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Stupid inflation

I was reading Ian Jack’s LRB  review of Ken Livingstone’s memoirs and this passage caught my eye: “Two years later [in 1972], the electors of Norwood voted him onto the Greater London Council. This gave him an income of £2,000 a year, which meant that he needed no other job”. What a difference 40 years, makes, eh? But it does put Mrs Bennett’s fluttering’s about Mr Bingley’s 5,000 a year and Mr Darcy’s 10,000 a year into perspectives, since Pride & Prejudice is set in 1797.

Because it’s Lent, darling

Why is my champagne hand empty?

…on anniversaries

Ten years ago yesterday, I begin my first visit to England. It was my last year at university, and I came to visit my friend Lauren (who was studying abroad at UCL and living on Gray’s Inn Road) and my friend Allison (who was studying abroad at Girton College, Cambridge). To say that I enjoyed myself is an understatement. I was, at the time, finishing my undergraduate honors thesis on the Marriage Reform Act of 1753. And I spent two days in the British Library, the ostensible purpose of my visit. I spent the rest of my time going to awful restaurants and awesome student club nights. By the end of my week, I had resolved to apply to Cambridge for grad school and, specifically, to study London history.

Such are the twists and turns of life that I ended up at Oxford, and although I still acknowledge that Cambridge is a prettier town, I can say with all honesty that I would rather be a leper than a tab.

I’ve always thought highly–or at least often–of anniversaries. They offer an opportunity to reflect on the past, on the people we were when things happen in the past, and the way our experiences–both those we commemorate and those that from the intervening period–have changed us. All of this, I suppose, falls into a what might be called ‘personal history’. Like all history, the chains of events seem much more certain in retrospect. The thread of narrative that we can follow into our pasts makes it easy to ignore the complexity of previous moments. After all, we each make a dozen decisions each day that shape who we become, what opportunities open before us, and which are shut down. As one proceeds down one’s current path, it takes a good deal of concentration to remember that the alternate paths one might have taken were not always side streets or alleyways, but the potential to be a main road. I, at least, find that anniversaries are invitations to reflect, the be thankful, and to be more intentional about the choices I make.

This week, it seems, is filled with anniversaries. Sunday, for example, was six months since Andrew and I got married (hurrah!). As seems to be our habit, we spent the day in different countries. Ah well, we’ll hopefully be in the same place six months from now. Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of our dog Missy having puppies. She was a good dog. I was in 5th grade. It was a leap day. I wonder if any of her puppies (or grandpuppies) is still alive. I wouldn’t bet on it, but considering Missy lived to be 19, there’s definitely a chance. I’m also pretty sure that tomorrow is the first anniversary of my first drunken purchase at a charity auction: a portrait of Lord Nelson that was painted when he was 25 or so. It’s still in the box. Don’t ask how much I spent on it. Same auction is happening Thursday night, but thankfully I’m not drinking this year in Lent. And that’s worth remembering.


A new project…

As I mentioned last week, we’ve moved offices. And (joy of joys) I can see the entrance to (and the roof of) the British Museum from my desk. Well, I’ve thought of something to do with this amazing opportunity: I’m going to go through the hundred objects in the BBC Radio 4’s fantastic 2010 series A History of the World.

First up: the Mummy of Hornedjitef, an Egyptian priest who died around 250 BC. I’m listening to the show now, and very much enjoying it. To quote Ahdaf Soueif in this first episode: “It reminds the world of our common heritage”.

So now I’ll head to the museum to see the mummy. And then I’ll go home and do some reading. Life is good.

A new office

We moved offices over the weekend. The new one is absolutely amazing. Here, for example, is the view from the gym.

Central St Giles - View from Floor 9

It’s a 22 minute walk from our flat, which is pretty great. I can even see our block of flats from my desk. And St Pancras. And the roof of the British Museum.

Possibly more important, considering how much time I spend in the office, is the number and variety of things within a 5 minute walk of where I’m sitting right now:

Not duty, but joy

Once or twice a year, I find myself in Dublin for work. It’s a nice enough city. Like Amsterdam, the hotels are (on the whole) disappointing, but the Guiness is good and I enjoy both the compactness of the city centre and the weather. Also, the food in our office has improved dramatically in recent years.

But Dublin is also a city of sad memories for me. In October 2009, the day Andrew and I got home from one of my favourite-ever holidays (to Dubrovnik), my grandmotherfell while standing up . She was 97. She broke her hip, and while she lived for about 6 weeks afterwards, she never really recovered. I’m thankful for having made it home to say goodbye, and that she died at my parents’ house, with her family at her side, but I do miss her. On Saturday night I had an extremely realistic dream of visiting her at the apartment where she lived until her accident, and halfway through the dream I realised it was a dream. I was still sitting next to her, but dream me was crying at the realisation.

I still remember the hotel room where I was sitting when my mother called me with the news. I can still remember prosaic things like the location of the switch for the heater under the tiles of the bathroom floor. I can still remember searching online for a parish in the neighbourhood where I could go to mass before work the next morning. I can still remember the mass itself. In fact, I still go to morning mass at the same parish every time I’m in Dublin.

My grandmother was probably the most remarkable person I’ve ever known. Her quiet piety, her love for all of creation, her selfless support for the people in her life. There are so many things about her that I try (and fail) to emulate, and I’m extremely grateful for having grown up with such a strong model of unconditional love.

When I was in graduate school, I spent 5 or 6 months each year in Spokane, and at least once a week I’d take her out to lunch and to run errands. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t impress upon her how much I enjoyed those afternoons–that I didn’t spend time with her out of duty, but out of joy.

I suppose I’m extremely lucky to have a family where that line is so blurred. I remember in autumn of 2008–about a year before our grandmother’s accident–my cousin Christine and her now husband came to visit London, and stayed with me. It took us a few days to realise that we wanted to spend time with each other: I was worried about intruding on their holiday together, and she was worried about intruding on my daily life, but in the end we figured out that it wasn’t duty but joy. And that’s a nice feeling.

What do I want for Valentine’s Day?

“Same as I want every day,” I say. “Six hours of uninterrupted reading, a large Charlie Bigham fish pie and a glass of prosecco the size of my head for dinner, world peace, last night’s Chelsea Lately on Sky+ and bed by nine. I don’t suppose I’m going to get any of those, though, am I?”

Worth reading.

The house hunt

Today marks five years since Andrew and I started going steady. The incident that precipitated that decision was both alarming and hilarious, and ended with me trying to lean against a fence which was really a gate and falling backwards down 3 steps where I landed flat on my back in a giant puddle while a cold February rain poured down on me.

What do I do in such a situation? I laugh at myself. I have trouble taking things, even serious personal things, too seriously. I’m far too lucky. In America most people would swap out lucky for blessed. But I think we are all blessed, so something else needs to explain why I have so many privileges and other people have so few. And in the meanwhile, I think it’s important to treat those with fewer privileges with dignity and compassion and not to take too much notice of the minor misfortunes that might beset me. I’m reminded of a passage from Howards End (my favourite novel):

“But after all,” she continued with a smile, “there’s never any great risk as long as you have money.”

“Oh, shame! What a shocking speech!”

“Money pads the edges of things,” said Miss Schlegel. “God help those who have none.”

“But this is something quite new!” said Mrs. Munt, who collected new ideas as a squirrel collects nuts, and was especially attracted by those that are portable.

“New for me; sensible people have acknowledged it for years. You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It’s only when we see some one near us tottering that we realise all that an independent income means. Last night, when we were talking up here round the fire, I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin.”

“I call that rather cynical.”

“So do I. But Helen and I, we ought to remember, when we are tempted to criticise others, that we are standing on these islands, and that most of the others are down below the surface of the sea. The poor cannot always reach those whom they want to love, and they can hardly ever escape from those whom they love no longer. We rich can. Imagine the tragedy last June, if Helen and Paul Wilcox had been poor people, and couldn’t invoke railways and motor-cars to part them.”

“That’s more like Socialism,” said Mrs. Munt suspiciously.

“Call it what you like. I call it going through life with one’s hand spread open on the table. I’m tired of these rich people who pretend to be poor, and think it shows a nice mind to ignore the piles of money that keep their feet above the waves. I stand each year upon six hundred pounds, and Helen upon the same, and Tibby will stand upon eight, and as fast as our pounds crumble away into the sea they are renewed–from the sea, yes, from the sea. And all our thoughts are the thoughts of six-hundred-pounders, and all our speeches; and because we don’t want to steal umbrellas ourselves, we forget that below the sea people do want to steal them and do steal them sometimes, and that what’s a joke up here is down there reality.”

Anyway, Andrew and I are looking for a flat to buy. I have a strong preference to stay in our neighbourhood (and indeed in our building if we can), but real estate websites have an amazing ability to pull you just a little bit outside your ideal (both on location and price), so I’m trying to be disciplined. I’m also writing to everyone in the building that owns a 3 bedroom flat and asking them if they’d be interested in selling (thanks, land registry!).

Everyone here has warned me that estate agents are awful, and the process is awful, and it will make me want to shoot myself in the foot before long. I hope they’re all exaggerating. But I also suspect that they’re all way more particular than I am. I went and saw a massive four bedroom flat yesterday, for example. Massive. Currently has four undergraduate rugby players living in it (yes, it might be heaven). The owner has been renting it to students for the past 5 years, but we could easily gut it, reverse the direction of the staircase, and make it habitable. I guess what we (read I) really need to decide is how much work I’m willing to have done on a place, and how flexible I’m really willing to be on location.

And I’ll keep hoping that someone with a 3-bed duplex on our floor is looking to sell in the next few months. Because that would really be the bees knees.

An open plea to marketers

To anyone who will listen: I *hate* remarketing. Not just a little bit. A lot. I find it as annoying as pop-ups. It’s akin to a someone working in a shop following me around and saying “I saw you looked at that towel. Are you sure you don’t want that towel?” repeatedly. If I wanted the towel, I would have bought it. If you offer me a 40% discount, I may reconsider. Otherwise it’s just obnoxious.

The most annoying thing: I really like personalized ads. I think they make my experience across the web much better. And I hate that the only way I have to get rid of remarketing is to opt-out of seeing ads that are actually relevant. The towel I decided to buy is no longer relevant to me, and whenever I notice a brand remarketing to me, it goes on a black list of places I won’t shop in the future.

…on returning from honeymoon

Sunday will be two weeks since Andrew and I got back from our extended time way. They have been two of the busiest weeks of my working life. On the plus side, that meant that I got to archive the 879 emails I missed while I was away without reading them. On the minus side, I think I’m getting wrinkles.

I’m fully committed to staying relaxed in the face of this onslaught, and so I’ve been thinking fantasizing a lot about the honeymoon. It’s worked, to an extent. It’s also helped me reflect on some of the things I observed in South Africa, viz.

  • South Africa is a beautiful country full of stunningly attractive young people and leathery, racist old people.
  • The food in South Africa is extremely delicious and cheap as free. An example: we had an amazing tasting menu with wine pairings at the Cellars-Hohenort. It was in the top 10 meals we’ve ever eaten. It cost less than £200 for the two of us.
  • The severity of ongoing racial segregation was shocking and saddening. I know pan-generational lack of opportunity is a huge problem in the UK, for example, but it’s easier to ignore since it doesn’t map so closely to a racial divide.
  • I hate it when people are rude to waiters.
  • South Africa has the best non-champagne sparkling wine in the world.
  • And the best desert wine in the world full stop.
  • I need to spend more time sleeping and reading. It improves life and costs very very little.
  • I don’t particularly like hot weather or the sun. It’s nice to be home and wearing a jumper.
In other news, we’re moving offices. My commute will go from 4.1 miles (about 22 minutes on a bike) to 1.4 miles (about 22 minutes on foot). The walk will go through St George’s Gardens (yay!), Brunswick Centre (with its great cinema: yay!) and Russel Square (yay!) and past the British Museum. Very much looking forward to it. Pictures of the new office soon.