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Posts Tagged ‘London’

On Knowing Things

April 14, 2014 | by


Photo: Allen Timothy Chang

Yesterday, I was one of several people manning a book-centric advice booth as part of a New York literary festival. For days beforehand, I was paralyzed with nerves. I couldn’t face the other, more legitimate advice-givers; I felt like a charlatan and an impostor. I had something of an existential crisis.

I have always wanted to be a maven. But my standards are high, because I once knew a true maven. She was not a know-it-all; she just knew everything. I met her when I was nineteen and my college boyfriend and I were traveling through London. Lise, who at the time was in her seventies, was a friend of his family, and she was the sort of hostess who welcomed friends, and friends of friends, and acquaintances of friends, to stay with her in her flat, south of Hyde Park.

She was an imposing sort of person, her already-deep voice further deepened by years of chain-smoking. In later years, she had a stern doctor and would periodically use some sort of early e-cigarette, but the Marlboro Reds would generally reappear on the kitchen table. As would the whiskey, the butter. She could speak Russian and German and French and had worked as a translator. Meals at her house lasted for five hours, and at the end everyone was drunk but her. Formerly involved with helping end theater censorship in England—and the widow of a spy-turned-diagnostician-turned-mystery-writer—she seemed to know everyone. Beckett and Pinter and Peter O’Toole would all turn up in her stories; other Sunday lunch guests might be Labour whips, or countesses, or just someone’s young daughter who had lost her way and needed a place to stay for a while. Read More »

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See London with New (Old) Eyes, and Other News

March 5, 2014 | by

venice shystone

Canaletto’s Northumberland House, 1752, juxtaposed against contemporary London by Shystone.


Common Language

February 12, 2014 | by

snooker parlor konstmat flickr

Photo: Konstmat, via Flickr

During my junior year of college, I had the chance to study at a university in London. I flew out of JFK on September 15, 2001, and the flight was so empty I was able to lie down across four seats for the first and last time in my life. In England, many of our fellow students seemed to feel obliged to either ask solicitously about our 9/11 experiences, or express their views on American imperialism. In both capacities, I felt I proved a disappointment.

During that year abroad, my American friend Rachel and I became fascinated with a group of fellow literature students who seemed to us unspeakably wonderful. They never said anything in seminar, they always looked glamorously ridiculous, and, best of all, their company was highly exclusive.

We came up with names for all of them. There was the seeming leader, “Robert Smith,” who had sculptural, Cure-like hair. “Charles and Camilla Macaulay” looked a bit alike—in fact, the whole crew struck us as very Secret History-esque. We called one tall, severe boy “Adam Bede”; one emaciated fellow was “Schiele”; another, I’m sorry to say, was just “the Balding One.”

They moved in a pack, smoked roll-ups in a secretive cluster, exchanged notes and amused eye contact during class, and cohabited, or so we assumed. The clique seemed to us all things not-American. It shamed us to think that they associated us with the Boston girl who was always shouting loud, obvious things about Sylvia Plath or the sleazy Arizona boy who hit on all the prettiest girls. We were desperate to prove our worth to them, but how? The only person outside their circle with whom we’d ever seen them associate was a studious, translucently fair young man named Rupert Davies. Read More »

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Map of the World

December 12, 2013 | by


I do realize it must feel like map week around here, but how could we not share this literary street map, loosely based on Victorian London? To quote the Dorothy studio, the map

is made up from the titles of over six hundred books from the history of English Literature (and a few favourites from further afield). The map includes classics such as Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Bleak House, Vanity Fair, and Wuthering Heights as well as twentieth and twenty-first century works such as The Waste Land, To the Lighthouse, Animal Farm, Slaughterhouse 5, The Catcher in the Rye, The Wasp Factory, Norwegian Wood, and The Road.




October 8, 2013 | by


I bought my first early-eighties Harlequin Romance—actually, it was a Mills & Boon—when I was working at a thrift store in London. This was, without question, the worst job I have ever had. Does it count as a job if it’s volunteer work? Anyway, it was bad, that time with Help the Aged. I was a junior in college, studying in London, and feeling down; I had thought that perhaps helping others would pull me out of the doldrums. And, since my volunteer work in the States had always centered around Meals on Wheels and visits to local nursing homes, an organization so-named seemed like just what the doctor ordered.

It wasn’t. Or at least, the way I managed it wasn’t. In retrospect, I probably should have called some central office or at least gone to the Web site to research volunteer opportunities. What I did instead was walk into the local branch of the thrift shop (“charity shop,” in the UK) and ask if they needed any volunteers. I’d imagined visiting with homebound pensioners, as I had at home (they would regale me with tales of the Blitz, rationing, etc.); I’d been game for paperwork too, if that’s what was needed.

“Could you work in the shop?” asked the girl behind the counter.

I allowed as how I could, if they needed help, and added to the bargain that I had quite a bit of retail experience. Good, she said; I could come back on Thursday. Thursday rolled around and I duly reported for duty. It was then that things became clear.

This was my job: to go through the trash bags of donations people contributed and sort the salable clothes from the dross. This is not in itself such a horrible prospect, but I soon learned there was a reason I had been given latex gloves: the donations were often filthy, and not-so-occasionally mixed amongst them was a piece of rotten food or a dirty diaper.

One of the few perks was being allowed to keep any books I wanted, although most weren’t exactly tempting. The first and last one I ever picked up was a paperback romance called The Road to Forever, by one Jeneth Murrey. This is the plot of The Road to Forever: Lallie has been Owen’s stepsister since she was four. When their parents died, Owen raised her and her younger siblings. They had a contentious relationship. When Lallie was a young woman, she was framed, accused of having an affair with an older married man, in fact a publicity stunt (don’t worry about this plot point too much.) Owen, her stepbrother-guardian, believed the lies, and banished her from the family home. He also forced her to live with some horrible couple in lock-down. She escaped, and hasn’t spoken to him in six years. Got it? Read More »


The Jewish Vicar

September 26, 2012 | by

An old Jewish man is hit by a car. As he lies in the road, dazed and bleeding, a woman rushes over, takes off her jacket, folds it, and puts it under his head.

“Are you comfortable?” she asks.

“Meh. I make a living.”

I was eight when my father told me this joke. I wasn’t sure I understood it. Jews worried more about making a living than being run over. Was that it? One thing I was sure of was that the road was in Golders Green, in northwest London, where I grew up and was bar mitzvahed.

Golders Green made me. Jews made me, with their jokes and their food and their pride and their warmth and their anxiety and their love of scholarship. I cannot be unmade, even though I haven’t been inside a synagogue since my bar mitzvah.

How far can you go from Golders Green and still be Jewish?

Read More »