Dream a little cheese dream of me

I’m going to blame the cheese, no matter how little I had or indeed how unsubstantiated the whole idea of cheese dreams might be. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I was an architect, tasked with building a library in the sharp winter sunshine of Bangalore. It was probably on the site of one of my schools, but all I can remember is the sunlight filtering through the leaves of a rain tree, all soft gold and backlit green.

My foreman (for he was a man) was a bluff old sailor, a ex-pirate seadog with an accent to match, and we were inspecting the shelves for the library, which were about twenty meters high, and built out of whole logs, rather like a box frame.

“Arrrr, matey,” said the foreman, “these logs are bent and all.”

He had a point. The thing looked like some sort of twisted sculpture rather than anything you’d see in a sensible library. They creaked when we tried to lift them, and buckled under their own weight.

At this point, I caught sight of myself in a mirror. It was unremarkable, except that I had a little linear constellation of moles – or perhaps freckles – running across my forehead, down my nose and curling around one side of my mouth. I didn’t find anything unusual about this, so we continued with the blame game.

The foreman was angry. And what’s more, he knew who was responsible. “It’s ‘im. All ‘is doing” he snarled, pointing at one of the labourers, dressed in a 17th century British Army captain’s coat. “That geezer in the red. ‘Is fault”.

The redcoat didn’t offer any defence, so the foreman leaned over to speak into a smartphone that was sitting on a rock.

“Arrr, Siri, what be the punishment for a man who makes shelves like these?”

I’ve never owned an iPhone in my life, and never used a voice assistant, but back came the reply, in Siri’s best dulcet tones:

“He shall have to learn his trade again, or be suspended in rock oil.”

“ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!! Will ye go back to school, ye hound, or will ye suffer to be dropped in an eight-foot deep tub of rock oil, WITHOUT ANY SHACKLES???”

The foreman then looked confused, and leaned back over the phone.

“Siri, what’s rock oil?”

“Rock oil is a light mineral oil of low density, insufficient for the flotation of the human body” said Siri, and thus endeth the cheese dream of today.

Life’s little coincidences – 2

It all started, as so many things do, with a phone call. This, however, was a phone call from an unknown number, relatively late at night, and I nearly didn’t answer, because I assumed it was a client, and one tries to avoid clients as much as possible, particularly late at night when they might ask annoying questions about delivery dates, or even catastrophic questions about system failures.

My conscience got the better of me, because clients are humans too – most of the time. Or at least some of the time. Or some of them are humans some of the time. I answered the phone, not without a little trepidation. A very un-client like voice was at the other end; a slightly diffident voice with a difficult to place but clearly European accent asked me if I was Anu.

My parents brought me up (not without difficulty) to tell the truth, so I had to confess that this was the case.

“This is going to sound strange,” said Diffident Voice, “but I found your phone number on a piece of paper in a music store and thought I’d call it and see who answered.”

It did sound strange, I must admit. Who on earth calls random phone numbers that they find on pieces of paper in record stores, and what was my phone number doing with my name on it on a piece of paper in a record store in the first place? Being a fan of people who step outside the boundaries of social convention, though, I had a pleasant chat with Diffident Voice, learnt that she was from Copenhagen, visiting London on holiday, and that she was in Brick Lane, at a music store called Rough Trade East, where she found my phone number on said piece of paper, and decided to make the phone call that made this blog post possible. We chatted for a few minutes – I never did learn her name – and then she hung up, and I sat filled with a satisfyingly pleasant frisson of happy coincidence, not unmixed with a certain bewilderment at how this all happened in the first place.

Later that week, I was having dinner with a Danish friend of mine, from Copenhagen, who was also visiting London on holiday with her boyfriend, and I mentioned my curious chat with Diffident Voice. My friend’s eyes narrowed as I started to tell the story, and when I mentioned that DV had claimed to be in Brick Lane, she frowned deeply.

“What record store did you say she was at?”

“Rough Trade, she said”. I had, of course, no way of independently verifying this, but I was willing to believe DV implicitly. After all, what did she have to gain by lying?

My friend’s eyes narrowed further, and then after a moment her face suddenly cleared and her eyes made up for all this narrowing by opening very wide indeed.

“But we were there just a few days ago! I remember this clearly because I wrote down your phone number on a piece of paper before calling you. I must have dropped that paper at the store!”

What, I ask you, are the odds? One woman from Copenhagen, in London on holiday, writes my phone number on a piece of paper and drops it exactly where another woman from Copenhagen, in London on holiday, and who is mad enough to dial a number found on said piece of paper, can find it. Of course, it doesn’t add up to much; it’s not a momentous or even vaguely important event, but it’s one of life’s little coincidences, and – I might have mentioned this before – I like life’s little coincidences.

He crashes down the slope with the greatest of ease…

… The daring young man who should never be on skis.

There are things that, I am convinced, if one does not adopt and perfect in childhood, one will never really be able to do. Learning a new language, perfecting your tricycle turns, falling out of trees – these are all best done before one graduates permanently from nappies. To this extensive list, I can, with great reluctance, add skiing. Being from a tropical country, any winter sport has always had a strange unearthly aura about it; any activity involving frozen water that did not involve the inside of a fridge was, I always felt, carried out by humans of a different species. This is not to say that there wasn’t a certain strange allure about skiing and skating; they looked so effortless and graceful, so wonderfully chic and poised. These people were gliding along in a little magical world of wonder, where the laws of physics themselves were suspended.

Allow me to let you into a little secret: it’s not like that. At least, if you’re starting in your thirties, as opposed to in infancy, as observed above. In my experience, it’s a wonderful way to be utterly outclassed by people a tenth of your age and a fifth of your height. (Incidentally, the same applies to trying to learn a new language in your thirties). I can’t remember the last time I was so utterly terrified of a physical experience – actually, I do; it was jumping off a 25 foot cliff into the sea, but this was at least as bad – the whole knee-weakening, stomach-churning, buttock-clenching first descent was tougher than nearly anything I’ve done, and I know that the majority of that is down to my age. I have further to fall, I’m more aware of the potential damage that might be caused by a wipeout, and my prefrontal cortex is as developed as it’s ever going to be, inhibiting my appetite for risk.

So strapping two bits of plastic to my feet and allowing gravity to yank me down a mountain just didn’t seem like a good idea, but I was intrigued enough to try. Getting into the boots for the first time was an interesting experience in itself –  you clomp around the store in a vaguely zombie-like attitude, trying not to fall over and make an ass of yourself. Then, of course, you fall over and make an ass of yourself. Then they give you skis, and you attempt to put them on your shoulder the wrong way round, causing much mirth among bystanders, including your nearest and dearest, who are officially there in a supporting role but wisely decide to enjoy the show instead. Having turned them into the approved position,  you clomp your way to the lift and your first meeting with the ski instructor.

Enter Christian. This being the French-speaking region of Switzerland, we’d specifically asked for an instructor who could parler anglais, and he came up to us with a huge beam and asked my female companion if she was Annouk the Student. He was only slightly crestfallen to learn that no, she was a very skilled skier, and that he’d be teaching me instead, though I could see the disappointment write large on his face for a moment. A Swiss-German from somewhere near Zurich, he spends his year teaching indoors and outdoors, and (as I learned later) helping his brother with the family farm over the summer. After watching me flail about in a vain attempt to cover the fifteen feet from the lift to the edge of the slope itself, he wisely decided to take me away to an almost flat region with next to no one there, for a little philosophy and physics.

“Skiing, she is like riding a bicyclette. You lean… ja? You lean and you turrrrrrrn. You lean ze other vay, and your turrrrrrrn ze other vay. Ja? But forst we learn to go forrrrvarrrrds, and to brake.”

Shuffle, shuffle. Flail. Creep forwards (excuse me, forrrrvarrrrds). Dig heels in as demonstrated.

“No, no! You must sit. Like so. Sit and push… and you brake. Ja?”

More shuffling, more flailing. Unstoppable acceleration towards to the edge of the extremely steep path that leads down the mountain.

“Nonono! Brake! Brake! SIT! SIT!”

Thankfully, he was ahead of me, and by turning around and braking himself, he stopped me before I sailed over the edge and into tomorrow’s local newspaper headlines. This process repeated itself multiple times over the next hour or so, and I think he was genuinely mystified by the way in which I was utterly helpless on skis. The whole concept of a grown adult who has never – no, really, literally never ever – been on skis was a foreign and alien one, and I started to feel guilty about how I shamelessly used him as a stopping post. There was, however, no real option. The choice was between clutching onto him for dear life, in a sort of I-love-you-don’t-ever-leave-me-my-darling close clinch, with my face in his armpit or wedged into his beard, or else landing hard on some soft portion of my anatomy and free-falling to the bottom of the valley.

When you’re used to surfaces that are solid underfoot, there is just no way to cope with the sudden and total lack of friction on skis – everything you’ve learnt is counter-intuitive. To stop yourself sailing away into the abyss, you have to lean your torso down the mountain. Logically, this makes sense, because then your knees go into the mountain and your skis go on their edge, helping you stay in place. Try telling that to your reptile brain, though, which insists on screaming “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA WE’RE GOING TO DIE!!!” every time you attempt this. To turn right, Christian taught me to push away with my left hand, which shifts the skis minutely and gets you swivelling. You also look supremely silly, as I discovered in photographs afterwards – you resemble nothing more than someone who thinks there is a travelling glass door in front of him at all times. It’s all a question of tiny shifts, which change the balance of your weight and send you in different directions. Of course, Christian had his own unique take on it.

“Depression on the left ski!”, he said to me, vehemently. “Depression! Increase depression!”. I did wonder why the left ski was being singled out for depression, while the bally right one got away with being cheerful all the time, but that confusion was soon sorted out.

So, this door. Is it marked “Push” or “Pull”?

I think the original plan had been to take me whizzing up and down the slopes within the first hour or so, but this plan had to be rapidly changed. I’ll say this for Christian – his enthusiasm never flagged, no matter how much I fell over and failed to stop and couldn’t change direction. He was brilliant.

After a bit more bicyclette and depression training, we bravely took to the actual slope itself, skiing in tandem with my skis inside his. This was the moment for Christian to unleash his commentary once more.

“Open wider the behind! I need you to open wider the behind!!”

This taught me that it’s possible to have a giggling fit while enduring a descent of terror, but I tried very hard to not reveal that I was laughing, because I’d have to explain it to him. There he was, trying so hard to teach me, and all I could do was try to contain the slightly hysterical laughing welling up from inside.

I did, however, feel a bit disillusioned when nothing seemed to click. Perhaps I was expecting something akin to that moment of illumination on a bicycle (I beg your pardon, a bicyclette) when suddenly you realise that you don’t actually need the training wheels and your dad hasn’t been holding the back of your bike for some time. (Of course, what happens at that moment of triumphant glee is that you forget to focus on what you’re doing and promptly veer into the ditch, keeling over at the last minute.) I never had that, though. I improved, very slowly – I mastered the baby slopes and the lifts, and learnt a lot about what’s called fabric braking; i.e. using your arm, leg, back, hip, or any other convenient portion of your anatomy to stop you cartwheeling away into oblivion. Somewhere on the fourth day, I had a tiny insight into the fun aspect of this – a brief flicker of gleeful “Whoa… this is great!”, as opposed to the hard slog, but that was rapidly curtailed when I went down a slope I’d done several times before, twisted my leg around and collapsed in a heap on the snow, my right knee completely out of commission. An ignoble end, but a great adventure. And I did get to ride off the mountain in triumph, in a snowmobile. A month of hobbling around on crutches was annoying, but I’m looking forward to doing this again. I still have one working knee, you see, and I want to see what Christian will say next.

You spin me right round, baby, right round, like a proton baby!

In a hole in the ground there lived a particle accelerator. Not a big, empty echoing hole, filled with the ends of datacentres, chemical plants and an oozy smell, nor yet a rusty, corroded, abandoned hole with nothing in it to accelerate or to measure: it was a LHC-hole, and that means comfort.

Apologies, Mr. Tolkien. Most ‘umble apologies, but I simply couldn’t resist. It was a very, very special visit, worthy of being linked to a very, very special book. It all started with the good folks at CERN, who, bless their hearts, open up their doors (and lifts and tunnels and experiements) to the general public, but only on an irregular and infrequent basis. Now, you can visit CERN ‘most every day, and you can book visits to their surface facilities ‘most every weekend, but a subterranean visit, to pace those circular walls where protons are flung around at frankly ludicrous speeds and made to overcome their mutual repulsion before whamslamming into each other in detectors the size of houses… that, my friends, is a rare privilege indeed. The last chance was in 2004, and there won’t be another before at least 2018, when the LHC is warmed up again, a process that takes a month.

I was very glad, therefore, when Evelyne spotted this chance and asked if I wanted to go. I believe the speed of my reply might have exceeded the speed of the aforementioned protons, and, after some mad clicking on buttons to secure tickets as they were released at randomly chosen intervals – really – we were all set, and all I had to do was wait. Like a kid just before Christmas, with clenched teeth and barely controlled excitement.

Expressions like this were common in the lead-up to this visit. This was taken at the surface buildings of ALICE

My ticket was full of dire warnings about not being late, and so when we realised just how long it would take to trundle across Geneva in a tram, take a bus to the central campus and then another bus to the detector itself, I was starting to get a little worried. The staff at the check-in point, thankfully, took a far more relaxed and very un-Swiss attitude towards all of this (at this point, however, we were in France, so perhaps that’s fitting), and soon we were all standing a queue of varying excitement, as you can see above. At this point I was abandoned by Evelyne, because we had all got tickets at different times, and mine was the bright and early visit.

I shuffled along with the rest of the pack to the front of the building, where we were told to pick a helmet – any helmet – and then told to put them back and take a yellow helmet only, please, and assigned to Filippo, who was to be our native guide to the wilderness below. Filippo bravely shouldered his rustic dosimeter and we made our way to the lift. Everyone who works at CERN is required to wear a dosimeter at all times to measure their cumulative exposure to radiation, and this is specially true underground, where certain experiments have been gradually absorbing particles and becoming ever more radioactive over the last 20 years or so. He assured us that it was perfectly safe, and of course we believed him. As it turned out, I probably got several times the dose of radiation on the flight over from London to Geneva.

As we got into the lift and dropped 50m to the tunnel below us, I was conscious of a sense of remote other-worldliness. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening, that I was actually a few seconds away from stepping out into the tunnels of the LHC. I must have been grinning like an idiot all the way down, but thankfully there is no photographic evidence of this.

At this point I have to make a confession. The first sighting of the LHC was not a stunning symphony of awe-inspired appreciation. The lift stops, the doors open – just normal lift doors, which feels wrong in a place so unique – and you step out into a space that is remarkably mundane. Yes, there are lots more pipes and warning signs than you’d expect in a basement garage, and the curved walls are certainly a nice change, but honestly, if you didn’t know where you were, you wouldn’t be thunderstruck.

Filippo opens the dread portal… I mean, door into the tunnel.

However, knowing where you are sweeps all the mundanity away on a tide of disbelief – this is a place you have seen in dozens of pictures and videos; and it’s right there, physically in front of you.  You almost don’t want to reach out and touch it in case it’s just a dream. It took a while for that sense to fade, and even when it did, I was always conscious that this was a rare opportunity to go somewhere special.

We rounded a corner and saw the collider itself; astonishingly svelte in the tunnel. Inside all of this is a “mostly closed cooling system with a few leaks”, as a technician we met later put it, and two pipes, each about an inch across, that contain the circulating particle beams, each a few millimetres wide. It’s not really very large at all.

LHC segments near the detector

What is stunningly, magnificently enormous is the detector itself. It’s so large you climb scaffolding to get to a viewing platform several meters above the ground, and still it looms over you, almost inconceivably intricate and complex, vast and ponderous, and yet made with astonishing precision. ALICE, disassembled, looks like something almost alien, a science fiction parody of what complex machines should look like. Okay,it also looks a bit like the mouth of a steampunk robot Kraken, but let’s ignore that in the midst of our silent, awed admiration.


The beam pipes at the heart of all of this, where the collision magic happens, are entirely lost in this tangle of pipes, cables, struts, calorimeters and sensors, all cupped in a giant red metal yoke. Amazing, really, but we only had a few minutes to stand around and gawk before men in hi-vis jackets labelled “FLOW CONTROL” chivvied us on. I did manage to take a few pictures, including a request from a friend to “get a picture of you kissing ALICE”.

A slightly dazed ascent to the surface followed, and a quick walk around the ALICE exhibition, where we got a closer look at the detectors that are used, along with a novel “cosmic ray piano”, randomly playing notes when incoming cosmic rays hit a series of detectors. The music of the universe, thus translated, is slightly chaotic but also strangely mesmerising. It’s a bit like listening to the constantly-changing sound of falling water – you can almost persuade yourself that there are patterns and notes in there, but when you look more closely it all falls apart. Still, the man who built it was there to speak to, and very cheerful indeed.

Cosmic ray piano at CERN!

Just to say I’d been there, done that and got the t-shirt, I went and got the t-shirt (and discovered that it was a bad time of year to be buying mugs at CERN, but a good time of year to be given mugs at CERN) and, very satisfied, we wandered over to the CERN control centre, the wonderfully named CCC.

Magnetic levitation at CERN; next time I’ll make sure there aren’t any keys in my pockets.

This, of course, is the place where all the media broadcasts happen, and we walked in casually on our way to lunch, which really was a good idea, because we had the chance to have a chat with one of the technicians who actually runs the beam, and she told us a great many fascinating things about what it’s like to actually work there. Astonishingly, during routine operations, it only takes about 8 people to manage the entire beam, including producing the particles, pre-accelerating them, maintaining the beam and keeping the whole thing cool. Here, of course, is the most important one.

Excuse me, Mr. Bond, but I expect you to die.

After all that excitement, we headed back towards the central campus to get some lunch. I discovered, to my complete satisfaction and glee, that salt and pepper packets at CERN, when placed randomly on a table, spontaneously arrange themselves into the following configuration. Really.

Salt and pepper at CERN. Just ordinary salt and pepper, left to its own devices.

This is already much longer than I planned, so I’ll have to break this into two parts. Next time: Beauty!

Taxi drivers, a talkative breed

I’ve been taking a lot of taxis lately, shuttling between the hotel, the train station and the client office. And barring one ride the other day that was conducted in complete silence, there’s always been some chatting with the driver. It’s just what you do, and apparently taxi drivers are particularly good at it. Add my natural inclination to chat into the mix, and it’s hardly surprising that sometimes we get on like a house on fire.

My driver today was a case in point. As I discovered later, he is a born-again Christian, and (surprise, surprise) I got into a conversation with him, although this time I had nothing to do with it – I was quietly sitting in my seat reading the Grauniad on my phone when he caught my eye in the mirror and said, without any preliminaries whatsoever, “I learnt something interesting the other day – we’re both related”.

Naturally I was intrigued, because that’s a fairly unusual opening to a conversation, and I said “Do you mean related if we go back far enough in history?” and then we had a chat about mitochondrial DNA and the surprisingly recent existence of Mitochondrial Eve, which was all great fun.

By a happy coincidence, I’m currently reading “The Ancestor’s Tale” by Richard Dawkins, so of course I mentioned that, but I don’t think he was very impressed by my bringing other species into the “we’re all related” fold. (It wasn’t until this point that he mentioned that he was a recently re-converted Christian, so I wasn’t being deliberately antagonistic by bringing Dawkins into the discussion.) However, when I saw his eyebrows go up at the thought of being united with chimpanzees in one merry family, I decided to let it go. Apparently I’m worthy of being related to him, but he draws the line at hairy apes.

There was another trip with another driver, where I took a chance (well, not really much of a chance, given that his name was Mohammed) and wished him “Eid Mubarak”. That became a discussion about creation and evolution, and perhaps I should have just shut up before admitting I was non-religious, which rather shocked him. The conversation then swung around to the existence of God, and the hoary old story of how the universe was too complex to have come into existence spontaneously, but I only had time to slide in a riposte about how equally unlikely it was that God came into existence spontaneously, so that didn’t really solve the problem, but he nodded sagely and said “Ah, but God is eternal and all-powerful!” As I didn’t really have much desire to get into a long theological argument, and more pertinently, since we were at the station, I had to let that one go.

There have been the philosophical ones – the driver who, when I asked him why he had moved to Swindon, sighed heavily and replied “The peaks and troughs of life, mate. The peaks and troughs of life” – the heartwarming ones, the sarcastic ones, the bitter few, the horrific stories about head-on collisions with tractors at night, the tattooed driver who spends her spare time knitting sweaters for her grandchildren, even though “Their mother won’t even bother to dress them in the sweaters, the bitch, excuse my language”, the man who is hoping to give this up and become a train despatcher at Reading, the Polish network engineer who is only doing this until his CCNA is complete, the ex-factory worker who gave up his job to become a stay-at-home dad and bring up his three daughters; each one a different story.

Some taxi rides have been amusing, some dull, some so entertaining that I was sorry to see them come to an end. I’ve discussed cricket, biology, politics, immigration, football, the decline of Swindon as an industrial town, linguistics, sexism, The Eagles, religion and a whole lot of other things I’ve forgotten. I’ve met several taxi drivers repeatedly now, and picked up conversations from a week ago. The discussion are wide-ranging and full of excellent banter, and they certainly make shuttling around Swindon a lot more entertaining than it would otherwise have been.

Jane Austen, Railway Manager

Two recent anniversaries, within a few weeks of each other, brought home to me in a very vivid way that the Industrial Revolution in Britain was a time of frantic change, an era when enormous social and technological change happened in the blink of a historical eye.

January 2013 marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, as well as the 150th anniversary of the first journey on the London Underground. I am, in different ways, exceedingly fond of both the Tube and the writings of Austen, and this juxtaposition of anniversaries was an interesting reminder of how different these worlds were. Two human generations – less than a lifetime – are all that separate the fictional Mr Darcy’s bowling up to Netherfield in a horse-drawn carriage from the real possibility of a steamy, coal-choked trawl through the newly-excavated tunnels from Paddington to King’s Cross. On the first day alone, forty thousand people were intrigued enough by the novelty of this new-fangled form of transportation to plonk down their coppers and brave the journey underground, and this would rise to over forty million in 1880, just seventeen years later. Technology was inexorably on the rise.

But draw back to the cozy worlds of Netherfield and Pemberly, and you’d be hard pressed to find any hint of this. Austen’s writing contains little premonition of the changes to come. Technology of the sort that was to transform Britain beyond recognition gets no mention in Pride and Prejudice, and there is not even a passing note of the fact that a flood of new money was already sweeping away the chokehold of the landed aristocracy and would forever change the make-up of British society. Austen’s world is driven by horse power – carriages are mentioned over sixty times during the book, horses turn up fourteen times. Trains? Never.

Railway travel, of course, predates the Tube by some time. It even – only just – predates Pride and Prejudice; the first commercially successfully steam locomotive, Salamanca, was built in 1812, and the famous Puffing Billy followed a year later, the same year that Elizabeth Bennett first appeared in print. It’s a tiny little historical coincidence that is strangely appropriate. On the one hand, we have Austen sitting at her writing desk in Hampshire, putting the finishing touches on a book that would go on to become one of the best-loved and most famous in history, chronicling the lives of fictional figures in an era that was inevitably drawing to a close. Meanwhile in Newcastle the engineer (in both senses of the word, of course) William Hedley tinkers with his strange iron contraption, the first herald of the new age of travel technology – or one of the horsemen of the coming apocalypse, depending on your point of view.

We cannot know, of course, whether this lack of technology in her novels was intentional, or whether Austen was merely ignorant of the change happening all around her. I like to think, however, that she deliberately left us a snapshot of a world she knew was passing away, a faded velvet portrait to be treasured, read and re-read. And the last time I read this marvellous book, as Elizabeth Bennett rode through the Derbyshire hills with her aunt and uncle in a carriage, I was being whisked through a tunnel deep under London, just another anonymous commuter on the Tube.

Life’s little coincidences – 1

Just occasionally, odd things happen, little quirks of serendipity that amuse me greatly. Last year, there was The Curious Incident of the Phone Number in the Record Store, a story that perhaps is worth telling (or re-telling; forgive me) at some other time. I was reminded of that event by this week’s happenstance – a smaller, yet intriguing little event.

I was at a training course all week near Euston station, and just about the only options for lunch were at Euston station itself, where there is a Pret a Manger. Being somewhat partial to an occasional Pret lunch, I was in there on Wednesday afternoon, helping myself to an avocado wrap and intending to follow up with a mozzarella and tomato croissant. Bear with me, please; these details are important and have relevance for what is about to come.

I’ve always found Pret employees to be a cheery bunch, generally joking around with the customers, and this place was no exception. I went up to the counter, clutching my avocado wrap and asked if I could have the second part of my lunch, the croissant.

The girl behind the till looked me squarely in the eye and flatly refused. “No, you can’t” were her exact words, I believe. Naturally, I was slightly taken aback, and looked surprised. I might even have let an eyebrow glide upwards a quarter of an inch, in a controlled show of nonplussed curiosity. I assumed they were out of these delicacies, and prepared myself to settle for something less than perfection, when I realised that she was truly refusing, with splendid deadpan comic timing. So I begged and pleaded, using my best melodramatic hand gestures, and eventually she relented. As I said, joking around is almost de rigueur at Pret, so I grinned at the girl; she grinned back, and I paid and left.

That would have been that, of course – a mildly amusing but trivial moment in the grand sweep of the River of Life, smiled at but forgotten soon after.

Of course, that’s not the case, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this, and you (presumably) wouldn’t be reading it. On Thursday, Paolo made pizza for dinner, and invited me to join him, along with a couple of friends. As I was chatting with one of the people there, she casually mentioned that she works at Pret.

Now of course you see where this is going, because I’ve fed you the story properly, with plenty of hints and dramatic clues, but at the time, neither of us did, until she added that she works in and around North London, specially in the Euston area. Cue moment of silent cogitation for me, then: “You mean the Pret just outside Euston station, where I had lunch yesterday?”

“Yes, that one.”

Moment of recollection for me. Careful observation of person. Desperate attempt to recollect person from yesterday, with limited success. Moment of confusion while we try to verify if she was, in fact, there at the same time as me, but the moment I described the story of refusal to be served, her face lit up with recognition and we had a jolly good laugh.

What are the odds? Person who gives me lunchtime amusement turns up in entirely unconnected circumstances the very next day, having dinner in my kitchen. Of course, it’s hardly important or momentous in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still a curious coincidence, and, as I observed earlier, I like life’s little coincidences.

Sunshine and gardens in London, oh my!

It all started with having missed out. The London Parks & Gardens Trust (and if any city needed one of those, it’s London) runs an Open Garden Squares weekend every year, usually in June, where any punter willing to plonk down the cash for a ticket finds that the gates of a great many otherwise private gardens are thrown wide open for his (or her, of course), viewing pleasure. I think it’s a terrific idea, but last year I only found out about it after it was over. This yeah, having seen a poster on the way to work, I was determined to make sure I didn’t miss out again. So, with the marvellous powers of the Internet having granted me a magic pass, I gathered up my camera, my umbrella, my waterbottle and my favourite teddybear and headed out.

I had no plan of action; there are over 200 gardens on the list, which is far more than can be seen in a single weekend. So I chose an area fairly close to home that had a cluster of gardens all open on Saturday, and worked my way down from top to bottom. This was an unexpectedly successful strategy, considering how much I know about gardens and gardening. Clearly fortune favours the ignorant.

I started out at the British Medical Association Council Garden in Tavistock Square – walked through the gates and presented my fairy pass to the man at the gate, and entered a magical little world. These gardens shouldn’t be hidden away! Not when they are gems like this:

British Medical Association Council Garden

British Medical Association Council Garden

The forecast for the day was rain, but I’m pleased to note that they were entirely wrong. The sun blazed down from a faultlessly blue sky, and the occasional passing cloud only helped reinforce it all. After a pleasant interlude at the BMAC, I crossed the road into Tavistock Square Gardens, and stopped briefly to pay my respects to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi:

Tavistock Square Gardens

Then I trundled onwards to Gordon Square, but didn’t stay long, since it’s open to the public anyway, and visiting isn’t a problem. Stopped long enough to take a few photographs, of course:

Gordon Square

Something I was quite looking forward to was the SOAS Japanese-Inspired roof garden at the Brunei Gallery, described in my little guide as “a space for quiet contemplation and meditation”. Unfortunately, SOAS had chosen this weekend to have an alumni reunion, so the space for quiet contemplation was overrun by awkwardly interacting people all being formally polite to each other while the eager-eyed garden tourists peeked around the door and shuffled nervously around the crowds. It’s a curious garden, very minimalist, with a large stone structure and scalloped pebble beds in the middle, and some lovely shaded seats along one side.

SOAS Japanese-inspired roof garden

SOAS Japanese-inspired roof garden

My fellow garden-ramblers were an interesting mix, from the hardened tweed-and-Doc-Martens-wearing contingent in their identical green macs, through chic Europeans in sunglasses and high heels, to families dragging various kids around by their ears and heels. Plenty of cameras in evidence, of course, and much weighty discussion about the various benefits of Dianthus carthusianorum and Eryngium giganteum. The amount that people here have learned about garden plants and are willing to argue about them in public is a never-ending source of astonishment for me. Plenty of commentary on the merits of the various gardens and plants, far above my head.

I stopped for lunch in Russell Square, and was very pleased to note that there’s at least one other person in the world who gets caught on camera laying on the floor looking like a complete twerp:

A quick stop at the very long, thin and beautiful Ridgemont Gardens was worthwhile, but as time was pressing, I hurried onwards.

Ridgemont Gardens

The Academy, of Virginia Woolf fame, was an interesting change of pace, with a large and ornate house to inspect along with a small garden:

The Academy Gardens

A leisurely half-hour in the much grander-looking Bedford Square was a welcome break from tramping around, and I overheard a woman complaining to her companion: “There aren’t any bloody flowers! What’s the use of a bloody garden with no bloody flowers?” Well, you judge for yourself.

Bedford Square

This led on to the only real disappointment of the day, a garden whose name I can’t be bothered to look up, and which I walked out of after a few minutes because it wasn’t a garden so much as a collection of geraniums in pots, and I’m glad I did, because that allowed me to go on to the final garden of the day and spend some more time there; another little gem, but this time hidden away behind the bustle of Shaftesbury Avenue. I must have walked within a hundred meters of this restored bomb-site but had no idea it was there. The Phoenix Garden is a fantastic little place. Go there if you can. It’s not so much that it’s a grand or ornate garden, because I’ve seen better and more impressive, of course, but it’s just because it’s just so wonderful to unexpectedly stumble across this in the heart of the West End. A good way to end; mirroring the magic of the start.

The Phoenix Garden

You can find the rest of the pictures from the day here. There will be more garden-going tomorrow, and presumably more photographs to add!

And the word of the day is – petrichor

This is something I discovered recently, and is a woefully underused word, though it’s been around a long time. It’s the fantastically evocative word that describes the ineffable smell of earth after rain, that rich, earthy scent that rises from baked soil when the first showers of summer strike.

You don’t really get petrichor in England; the best you can get is a faint hint of it during a summer shower, but in Bangalore in April, when the first huge cumulo-nimbus thunderheads start to build up with the promise of summer thunderstorms and then dump their shiver-inducing load of rain on parched, dusty fields and streets, then petrichor abounds.

Mixing stone with the fluid that runs in the veins of the gods; what a heady mix.


In Which We Try to Give Away a Ticket, and Fail

You would have thought I was trying to get rid of something illicit. I felt awkward and exposed, in the middle of a crowd, trying to make eye contact with likely looking people while keeping one eye out for approaching officialdom in case what I was doing was actually illegal.

I wasn’t dealing drugs. I wasn’t selling stolen goods. I wasn’t soliciting anything. I was merely trying to give away a railway ticket that I couldn’t use, and naively thought that perhaps someone else could. I’d bought a return from London to Brighton, but realised that staying overnight made more sense, and felt that doing a charitable good deed would be a good way to end the day. Full of cheer and hope, I sauntered out onto the station entrance at Brighton, convinced that it would take me mere minutes to find someone who would equally cheerfully and gratefully accept my ticket with a warm smile and get on a train to London, their faith in human nature restored by my kind offer.

All I can say is that it’s incredibly hard to give something away in England – nearly as hard as it would be to ask for it. Clearly, I’ve lived in England long enough to absorb the essential feature of English life, as wittily identified by Kate Fox: embarrassment. About everything. Embarrassment about monetary transactions; about giving or receiving charity; about drawing attention to yourself in public; embarrassment about being embarrassed about all these things. It’s a subtle, complex, irresistible vortex of spiralling awkwardness that can have only one result: hopeless paralysis in all social situations and a deep disinclination to take any action that might deviate even slightly from the norm.

My early optimism was, I regret to say, short-lived. Bright-eyed sauntering rapidly became hunched, shifty shuffling. Every time I managed to bring my courage to the sticking-place and approach someone, they had already bought their tickets. The two people I managed to speak to weren’t going to London, and pointed this out rather quickly. They looked rather startled when approached in this fashion, and I can’t blame them. I’d be wary of being approached by total strangers at a train station myself, especially shifty, wild-eyed characters that crab-shuffle up from behind, nervously looking over their shoulders from time to time, enquiring huskily but sincerely if people are going to London. My instinct would be to deny everything, just in case, and clearly, these people came from the same school of thought. Alternatively, of course, they were just not going to London. I was thinking many things – what if I offended someone through this? What if they thought I was trying to scam them in some way? What if someone called the police on this suspicious behaviour? We live, after all, in an age when “If you suspect it, report it!” is the slightly hysterical exhortation from every corner. Paranoid? Certainly. But it was also quite interesting, from a personal perspective, that I was unable to overcome this deep-seated anxiety and just get on with giving the damn ticket away.

The scheme was a total bust. I just got more and more tongue-tied, shifty and hoarse, eventually admitting defeat and giving up without even a faint glimmer of success. The ticket was still burning a hole in my pocket, however, so, urged on by the equally altruistic and charitable encouragement of a friend, we went back later that evening to give it another chance. Brighton station at around 10:30pm is not the most salubrious place for two men to stand and size up passers-by for their suitability for a spot of friendly ticket-giving-away. On all sides, we were beset by packs of students returning from a night on the town, in various states of undress and sozzlement, yelping to each other in unintelligible near-ultrasonic voices. Not a single person looked sober, industrious and serious – the sort of person to whom we could hand over the ticket with a clean conscience, knowing that he or she would take good care of it, appreciate it, look after it, and in due course, send it to the great ticket machine in the sky. We stood around for quite a while, hopeful that some miracle would bring us such a saint of clear-eyed acceptance, but eventually, we gave up and silently slunk away in defeat. Not the most glorious of endings to a venture that started with such high hopes, but it was interesting.