September 9, 2000
England: the green, green grass of home. The place in which I am now forever a foreigner, despite being insufferably British everywhere else. An interesting position to be in - I have managed to achieve a state of permanent alienation, fortunately a state I’m quite at home in.
Every time I fly in under these gray-white skies and see the dazzling greenery that only several feet of rain per year can sustain, I am filled with an entire nation’s worth of homecoming pangs. Nostalgia – who doesn’t respond to it’s bitter fuzziness? It’s always strange coming here from New York because, by comparison, England manages to be weirdly futuristic at the same time as eternally old fashioned. In my mind, at least. Right now go-go London is supposed to be the grooviest city in the world, at its absolute swingingest since 1966, but it’s hard for me to take that seriously. It still looks like the same old place to me. Of course, there’s also the fact that I just don’t want England to be fabulous. It should be the kind of place where you can catch a vicar furtively purchasing a copy of Health & Efficiency whenever you enter a newsagent’s. I preferred it during the down and dingy times, the seasons of mild adversity. With a climate like this, I always feel it’s in our nature to be quietly glum. Myself, after living in New York so long, I have achieved an odd state of being loudly glum. It goes with that state of permanent alienation.
We were originally planning to get here at the end of our trip - lean, tanned and desperately urbane. In the end we decided to go around the world from the right instead of the left, and so are here in a state of excited nervousness, biting our nails in fresh khakis and shiny new hiking boots. Think of it as a gift to my old friends so they can take the piss out of us would-be explorers. All we lack are the pith helmets.
So here we are then, relieved to be finally on our way (until the last minute we were waiting for someone to come up to us and tell us we weren’t allowed to go) and looking forward to our first step into virgin territory – Istanbul beckons from next week. These few days in England are like a pleasant limbo, a place to relax and recover from the million details we had to sort out prior to leaving. Luckily, Doreen enjoys the company of my friends and family (unless she’s been lying to me all these years) and so we can relax and socialize. We’re away from New York, we’re in a different country, and our apartment has been left behind, but we haven’t really begun our trip yet. It’s quite a nice state to be in.
September 14, 2000
Well, be careful what you wish for. After waxing nostalgic for the grubbiness and industrial turmoil of the early Seventies, we now find ourselves in the middle of the most serious domestic crisis in decades. Or so they say. We are, once again, in some doubt as to whether we will make it to the airport tomorrow, and this time we are also wondering if there will even be fuel in the plane. I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on – I’m not sure if anyone else really is – but the entire nation appears to be in the grip of mass hysteria (quiet, polite mass hysteria, of course). The one fact that everyone can agree on is that petrol (gas) is very, very expensive in Europe, even more so in Britain. French lorry drivers (truckers) got pissed off with this and, as seems to be common Gallic practice when the weather gets warm, blockaded every available port until the government submitted to their demands - in this case, to lower the tax on petrol.
In Britain, where we had a lively form of political discourse ever since King Charles was removed from his head, this sort of thing has been rare ever since Margaret Thatcher apparently made any kind of industrial action illegal. The fact that Tony Blair, our new, Austin Powers style Prime Minister, is nominally a member of the Labour Party has had little impact on these draconian laws. Apparently the current unrest bypasses legislation by being organized by forces other than the unions, which has led to some mutterings about the whole thing being a ploy on the part of the oil companies.
I can’t say that we were paying a great deal of attention as the crisis gathered in momentum. We happily visited the Tate Modern with my mum, caroused with our friends in Bristol, and enjoyed a meal at our favorite London restaurant (Diwana’s, a vegetarian Indian place on Drummond Street, if you’re interested). Driving back from there with my brother and his wife, we noticed insanely long lines snaking from petrol stations and a growing number of hand-written signs announcing that there was no petrol left. Mere panic buying, we decided, and cheerfully set out the next day to go birdwatching in Kent. Luckily my brother had had the foresight to fill up on gas the night before, so we were able to pass by yet more insanely long lines of drivers patiently waiting for the last few drops of petrol available.
After an enjoyable morning spent sitting on the beach outside Dungeness nuclear power station, watching gulls, terns and the odd seal dining on the fish stirred up by the station’s coolant water run-off, we drove past Derek Jarman’s Martian garden and set off in search of lunch. (Speaking of lunch, I’d stay away from Dungeness crab, if I were you. It probably glows in the dark). We first noticed that something was amiss when we tried to buy lunch in a small village bakery. Apparently, when the English decide to panic-buy, their first impulse is to hoard baked goods - you never know when you’re going to need a good custard tart. Suddenly the shelves of every English supermarket were bare, as disappointed Y2Kers seized the opportunity to create food shortages by panic-buying in case of food shortages. At least there are no more lines outside the petrol stations. They’re all empty.
So here we are then. British Airways told us our vegetarian meals were ready and waiting, but to call back to make sure the plane will actually be taking off. We’ve booked a cab to take us to Heathrow tomorrow morning, but will it have enough juice to get us there? Stay tuned.