Thursday, July 31, 2008


I'm sort of suspended in time at the moment- nearing the finishing of my chapter but unsure how to end it nicely, nearing the end of my visit to London but still not having seen my three closest transatlantic friends yet (hopefully this weekend).

Last week my mother visited and we had a wonderful time, though I think I may have exhausted her with all the walking, especially when I took her up Tottenham court road where I was convinced there was a wonderful tea house, only to discover the teahouse was in Soho, and also when I confidently took us down Commercial st. in the east end in the wrong direction for four blocks. Don't even get me started on my greatest flub: when I got to the library I told her she could easily get a reader's card since the website says all you need is proof of address and signature. Instead the guy there quizzed her about her research project and asked what specific texts she wanted to see. She didn't know, so he refused to give her a card. Luckily there was still a lot for her to see at the library, so when we met up after I'd finished looking at my rare books she stopped me from groveling. Note to non-academic, formerly academic or partly academic friends: make sure to check out the catalogue and invent a research project before you apply for a reader's card at the BL.

I've seen three plays so far: Michael Frayn's Afterlife at the National- brilliantly written but hampered by its own conceit; The Female of the Species in the W. End- excellently acted by Eilieen Atikins, Anna Maxwell Martin and Sophie Thompson, but ridiculously behind the times and heterosexist. I mean, how can you write a play about feminist criticism and not have heard of Kristeva and Butler? And jazz-age Twelfth Night in Regent's park- not quite jazz-age and a little bit imbalanced. None of them thrillingly good, but all very entertaining.

I've seen a French film (L'heur de l'ete) at the Curzon, had divinely good and affordable Dim Sum (in Paddington, of all places! Better than Royal China and Wong Kei- it's called Pearl Liang and it's transcendental) and returned to Whitechapel for my favorite curry, which was still excellent though I noticed they'd upped their prices by about a pound all around. I also discovered that the bus I take to the British library stops around the corner from the divinely inspired curry place (which is near the Whitechapel Bell Foundry), which means I'll probably get to have the curry twice more before I leave. Yay! I've also spent time with my oldest friend from home and her family, along with family friends old and new, all of whom live or stay in North London.

I still have to return to Islington to my favorite pub, meet up with various friends from the early modern blogosphere, catch a prom, and see the aerially acrobatic Timon at the globe and the Goth Revenger's Tragedy at the National.

And I have to finish this chapter.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


A selection of random observations about this particular trip to London.

1. The flat I'm occupying is owned by perhaps the nicest 60-ish couple I have met other than my parents. He's a distinguished prof on the West Coast, she's an artist. The flat is large for London, though it doesn't get a lot of light. It's furnished with English antiques and books. There's a small bookcase near the doorway to the bedroom, full of books on the topic of which this professor is an expert. I pulled one off the shelf, thinking I'd learn a bit more about his subject- and discovered that everything in the shelf was authored by him.

This makes eight books published in the US plus 2 or 3 published in Europe, plus a 7 volume translation. Okay, so he collaborated on the most recent book and on the translation. But not one is an edited anthology, so still, it's a phenomenal amount of work for any one professor, and even more when you consider that every one of these books is about the work of the same author. Grand total of books authored, edited and translated by this professor: 18. Grand total of books authored, edited and translated by Pamphilia: 0; 1 in progress. (.75 Down, 17.25 to go).

2. I just finished Michael Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which was hilarious. There's no television in the flat, so I've been reading novels (not that I'd watch TV in London anyway of course). Anyway, it's sad and hilarious. At one point the hero decides to go on the lam with his partner and they check in to a hotel "under the name of Saunders." Hee- they think they're being obscure and literary but it's Winnie the Pooh.

Anyway, at the back of the book was an essay by Chabon about writing his first novel. He says that there are three parts to being a successful writer: talent, discipline, and luck. And the only thing anyone ever has any control over is discipline. So that became his work ethic. I keep thinking about this while I'm here because I've actually become a lot less disciplined than I used to be. I mean a long time ago, when I was in high school and did all my homework every night and practiced the piano every day for 3 hours. I was fairly disciplined in College too- I don't mean that I drafted my papers in advance, but I did turn them in on time. I wonder what happened- when or where I lost this rigorous discipline. Was it in graduate school when I had the luxury of focusing only on one thing? Or was it living by myself that eroded my discipline- there was no one around to tell me what to do, or to set a good example? In any case, I've resolved to become more disciplined.

3. Taking the bus from where I'm staying to the BL today in the rain (I sat up on top), I overheard a lovely elderly British couple narrating the bus-trip to one another. He was pointing out landmarks to her, so she must have just come in to town. It was sweet the way they talked with wonder about all the newfangled technology taking over the world- cellphones with email and pictures and music and such. When we passed Mme Tussaud's the man said that he went once, but that was "before the War." I don't know which war he meant, but "things were different then."

4. I didn't really know what "Expensive" meant until I had been here a week. "Expensive" is basically the fact that everything that should cost what it would cost anywhere else, is not available for anything less than a ridiculously high price. Sandwiches are $7, and lunch is $30. EVERYWHERE. It's July and lots of things are "on sale." This means that tee-shirts are only $40 instead of $80.

5. The British Library is full of people you think you know, but don't. Everyone looks vaguely familiar and you will inevitably bound toward someone thinking he or she is your friend or colleague and then be embarrassed when they turn around. This meant that when I did see a colleague from a neighboring university, I approached him timidly and barely whispered his name. Which of course meant that our entire conversation was conducted in barely audible whispers because he thought I was being extra polite (sssh, it's a library).

6. Timeout London knows everything. Where else can you find information about the London Bat Watch and nude men's yoga in Islington?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Old Cotswold Legbar Pastel Eggs

I love London supermarkets (Waitrose especially).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

John Milton: Sexy Rockstar

So I'm heading off to London today, to catch the tail-end of the Milton conference and mostly really to finish writing my book. That sounds equally satisfying and fictitious, "to finish writing my book," as if I were some sort of creative genuis, when really all I'm doing is finishing a chapter, fixing another up, and writing a new introduction. Hardly qualifies as "book writing."

Waiting for my flight, I decided to catch-up on some older issues of the New Yorker, where I found Jonathan Rosen's little piece on Milton, which I think a colleague had recommended I check out. Much as I love the way a kicky modern word or phrase must be employed where no other will do (like when Rosen describes Satan and Gabriel "trash-talking" for instance), I did find myself biting my lip with disapproval. Rosen portrays Milton as a sexually avid rockstar well-versed in kamasutra and polyamory: "Nevermind that there were actually three Mrs. Miltons, and that Milton, who defended divorce and even polygamy, was a sensuous Purtitan, exquisitely attuned to the "amorous delay" of life in Eden." This is clearly a case of the poet being confused with the poetry.

I mean, really. Just because he happened to have three marriages- hastened not by two tame divorces as Rosen suggests here, but by two tragically premature deaths - and wrote stunningly beautiful passages about angelic and Edenic sex, we are supposed to believe that Milton was great in bed?

"Exquisitely attuned to the 'amorous delay'"? What is that supposed to mean? Milton was Casanova? He knew all about foreplay? (Maybe delay is the reason his first wife ran away for three years).

I, for one, would rather not try to imagine what Milton was like in bed, though I'm sure an historical novel is already in the works (by Philippa Gregory). Suffice it to say, it will not be taking up residence on my nightstand. . . unless some idiot buys it for me.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Sparks of Light

It's Friday the 4th here in the land of legalized fireworks. I'm still getting used to that. People start setting them off a full two weeks before the holiday, in their backyards, on the street. Yesterday evening I wandered over to my colleague's house to say hello and her husband nonchalantly gathered about six or seven (on sale at Walmart!) and lit them in the street. If she hadn't objected, he would have lit them all at once. We sat on the terrace and watched, her four-year-old son rapt.

Tonight the 4th conincided with a local gallery hop, which happens once a month. It's not much- about three blocks of galleries and shops that stay open late with free food and sometimes wine. But I'm very glad it exists. It's nice to see the sub-culture here (aka liberals) getting a chance to strut its stuff.

Going to the gallery night and watching fireworks reminded me of the city where I attended graduate school. It's a place I will always associate with a combination of joy, melancholy and irony. Probably because that's what it feels like to be a graduate student, more than anything else.

I'm pretty sure I've blogged about this before, but it's become the story I tote out once a year on the 4th of July. Like on my birthday when my father tells me the story of the Great Ice Storm of '7_, and how while I snuggled under my mother's arm in the hospital as she slept off the anesthetic, he had to stay at home without power, grading papers in the bathtub surrounded by shabbos candles with the cat on the toilet and the dog on the bathmat.

Anyway, one summer, towards the end of our careers as doctoral students, my friends and I hovered in a liminal state of not-being-quite-done, not knowing where any of us would be in two years time, and I think I was heading to Oxford in a few months.

My dear friend e__ had been volunteering as a docent at a crumbling, dilapidated 19th century former prison- a Panopticon -on the top of a small hill in the city. At the time, the place was applying for historical landmark status, though it was in such a state of ruin that everyone who visited had to wear a hard hat. It was great fun, though- in addition to tours of the cells there were ongoing art installations during the year and film screenings in the summer. Anyway, this friend of mine had keys to the place, and since the lookout tower of the prison was very near the location of the city's main firework display, she contrived to sneak us into the prison and up into the lookout tower. We had brought picnic food, wine and beer too, I think. Since we had to sneak in, we used flashlights. It was still very dark.

It was deliciously thrilling, in that somewhat illicit way that makes you feel like a teenager breaking curfew or a kid playing "ghost in the graveyard" at dusk, near a real graveyard. [Edit: I have since learned that this place is featured on a documentary about real ghost hunters. Apparently the electromagnetic reverberation thingies or whatever they call them are off the charts]. Once we got to the top of the lookout tower, we waited for it to get darker and for the fireworks to start. We saw far-off ones bursting over one of the rivers, little pocks of light. Suddenly they were right overhead. I mean, literally over our heads and larger than any of us had imagined. If it weren't so beautiful, I might have compared it to what I imagine a psychedelic alien abduction might feel like, with lights as big as spaceships reaching their fingers down toward our heads.

This city also had a monthly gallery night, to which I and my friends duly repaired. And I remember for the first time (in early September) wandering into one that was unlike the others. For one, it was completely dark. There were black velvet curtains in the window blocking out all the light. A small card rested on the window sill stating that the gallery's hours were "By chance or appointment." There were velvet curtains in the vestibule (dark purple, I think). It was hushed inside, but there might have been faint, ambient chords struck now and then. At least that is how I remember it.

When I got inside, it was still dark, with black walls illuminated softly by chandeliers, pendant lamps, and sconces constructed out of collected ceramic and metal objects. These lights seemed magical, iconic in a sort-of Jungian way. And funny. A ceramic rabbit standing on two legs dressed in a suit, holding an umbrella made out of a sieve through which tiny points of light sparked. A chandelier like a medusa's head of twisted copper pipes, with tiny flame-shaped bulbs flickering at the end of each snake. And my favorite, a chandelier made entirely from teapots, their spouts pointing down and out away from the center, ending in bulbs the shape of little jets of water.

I know it's still there. But I checked the website and couldn't find the teapot or the rabbit lamps.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

London Countdown

8 days. God, I cannot WAIT to get there- it is beautiful but almost a wasteland here in the summer, and I seriously think I might go insane here with nothing but the book I'm writing, an internet connection, and the cat.