02 April 2007

In the thick of it

It's been a relatively undramatic week here in London. The last weekend before Easter has been sunny and warm, but the working week was dominated by chillier temperatures of around 8 to 11 degrees.

One evening I caught an excellent documentary on the UK History channel. The Meet The Ancestors programme sent an expedition to the West African Sahara Desert to try to excavate the remains of a BOAC Handley-Page Hermes turboprop airliner (G-ALDN) that crashed in May 1952 due to a navigation error. After suffering relatively minor injuries in the forced landing, the passengers and crew, including a mother with a young baby, had to walk 15 miles in the midst of a fierce sandstorm to rendezvous with a French rescue party. Although they reached their destination, sadly the First Officer died of exhaustion before he could be evacuated to a hospital.

The programme's excavators failed to find the aircraft fuselage, because a local Bedouin merchant had hauled it away for scrap metal resale only a few years before. But in two moving scenes that closed the programme, the widow of the dead First Officer was brought from England to see his simple but well-kept grave in a lush desert oasis for one last time. And it was also revealed that one of the expedition crew, who had done a few interviews to camera during the programme, had actually been the baby involved in the crash. His mother died in a road accident in 1953, so for both the widow and the grown son, the trip to the desert was one last opportunity to connect with their lost family members.

After work on Thursday I headed over to Deptford Bridge to watch the cricket with Steve & Fiona, and enjoy some decent fish & chips from their local shop. Decent fish & chips are hard to track down in London, and even a good shop bears little relation to those in New Zealand in terms of quality and taste. But this one on the Greenwich High Road is pretty good - and of course New Zealand's seven-wicket victory over the West Indies helped to set the seal on a good evening.

It's been a reasonably busy weekend too. Richard & Sam have secured their flat, so I look forward to seeing that soon. Will probably move there in the next couple of weeks until I secure a full-time job with a decent salary. But of course there's the small issue of the Oakley-Ngatai offspring on the way, so that should keep things interesting!

On Saturday I had to thread my way over the Hammersmith Bridge through a mass of milling posh people who crowded the narrow pedestrian lanes to cheer on the Oxford Boat Race rowing crew, which was practicing for the big race. The whole bridge was lined with well-bred young supporters, many of whom had flowed bibulously from The Old City Arms pub at the north end of the bridge, with their pint glasses in hand. I think the race itself is on 7 April, so I might be out of town for that one.

In town that evening I signed up as a member of the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, so I can now get £3 movie tickets. This might not sound too impressive until you consider that an ordinary ticket at the Odeon nearby costs £12.50, which is the equivalent of NZ$34.40. The PCC is a funny old 'grindhouse' - the cinema floor slopes up rather than down to the screen, so watching a film there can feel as if you're in a rollercoaster seat. And the screen's not that big. And people light up their mobile phone screens during the movie to check their text messages. (Don't get me started on mobile phone etiquette!). But hey, it's affordable and has some interesting stuff on, and that's the main thing.

My first Prince Charles film was the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film Babel. There are four intersecting dramas played out in the film, and while the overall effect was a little uneven - the Moroccan Perils of Pauline-style woes of Pitt and Blanchett were probably the weakest element of the film, despite the star power - but there were some powerful images and soundscapes to absorb. The Mexican sub-story rings truest, which is unsurprising given the origins of the director, and it packs a real punch in its depiction of the harshness with which Mexicans are treated by US border officials. While the Japanese sub-story is relatively simplistic and naive, it's redeemed by the nightclub scene in which the audience hears the booming bass of the disco music just as deaf-mute schoolgirl Chieko would: everything is stripped away from the track (a remix of Earth, Wind and Fire's 'September') until all that remains is the pile-driver bass earthquakes that pound the entire room. I'll definitely be on the lookout for the film soundtrack - aside from the club music and Ryuchi Sakamoto's stylings in the Japanese scenes, there's also uplifting mariachi pop from the Mexican wedding scene, and eerie North African drones from Morocco to complement the harsh desert light. It's not hard to see why Babel won Best Original Score at the Oscars.

Today I ventured into the thick of it at the Camden Markets, which is particularly brave on a sunny Sunday, because everyone else has the same idea. It's still a teeming mass of humanity (pic), and there's a lot of gawpers and gawpees on display, but the goods on offer remain appealing and there's a huge variety of stalls and shops to browse, if you can reach them through the torrent of people.

As the afternoon ebbed into a golden-hued dusk I explored the north bank of the Thames near Hammersmith. I followed the Thames Path, which wends its way along the riverside past houseboat moorings ringed with paddling swans and ducks. The journey was punctuated by several upmarket pubs and restaurants that were heavily patronised by the immaculately-clad scions of noble and well-moneyed houses, who had come to bask in the sunshine and consume a beer or two with their chums. Further westwards, the Thames disappears for a time behind the iron railings and high hedges of private gardens belonging to the residents of the imposing riverside mansions on the town side of the path. One building of dark bricks had not one but two plaques adorning it - proclaiming that not only was it the home of the first electric telegraph, constructed by Sir Francis Ronalds in 1816, but that it was also the site of the lecture-room of the Hammersmith Socialists in later years.

Book of the week: Pompeii by Robert Harris. Having read and enjoyed Harris's Fatherland a few years ago, I spotted this in the library last week. While Harris will never stun the world with legendary prose, his books are good solid tales a grade or two above the average airport thriller. This one concerns Attilius, a young engineer from Rome, who is sent to Pompeii to run the town's aqueduct, because the previous engineer has mysteriously disappeared. Naturally, given that it's called 'Pompeii', Vesuvius and Pliny the Elder make an appearance, as does the good old pyroclastic eruption, which is the best possible excuse to get out of spring-cleaning your Roman villa. One to read if, like me, you're planning to visit the ruins at some stage.

This week I'll be sorting out my plans for Easter, trying to arrange somewhere fun to go. I've yet to venture out of London, so I'm really looking forward to a bit of a tiki-tour. Hope you all have a good Easter break too!

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