04 February 2008

The week that was

The week's been fairly quiet in London - not much in the way of gallivanting to report.

On Monday I watched a brief doco featuring Alex James, the former bassist from Blur. Now a cheese-making farmer living a life of rural; idyll, James famously spent many thousands of pounds on drugs and booze during the height of his music stardom. Having desisted from the hard stuff, he received an invitation from the government of Colombia, which offered to show him the coal-face issues at the heart of the drugs trade. So, quicker than you can say 'Devil's dandruff', the floppy-fringed James was meeting Senor El Presidente and talking about how the drug trade was a curse on Colombia. So far, so good.

But things got interesting when James and his hopefully well-insured camera crew went on a military coca-plant eradication mission in the Colombian jungle. Helicopters such as the one they flew in are often shot down, and the plantations they visit are sometimes laced with landmines to maim the anti-drugs forces. (The aircraft pilots were all Americans 'with a military bearing', by the way - but unsurprisingly no-one would answer questions about that!).

Having survived the jungle mission, and returned from visiting a poverty-stricken village where he learnt how growing and processing coca is the only way the villagers can feed their families, James headed back to the cities for some brushes with the business end of the drugs trade. He met a pixellated drug dealer and his coke-headed bodyguard, and in a chilling scene later on, interviewed a local mafia hitman, who startled the former popstar by whipping out a concealed Glock pistol. (Over the programme end credits, the producers added that the hitman was killed in January). James emerged from his visit to Colombia duly chastened and hopeful that his experiences might help convince British party-goers to stay away from cocaine. He might have a long way to go if this article about the evidence of cocaine traces on UK banknotes still holds true.

On Tuesday I received confirmation from the High Commission that my application in the ballot to attend the Royal Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in July had been successful. So I've got a few months to brush up on my small talk and find a morning suit to wear. I might need to go trawling through the Oxfam shops in the posher parts of London.

After work that night I met up with Kirstin's friend Fay and her pals at the Rose & Crown in Stoke Newington for its pub quiz. I'm not a regular attendee because the weekly quizzes finish at 10.30pm or later, which means I'm usually not home before midnight. I was able to help with the history and music questions here and there, and we were lucky to come 1st equal, winning a bit of petty cash. Next week the theme is film and music, so I'll definitely try to make it again! I'm also learning the ins and outs of the question-setter: one question asked the name of the planet in the solar system furthest from the sun, but it turned out she hadn't heard about the down-rating of Pluto to 'dwarf planet' status in 2006.

Wednesday was the quietest day of the week. On my morning walk down to the tube station I spoke to Bruce to wish him a happy birthday. Naturally I was careful to finish our conversation before boarding the tube, as that would've made me something of a hypocrite, given the regularity with which I think evil thoughts about people who carry on private telephone conversations on public transport. That evening I enjoyed watching an old Comic Strip episode: the slapdash spaghetti western 'A Fistful of Traveller's Cheques', which is still entertaining more than 20 years later (see this brief clip, if you can tolerate the poorly-spelt title).

On Thursday after work I spent an hour in the British Museum, shifting from room to room depending on the relative volume levels. It seemed that Spanish and Italian tourists had the loudest 'museum voices', i.e. talking non-stop as loud as possible, with predictable results in the long echo-prone galleries of the museum.

Afterwards I met Helen who had arranged tickets for a performance by Welsh stand-up comedian Mark Watson, having heard him on Radio 4. We were just settling into our seats and wondering when the show would start when a chap in the row in front of us leapt to his feet and started loudly addressing the audience. Turned out this was Watson; cue mild but ever-increasing sensation of disquiet caused by having a comedian standing right in front of you, because they always seem to like a bit of audience participation. Which is why I don't sit in the front row! But we were safe, as he explained he didn't really go in for embarrassing his audience members, and he soon restored himself to his proper place on the stage. Watson's a likeable chap with a good line in observational humour, such as his running commentary on everyday events including fat businessmen running to catch a train, or the contents of a fellow diner's lunch. And his momentary glimpses into the world of stardom (he's appeared on TV a few times) provide the opportunity for a bit of surrealist hypothesising about the creeping inevitability that seems to attach itself to the very worst ideas. For example, on 'Never Mind The Buzzcocks' he was on a team with pop star Jamelia and couldn't help wondering, "What would happen if I... killed Jamelia? Y'know, not because I want to, but just because I could". My guess is that he'd probably not be invited to appear on the programme again, at the very least.

Here's a couple of stand-up clips of Mark Watson. Some of the language is NSFW though - be careful.

Arriving home after the show at about 10.30pm I passed by a lively scene near my building. A parked van had been clamped by the authorities and the driver and a mate were attacking the triangular wheelclamp with a circular saw, sending a curtain of sparks jetting over the narrow street and making a real racket to boot. When I checked out the window a quarter of an hour later the van was gone. I suppose you could admire their 'can-do' spirit, but I wonder if it occurred to them that a vehicle's licence plate would always be recorded when it's clamped...

The end of the week loomed quickly, and while the work day felt quite slow, at least it was capped off with work drinks for a few of us at Pagliacci on Kingway. It's a lively bar on Fridays, but the volume levels are high from all the excited chattering and the bar is too small for the size of the premises: it takes ages to get served.

My Saturday was very low key - a tram trip out to the shops of Purley Way, and an evening spent watching Green Wing and playing Baldur's Gate II. Today I went further afield, taking a walk through the monied streets of Chelsea, including the historic Chelsea Physic Garden and the trendy King's Road. Here's a picture of the Physic Garden... or at least it's the wall outside. I'm not paying 7 quid to go in!

The main purpose of the visit was to explore the National Army Museum, an under-visited free attraction not far from the throngs of South Kensington. The Army exhibits were of a high quality, particularly the impressively life-like mannequins kitted out in period uniform and weaponry. (Mannequins are usually rubbish). Highlights aside from the expected collections of arms and equipment included Capt William Siborne’s massive 170-year-old scale model of the orders of battle at Waterloo (1815); the mounted skull of a regiment's mascot tiger, the animal having been brought back tame from Bengal; and the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse, Marengo. One major drawback of the museum was its ‘no photography’ policy – ‘no flash photography’ I could understand, but no pictures at all is just inhospitable.

On the way home I decided to be a real tourist: I took a video of the District Line train to Wimbledon arriving at the platform at Sloane Square. While this did naturally bring on an acute sensation of dorkiness, I reasoned that it would be nice for those poor unfortunates who are exiled from London and who miss the crotchety, somewhat unreliable and occasionally grotty Underground:

Plans for next week include attending a couple of movies and putting the finishing touches on my plans for Andalucia in mid-February.
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