. I see Harrod's and find a cafe that turns out to be real expensive. I get lost around St. James. It starts to rain and windy. I put on my NY Yankees beanie. It's the only time I notice someone else wearing the exact same Yankees hat.
I walking around Warwick Road and run into two girls from Texas. They think I'm English and ask me for directions. I suppose that if I faked a British accent, I could have hit on them?
Last time I was in London, Frank Sinatra died. I wait for something astonishing to happen. There's a hijacked Afghan Boeing 727 sitting on the runway of Stansed Airport. I'm lucky they didn't land at Heathrow because many flights are delayed and canceled.
The big song I hear this week everywhere is "Rise" by Gabrielle.
I notice that people read newspapers constantly. They read books on trains. I notice this author Bill Bryson, that everyone seems to like. An Australian girl I meet is reading him. I think she likes me, but I don't really like her.
I stay up late with Ben. We watch television and talk about music. He shows me some pictures of his family in Melbourne. Ben is a young kid who think I'm about 25 years old. He's really into death metal and glam, and he wears this furry black coat. At three in the morning, two other Australians come in the door and they're obviously drunk. We talk a little and size each other up. This Moby song comes on and the Australian guy says he loves this song and turns it up really loud. I tell them I'm going to bed. It's late. The Australian guy apologizes and says he'll turn it down. But I leave anyway. He says something like "All you Americans...."
The next day it takes me a while to wake up. I decide to go over to King's Cross and see if I can locate Victoria, my ex-wife. As an excuse I write a note asking her if she wants to take pictures of The Divine Comedy when I interview them the next day. It's raining slightly. I take the bus up York Way towards Camden. It's about 1pm. I knock on the door. I bang on the window. A few people come out. I ask them if they know Victoria Straub. They tell me that her brother lives there. That they were both just there. I give some guy a note to pass on. I walk away sort of confused. I supposed if I got there an hour earlier I would have ran into them.
I walk down to Camden Town. It's the weekend and there's tons of people. I walk through the marketplace. It's foggy and damp. I walk up and down the road. I find another Tower Records and look for some stuff. I come out and look for a cashpoint machine. I smoke a cigarette and watch people pass by. I see Victoria and her brother walking towards me. She looks the same except her hair is about a foot longer. She says: "Hello, Alexander." She walks by me and goes down the road.
I walked down towards Russell Square. I ran into two apparently gay guys who were holding hands and walking a dog. I asked them if I was walking the correct way, towards Tottenham Court Road, and Hampstead Road. They seem confused.
Cyberia, which I had heard about for years, was a little unremarkable cafe that looked like it should be in New York. I wrote a letter to Stewart Home and to Roz. I also wrote postcards to my mom and Fred, David and Patrick. I walked around Bloombury Square and thought it looked like Tomkins Square Park if it was on 57th street. I ended up around Oxford street where I saw two guys fighting in the street. People were standing around vaguely interested. Not with the thirst for a kill like they would in America. Just as if it relieved the boredom slightly.
I walked around Soho. I found a cashpoint machine on Dean Street. I was able to take out more money because my mom had put in more than I asked her for. I found some good used record stores on Berwick Street. I saw that they sold Absinthe at a shop somewhere on Old Compton Street.
I notice that "Time Regained" is playing near the hotel. It's probably the only film that is playing here that has not played in America. Most of the other films are American films from six months ago.
I wake up on February 7th and am excited. It's finally time to do some interviews. I go take the train to Farringdon. I locate Cow Cross Road which I saw a few days earlier when I met with the Creation guys. It's early so I walk into a cafe and have an espresso. First time in months that I have drank it. They play loud techno music in this cafe with business types that work in the Clerkenwell and Farringdon areas. I walk across the street and find a used book store to see what they have. It a small shabby book store with old books piled to the ceiling. A fellow walks in and asks for a book about pre-historical cave paintings.
I met the Divine Comedy publicist in her offices. Nathalie was on the top floor of a narrow building and a narrower staircase. The management of The Chemical Brothers and Primal Scream were on the lower floors. Nathalie was nice. I also met a Canadian guy who she worked with. Neil Hannon showed late so I was able to make a few phone calls. I called Debbie Lime from Venini. She had been in town for a few days and was leaving Euston Station for Sheffield in a few hours. We planned to meet. The interview with Neil went well. He was dressed up in a parka, sweats, and sneakers.
I stopped by Creation Books around the corner. I met with Miranda and Laurence. James had left for Japan earlier that day. They were busy so they let me have about six books and I was on my way. I discovered that most offices in London are really small and quirky. Offices in America are usually big lofts with wood floors or corporate type spaces. London offices are like little rooms stuffed with people and desks, more like the offices of Formula and Girlie Action.
Finally I got to Euston Station and met Debbie Lime. I had only heard one single so I didn't know much about their music, except what I read. Debbie Lime was friendly and reminded me of a mix Danielle Willis and Aimee Mann, except more glamorous. The interview was better and more carefree. She had come into town to go to Popstarz. She seemed more interested in what was going on in America. We had a drink and talked for about an hour. We left and she gave me a hug.
I got in touch with Peter Strickland and we planned to meet at the Finsbury Park tube. I waited outside the station. Peter came over wearing a Russian hat. We went looking for a bar. We had a few drinks at this nearby place. Peter said that he knew Mark Webber of Pulp. He said that he knew Debbie and almost had sex with her. We talked about film. When we came back we got pulled over by police. They thought we were dealing drugs.
By now I was getting tired of London and running out of money.
I talked to the fellow at the hotel. It turned out that I had to pay twenty pounds extra because I was paying per day instead of for the full week. I was worried until I found out that I had some extra money.
The next I went back to Old Street. I met Katharine Gifford at The Bean on Curtain Road. She was the leader of the band Snowpony. She was also friends with Tony and Otter. The interview didn't go as well because her record had been out a while, Snowpony hardly played any shows, and the next record was delayed, so there was hardly anything new to talk about. We got along though. I really like their music. She was a strange person though. I couldn't tell what she thought about me.
The last day was unremarkable. I was glad to get back to New York. I had a bunch of business to take care of. I checked out of the hotel. Nobody really noticed. I said goodbye to Ben. I headed back to Heathrow. I bought a few candy bars with the money I had left.
I looked at a copy of The Times with Prince Charles on the cover. He is playing bongos with street musicians in Manchester. I think "What a dork!" It's like Al Gore or Rudy Giuliani panhandling with musicians in Times Square subway station.
London means being free, not being myself.
London gave me back my freedom. I wasn't married anymore.
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