I Hate it When the Harbinger of Death Gives Me the Finger

Nothing good can come from this.

Nothing good can come from this.

The raven bothered me. Walking through Highgate Cemetery in the late afternoon with a small group of students looking for the graves of one of my favorite authors (Douglas Adams), and some guy named Marx (not Groucho, the serious one who was more worried about the fate of the proletariat than he was of proper beard maintenance), a raven’s caw split the stillness of this 174-year-old, vine-covered final resting place of roughly 170,000 people.

I froze and looked around. Nothing.

As loud as its caw, I simply couldn’t see the bird. The raven, an intelligent, three-pound creature marked by legend to signal the end of the British Empire if the flock left the Tower of London (only about six are left there), was really, really close. But, scanning the heavy deciduous canopy that loomed over about 53,000 gravestones, this black bird, as big as a small dog, was invisible. This was the only time the harbinger of death cawed during my trip to the cemetery and I got more nervous with each step.

Then my chewing gum got all crunchy. “Ouch,” I said, spitting gum into my hand.

“What’s the matter?” Olivia asked.

I pulled back my fingers to find a squishy green blob dotted with bits of silver. Are you kidding me? I stuck my tongue into the hole in my tooth just to be sure. “I lost a filling,” I said.

A vital piece of oral hardware just popped from its twenty-year home, opening my jawline to infection and, what was worse, giving me an extreme sensitivity to all the beer I planned to drink while in England. Oh, yeah, and I was 4,290.5 miles away from my dentist. Problems with teeth, much like problems with your private parts, aren’t things people worry about when they’re away from home. Travelers are more concerned about being robbed, and having to talk to French people.

The raven’s caw warned me something bad would happen. I hoped that was just about the filling. I wasn’t ready to find a dentist in London; I’ve heard all about British teeth. Would a dentist here make my smile look like the terror grin of Prince Charles? A shiver ran through me.

So I did what any British person would do to mull over the situation; I went to the pub.

The Wittington Stone Pub. A friendly sort of place.

The Wittington Stone Pub. A friendly sort of place.

The cemetery sits atop a steep hill in the Highgate area of London as most things there do. Of course, some things also sit at the bottom of a steep hill. The pub we found was somewhere in the middle. Set back from the street, the Whittington Stone looked a bit more modern on the outside than most pubs I’ve been to, although that might mean it’s just less than 500 years old. Inside it captured the dark wood, and friendly “welcome and get politely drunk” atmosphere British pubs are known for.

The Wittington Stone pub is named after Richard Whittington (1354–1423), a merchant, four-time Lord Mayor of London, and epic champion of the lower class who founded a hospital for unwed mothers (it’s unknown if he helped them get their start), funded drainage systems for the poorer sections of London, and founded a charity that still exists. The “stone” on this hill is where he sat and heard ringing from Bow Bells Church six miles away; apparently 400 years before the Internet that was a pretty big deal for poor people in East London. A weatherworn statue of Wittington’s cat, a legendary mouser, sits just up the street from the pub.

Getting the hang of all this pub business (this was only a couple days into our journey), my students and I found a table, wood with a brass number at the end, and grabbed a menu. One of the many great things about pubs is what they do with their menus. Most pubs post menus outside so you don’t have to go in to realize you’ve made mistake and need to be somewhere else. A chalkboard marquee set up out front took the posted menu’s place, offering shepherds pie for £5.99, a pretty cheap price for dinner in London. Considering I’ve spent a pound more for just a hamburger (albeit a proper hamburger), £5.99 was right in my price range. The menu inside one-upped the marquee. It boasted a two-for-£7 deal my students took full advantage of.

“What are you getting?” Paul asked.

“I’m getting the barbecue chicken,” Alex said, in full America mode.

“I’m getting the fish,” Olivia said. “And a beer.”

That a girl.

“The chicken looks good,” Paul said, looking toward the deeply polished bar. He turned back toward us, grinning. “That barmaid’s cute.”

Dark, shoulder-length hair, brown eyes, and various other bits in nice proportions in the appropriate places. Yes, she was.

“Go talk to her,” I said, even though I knew he had to if he wanted food.

“What are you going to have, Offutt?” Olivia asked.

Me? With fish and chips, a beef sandwich, and the chalkboard shepherds pie all looking delicious, I played with my tooth hole. “Beer,” I said. “I’m just going to have beer.”

And I did. Fortunately, my tooth hole wasn’t sensitive to cold.

Toofypegs as a name that gives confidence to desperate dental patients? Not really, England. Not really.

Toofypegs as a name that gives confidence to desperate dental patients? Not really, England. Not really.

Running into a quasi-medical problem so far away from home in 2013 isn’t like it was in 1847, or even 1987. I took advantage of the six-hour time difference and cell phone technology and simply called my dentist. “There’s a product called Dentemp,” he said. “It’s a temporary filling. Get that and I’ll see you when you get home.”

In 1847, a traveler with a tooth problem may have died an agonizing, oozy death. Today I just went to the chemist (pharmacy) and got the British equivalent to Dentemp, Toofypegs (a name I assume people at an ad agency came up with while high on nitrous oxide). I was going to be fine. As for the rest of that day …

Peroni Nastro Azzurro. The Italians get their beer right.

Peroni Nastro Azzurro. The Italians get their beer right.

SPOILER ALERT: Alex’s barbecue chicken was less than satisfactory, Olivia’s beer (the Italian lager Peroni Nastro Azzurro) was delicious; I had one, too, Paul completely failed to impress the pretty barmaid, who may have liked his accent and invited him back to her place if he’d just smiled and said anything other than “I’d like the barbecue chicken and a Coke,” and I survived my trip to England without an oral infection. Screw you, raven.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In Defense of the Cardigan

This bloody scene has something to do with the cardigan sweater.

This bloody scene has something to do with the cardigan sweater.

Walking home from teaching my first week in London, a man in a white T-shirt and work pants standing at the open bonnet (hood) of a lorry (truck) stuck out a hand and said in a thick British accent, “Excuse me, mate. You know of a good auto repair shop ’round here?”

Yes, I'm American. Why do you ask?

Yes, I’m American. Why do you ask?

I stopped. What just happened? An Englishman asked me for the kind of advice someone only asks a local. Was it my dark clothing, or my red beard? Was it the fact that I walked down the pavement (sidewalk) minding my own business? I don’t know. All I knew was I was in a foreign country, and apparently I fit in.

“No, sorry,” I said in the proper British way of apologizing for something that was in no way my fault (albeit in my American accent). “I’m not from around here.”

The man nodded. “Thank you anyway.”

And I walked on.

From the moment I landed in London, one of the things I wanted to do is not look like a foreigner. I was there to teach a travel writing class, and the best way to see Londoners in their natural habitat is to become one of them. If I kept my mouth shut, mission accomplished.

Great. I now felt more at home in London than I felt in a lot of places in America, like Chicago, and most of Texas. If you’ve never felt alone in your own country, go to East Texas and talk to anybody, especially at Walmart (excuse me, The Walmarts).

In London, I shared the British love of intellectual humor that was silly at the same time, their love of food people in most countries wouldn’t touch, and beer. Lots of beer. Delicious beer consumed at room temperature, and at all times of the day. The British are good people.

No one can criticize this man. Period.

No one can criticize Mr. Rogers. Period.

But one of the things I felt really at home with was all of the cardigans. A cardigan is an open-front sweater that zips, buttons, or ties, and makes everyone around them point and laugh, at least back home.

In the United States, if you’re not Mr. Rogers (who’s dead. I hope he was buried in one of those cardigans made by his mother), David Beckham (who can wear anything he wants, thank you), or various hipsters I’d like to punch, nobody wears cardigans.

Seriously, nobody, except me.

I have an old grey (gray) cardigan I never wear out of the house. I should have brought it to England. Maybe more British people would stop me to ask things, crazy things, like where’s the nearest Tube station, pub, or 500-year-old building (just turn around). I could answer them all.

The cardigan is immensely underappreciated for an article of clothing named after a man immortalized in a poem for being a badass – James Thomas Brudenell, the seventh earl of Cardigan.

James Thomas Brudenell could fight you only using his mustache.

James Thomas Brudenell could fight you using only his mustache.

Born in 1797, an angry Brudenell entered the Army in 1824 as a lieutenant colonel and argued with everyone he could argue with, presumably because he wore a sweater with buttons down the front. In 1837, he required his entire regiment wear these sweaters. After a promotion to major general in 1854 (not because of the sweater), he led his men in the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.

The Charge of the freaking Light Brigade, fixed in history by the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

What did Brudenell do to celebrate the victory? He went to his ship, had dinner, and guzzled wine all while wearing a cardigan. The crown soon after named Brudenell inspector general of the cavalry, which proved unfortunate because he was killed by a horse.

A man who survived a cavalry charge during the Crimean War, and only died when a 1,500-pound animal challenged him to personal combat, also popularized the cardigan sweater.

I just put on my grey cardigan, and feel like punching a lion. I’ll never, ever take it off.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Long Trip Home

Hey, way to be organized, Heathrow.

Hey, way to be organized, Heathrow.

The worst part about traveling is the part where I travel. I love being someplace new, just not getting there. Being there is time to relax, sightsee, and get drunk on whatever the locals get drunk on. Getting there is as miserable as sitting through a relative’s wedding; the one where the doves got loose and started pecking people’s eyes.

Sitting in Heathrow, waiting for my flight back to the States, I realized how much more pleasant Heathrow is than O’Hare International Airport. It’s not the fact that Britons are more polite than anyone I ever met from Chicago, or that even if British people were rude their accents are so pleasant it wouldn’t sound rude. It was the organization that made the difference.

Nice try, O'Hare.

Nice try, O’Hare.

People who wanted passengers to get where they needed to go designed Heathrow. Every station the passenger needs to queue through is well marked and in a logical order. In comparison, O’Hare seems more like the Winchester Ghost House in California. Endless corridors and stairs seem to lead nowhere, and doors open to nothing in particular. The Winchester Mystery House was expanded upon by Sarah Winchester to confuse the ghosts off all the people her husband’s rifles killed (yeah, that Winchester). I suspect the people behind designing O’Hare were equally as mad.

A month ago on my way to London, I walked through the O’Hare terminal where I deplaned from my Kansas City flight, took a bus to a second terminal, walked through two more terminals, and had to ask an off-duty Applebee’s waitress how to get to the fifth. “You should have flown into Midway,” she said. “It’s more like an airport and less like its own city.” How right she was. I got to Terminal Five by train. Where was Terminal Four? I don’t know. Given O’Hare, it may have been in an alternate dimension.

I also didn’t find strange people in Heathrow like I found at O’Hare. Such as the young man with one carryon backpack crying in the fetal position clutching Rosary beads like he was going to die, and the hacking lady from New Jersey who may have been spreading SARS around the globe. I suspect they don’t let those types of people into Heathrow; that behavior isn’t proper.

My flight from London took off exactly as promised, unlike Chicago where a piece of equipment left at the gate by a different airline delayed my flight to London by 45 minutes. This was sort of like a college student spitting on the last piece of pizza so no one else would take it (American students have been known to do this).

I’m not saying British airports are superior to American airports. I’m simply saying this British Airport, and every other American airport I’ve been to, is superior to O’Hare. O’Hare is what you get when you let the actions of people from Chicago go unfettered. An American airport that comes close to the M.C. Escher layout of O’Hare is DFW. Whatever I said about Chicagoans goes double for Texans.

The flight between London and Chicago is around eight hours, depending on the weather, and perhaps UFO activity. I paid attention to the stewardess’s pre-flight “oh shit, we’re going down” speech because unlike flights from Austin to Denver or Kansas City, Missouri, to Washington, D.C., going over the Atlantic Ocean there’s actually a chance I’d need to use my seat as a flotation device.

Hmm. We haven’t begun to taxi and someone’s already asked for a drink. I’m surprised it wasn’t me.

The 4,000-mile flight to London took us over northern Canada, Greenland, and a snippet of Scotland, none of which are in a direct route between Point A and Point B on a linear map. I’d never really thought about it before, but given the shape of the Earth, going east in a north/south direction is the shortest route. The flight home, on which I am now, is currently over Newfoundland. Of course, I can’t see Canada. Too many clouds.

I already feel the plane starting to change altitude. This is the last part of my journey, folks. I’m glad you joined me for “An American Offutt in London.” Of course I have to sit in O’Hare for three hours to catch my flight home (where I’ll post this), then hope my family remembers to come get me. I also have about two hours in this flight before I get to Chicago, but it’s nearly 5 p.m. London time (11 a.m. CST) and we were promised little cheese sandwiches and scones for teatime.  I’m not going to miss my last taste of the U.K. That wouldn’t be proper.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Sound of Americans

The accent sounded familiar. It should be. I’ve heard it enough in the United Kingdom; it was American. Living in London for a month, I’ve gotten so used to the British way of behaving in public, I’m a little worried how I’m going to react when I get home.

QueueWalking down a British pavement (sidewalk), people are expected to, 1) avoid eye contact, 2) leave a spot on the left for people who walk faster than they do, and 3) be quiet. Riding British public transportation, people are expected to, 1) avoid eye contact, 2) give up their seat whenever a woman boards, and 3) be quiet. Standing in a British queue (line), people are expected to, 1) avoid eye contact, 2) never jump queue, and 3) be quiet.

The British simply like to keep to themselves, leaving any excess noise to drunken German football (soccer) fans, emergency vehicles, and Americans. Even British car horns are so soft I occasionally mistake them for someone passing by listening to an iPod.

Which brings us back to the American accent.

In the ticket queue at the Earls Court Tube (subway) station, seven people stood in front of me: a middle-aged woman, two girls in their mid-20s who appeared to be sisters, a middle-aged man, and three college girls.

“Oh, my gawd,” one of the girls said as the three stood in a circle. Well, I guess that would be a triangle, wouldn’t it? “I am so totally excited to be here.”

“Me, too,” a second girl said. “I am super excited, but I am soooo tired.”

The third girl touched the second’s forearm. “You can’t go to sleep, Megan,” she said. “You might get sick.”

I wish I were making this up, but I’m not.

Nothing says London like Texas A&M.

Nothing says London like Texas A&M.

While I’ve been here, I’ve felt a kinship with every American accent I’ve heard, and talked with quite a few people. I gave a “Gig ’em, Aggies,” to a couple of boys who attend Texas A&M University (you could tell by their sweatshirts), and had a nice conversation with a family from Liberty, Missouri, a city I’d visited two days before I boarded an airplane for London.

“Where are you from?” I asked the girls in my plain Midwest accent, an accent tempered over years of living in the most accent-neutral place in North America.

One girl, whose tan was as natural as a box of Cheez-Its, turned toward me and smiled. “America,” she said.

I frowned. “Yes,” I said. “I kinda guessed that.”

“Oh,” she said, my own Americaness apparently sinking in. “We’re from Minnesota. We just got here.”

No shit.

Over the past month I’ve overheard plenty of Americans shouting (at least by British standards) about how drunk they got the night before, or complaining about the food (the food is amazing), or whining about all the walking (the British walk everywhere. Driving’s too expensive).

I’ve not once heard another accent louder than a personal conversation I shouldn’t have been listening to anyway, and there are plenty of accents from all over the world here in London. They simply don’t advertise it. Maybe that’s why foreign people complain about Americans. We’re just so damned loud.

The girls eventually purchased their Tube tickets and it was my turn.

“I just need enough to get to Heathrow in the morning,” I told the clerk.

“That’ll be one pound 50,” she said.

That was my last purchase as a Londoner. By this time tomorrow I’ll be somewhere over Illinois on my way to Kansas City International Airport.

Well, maybe that isn’t my last purchase. There’s still time for one more pint at the Warwick Arms Public House down the street. I’ll probably talk with whoever’s there; I just won’t be obvious about it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Crack Squirrels and Hogsheads

jango1When it comes to units of measurement, the British are as predictable as a London squirrel. Let me explain.

In the early 2000s, British police organized a crack down on drug use (yes, I did that on purpose). Because of this, dealers started burying crack cocaine in yards (gardens) next to the street to dig up later. Trouble is squirrels beat them to it. “My neighbor said dealers had used my garden to hide crack,” an unnamed Brixton resident told London’s The Sun newspaper in 2007. “Just an hour earlier I’d seen a squirrel digging in the flower beds. It was ill looking and its eyes looked bloodshot, but it kept on desperately digging. It seems a strange thing to say, but it seemed to know what it was looking for.”

I WILL mess up your day.

I WILL mess up your day.

There you go; squirrels on crack, just like the British system of measurement.

The British can’t seem to make up their mind about Imperial measurements and the metric system. Temperature is measured in Celsius, distance is measured in inches, feet, yards, and miles, a can of beer is measured in milliliters, in pubs you order a pint, petrol is sold in liters, but a vehicle’s petrol efficiency is measured in miles per gallon.


Turns out the British love of the metric system is more an uncomfortable affair than a marriage. The United Kingdom first rejected a plan to universally convert to the metric system in 1965 probably because the French did it first (in 1791). The idea fell into a dark period where decades of school children were told they had to learn both the Imperial and metric systems because, well golly, we’re going to change over any day now.

A metric Britain came closer to reality when the UK joined the European Union in November 1993. However, the British kept pushing back the deadline for full metrification because they’re wonderfully stubborn when it comes to tradition. The EU finally gave up trying to make the UK fully metric in 2007, however, not before some metric rules were enforced. So, gone were ounces, and pounds, but saved were miles and pints.

The British system is, therefore, slightly schizophrenic. Not that the Imperial system makes much sense either.

Like a bag. A bag is a British Imperial measurement for 24 gallons. The British have a lot of measurements for various numbers of gallons, such as a barrel for beer, 36 gallons, and wine, 31.5 gallons. A bucket is four gallons. A firkin equals nine gallons of beer (only beer). A seam is 64 gallons, which is only slightly more than the hogshead, at 63 gallons, and a bit less than the puncheon, which weighs in at 70 gallons. A butt of wine or beer is 126 gallons (or two hogsheads). Last is a last, which equals 640 gallons.

And those are just measurements using gallons. Measurements of length often involve using items, like barleycorn, line, rod, rope, sack (which equals 26 stones), and stone (14 pounds). Some of those measurements refer to body parts, like palm, foot, fathom (the distance between your fingertips with arms outstretched), foot, hand, nail, finger, and span. I’m a bit surprised there’s not an imperial measure called a penis.

That’s enough. My head hurts. And I haven’t even gotten to clove, dram, gill, chain, and shackle.

Looks like crack squirrels have been living here for a long, long time.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Nerding Out Across London

Westminster Abbey. Yes, it is as big as it looks.

Westminster Abbey. Yes, it is as big as it looks.

The massive doors of Westminster Abbey are imposing enough without looking up to take in the 100-foot-tall roof and even taller gray stone towers. The abbey, the largest Gothic church in Britain, was built in 1245 A.D. (although a church has existed on that spot since 1066 A.D.), and is the site of royal coronations.

It wasn’t British royalty that brought me to the abbey. It was something a bit nerdier.

Dotting the stone floor of the 32,000-square-foot building are grave markers. Yes, 3,300 people are buried in tombs and under the floor, including knights and 17 monarchs. But I wasn’t interested in them. I was interested in the cool kids, like author Jane Austen, poet Geoffrey Chaucer, composer George Frideric Handel, author Charles Dickens, naturalist Charles Darwin, author Rudyard Kippling, actor Lawrence Olivier, missionary David Livingston, and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The amount of genius under my feet was amazing, but the author of “The Jungle Book,” the composer of “Messiah,” and the man behind the theory of natural selection, were only icing.

Standing on a stone that read, “Hic Depositum Est Quod Mortale Fuit Issaci Newtoni,” my legs got a little shaky. Literally. The Latin inscription translates to, “Here lies that which was mortal of Isaac Newton.” I actually stood on the grave of the most influential scientist ever. EVER. An entire branch of physics is named after him. And he wasn’t just a rock star in physics; he was a genius in mathematics, astronomy, and optics.

It cost me £18 just to smell the dusty air of the abbey. It was well worth it.

During my trip to England I’ve gone to all the places I need to go as a tourist. Big Ben, the British Museum, the Globe Theatre, Stonehenge, Bath, and Buckingham Palace. I’ve ridden atop a double-decker bus and stepped inside a red telephone box. But my trip wouldn’t be complete unless I went to places that meant something personal to me. And what is personal to me is really, really geeky.

Like these:

George Orwell’s House

George Orwell's house. And, yes, the knob was in the center of the door. How British.

George Orwell’s house. And, yes, the knob was in the center of the door. How British.

The white, two-story building mixes seamlessly with other white and pastel houses on Portobello Road in the London borough of Notting Hill. A short walk from the Notting Hill Gate tube station took me past restaurants, and knickknack shops, to the home of the man who wrote two novels I can say, with some certainty, you read in high school.

George Orwell, born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in Mothari, India, lived in this house. Well, not anymore. He died of tuberculosis in 1950. A democratic socialist, Orwell wrote two of the 20th Century’s most popular political novels, “Animal Farm,” and “1984.” And I was at his house.

One of the ways to know this was once the house of one of the world’s most famous authors is a little blue plaque mounted far enough up the wall it would be really obvious if someone tried to steal it; the other way is the address. That’s a dead giveaway. The plaque reads, “George Orwell, 1903-1950, novelist and political essayist lived here.”

And that’s it.

This was an important moment for me. My sister is the librarian at my old school. While weeding out older books and replacing them with nice bright shiny ones, she gave me a book with a threadbare cover. It was “Animal Farm.” Written on the end page was my name, dated my sixth grade year.

Before I left Portobello Road, I walked up to the front door and touched George Orwell’s door handle. I’m not sure why, but I’m glad I did.

Abbey Road

The Beatles 11th studio album, “Abbey Road,” is also their last recorded album. Released in 1969, “Abbey Road” included “Come Together,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and my second favorite Beatles song, “Oh! Darling.” My favorite Beatles song is, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but that’s from their 1968 album, “The Beatles,” so don’t worry about it. The Beatles won a Grammy Award for “Abbey Road,” which was obviously too much to handle because the band broke up a few months later (I’m not getting into Yoko here. I’m just not).

Me leading a group of students across the road. Yeah, it was a lot cooler than it sounds.

Me leading a group of students across the road. Yeah, it was a lot cooler than it sounds.

The album is, of course, named after a road. Abbey Road. It runs through St. John’s Wood and comes out around Lord’s Cricket Ground. Abbey Road is home to the still operating Abbey Road Studios, where not only the Beatles recorded, so did Pink Floyd, The Alan Parsons Project, Rush, Duran Duran, and John Williams with the London Symphony Orchestra for “The Empire Strikes Back.”

But nobody really comes for the studio (well, except musicians), they come for the street. With the jacket of “Abbey Road,” the Beatles turned the zebra crossing at Abbey Road and Grove End Road into the most well known crosswalk on the planet. Of course I had to walk across it.

Zebra crossings, called such because they’re simply white stripes on a black road, are great for pedestrians, but horrible for drivers. By British law, motorists have to stop for people waiting to cross the street at a zebra crossing. As I walked across the street in wide strides (there were a lot of us there, too. We took turns), I wondered with thousands upon thousands of tourists on that zebra crossing each year, why the hell would anyone ever drive on Abbey Road?

I certainly wouldn’t.


Back in a more civilized, less mobile telephone-centric world, the public could alert police to things like domestic disputes and drunken idiots by calls from a telephone in a blue police box. Although the first boxes were used in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, the famous ones were in Great Britain. These boxes on street corners had telephones, a first aid kit, and possibly whisky. This was the 1800s after all. At the height of their use, there were 685 police boxes in London. Since walkie-talkies became standard for police work in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the boxes were rendered obsolete and decommissioned. Now, there is only one left in London. It sits outside the Earl’s Court tube station.

Me, geeking out with the TARDIS.

Me, geeking out with the TARDIS.

If you don’t know why this is at all important, you’ve never seen an episode of “Doctor Who.”

“Doctor Who” is about a time lord who rights wrongs across infinity in the machine TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) that looks like a blue British police box. The show first appeared on the BBC in November 1963 (with a 100,000-year trip to the past to help cavemen discover fire), and ran until 1989. The BBC relaunched “Doctor Who” in 2005 and the program is still in production.

Okay, so I’m in England, there’s one police box left, it looks like an iconic piece of science fiction, and I’m a nerd. Yeah, I had my picture taken with it.

The Winchester

The train ride was longer than I was used to. In central London, Tube cars come every few minutes. The farther out you get, the longer the wait. Sitting at Canada Water station (names for everything here are a bit odd), waiting for the London Overground train, an attractive British woman walked up to me and asked, “Where’s the platform for Crystal Palace?”

I said,” I believe it’s…”

“Oh,” she said, stopping me. “You’re American.” And she walked away.

I was slightly offended Americans aren’t expected to know anything, but also flattered I fit in well enough she didn’t think I was American. Then offended again she simply walked away.

The train eventually came, and I boarded it for the New Cross Gate station. I was nervous because I’d never been this far out of central London before. “Don’t worry,” a Londoner who works at my building said when I asked about safety. “There isn’t anywhere in London I wouldn’t feel safe in.” Apparently she’d never been to New Cross Gate.

Spray paint graffiti began appearing on buildings about five minutes out from the station, and trash littered the right of way. I hadn’t seen graffiti or litter in London up till this point. Nervousness started to crawl over me, but I shook it off. Sure, I was alone. Sure, the area looked rough. Sure, I didn’t know exactly where I was going, but I was going all the same. I was headed for the Winchester. A pub from one of my favorite movies “Shaun of the Dead.” And if a city full of zombies didn’t keep those heroes from going down to the pub, graffiti wasn’t going to stop me.

I’m happy I didn’t do a Google search on New Cross before I went. Links for “Is New Cross a safe area to live?” and “New Cross safety issues” popped up more than I felt comfortable with.

A piece of litter blew across the street and over the cracked sidewalk (pavement over here) as I searched for the Winchester’s home on Monson Road. Walking past people standing outside tattoo parlors and pubs smoking cigarettes, and mothers yelling at their children, I … Oh, dear lord, a Domino’s Pizza shop. I was in a rough neighborhood.

London is easy to get around in, amazingly easy. Public transport takes you from point to point cheaply and quickly and everyone’s happy. Until you need to walk. There are no uniform street signs like we have in the States. Yes, there are street signs, but they’re sporadic, and placed so high on buildings it’s almost dangerous to look up. I just crossed my fingers and started walking.

Somewhere between an Indian restaurant and a group of young men in a church garden drinking beer out of large bottles in brown bags, I found Monson Road.

The noise of traffic, laughter, and anger from the main street, quickly grew silent as I got into the interior of New Cross. A street past a park with shady looking teenagers in New York Yankees ball caps, I saw it. The Winchester.

Yep. That's Jason Offutt at The Winchester from "Shaun of the Dead." And, looking at the streets, the zombies have already taken everybody.

Yep. That’s Jason Offutt at The Winchester from “Shaun of the Dead.” And, looking at the streets, the zombies have already taken everybody.

If you’ve never gone to a place featured in a favorite movie, it’s embarrassingly magical. Standing in front of the Winchester, which was once an actual pub called The Duke of Albany, but is now a block of flats, I felt as awed as I did seeing a stuffed dodo in the Museum of Natural History, and the Roman baths at Bath.

Kind of silly, yes, but I have no problem with that. I just wish I could have bashed some zombies, and gone into the Winchester for a pint. I guess I actually could have gone into the building for a pint, but it was flats now, so I would have had to knock on doors and ask nicely.

Monty Python

The Monty Python troupe has a special place in my emotional development. When I was 12, I didn’t want to watch the president speak on TV. Who did? So I turned my television to the one pre-cable TV channel that wasn’t showing the president. PBS. There I saw “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” for the first time. And they showed boobs.

Monty Python was some of the most clever, and silly comedy I had ever seen. But they had me at boobs.

There are a number of blue plaques around the city commemorating the boys from Monty Python, and I’ve set out to find a few of them. I’ve so far failed.

I have three more days in London. Wish me luck. Nerd luck.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Douglas Adams: So Long and Thanks for Everything

HighgateCemeteryHighgate Cemetery is at the top of a ridiculously steep hill in the London borough of Islington. A red telephone box, one of only 2,000 traditional boxes left in the country, sits on a stretch of pavement that takes pedestrians up that hill, past pubs that offer a friendly door (I stopped at one on the way home; the inside was friendly, too), and into quiet Waterlow Park. Across the park, black metal gates mark the beginning of Highgate Cemetery, the resting place of physicist Michael Faraday, political philosopher Karl Marx, and many British artists, entertainers, architects, and military heroes. It’s also home to the legend of the Highgate Vampire.

I wasn’t there to see any of them, although I did, except for the vampire. Well, one guy was pretty pale, but I think he was just from Finland.

DouglasAdams2I was at the cemetery to get as close as I ever could to one of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams.

Adams, born in Cambridge in March 1952, wrote “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” “Hitchhiker’s Guide” began as a BBC radio series, and became a TV series, computer game, and stage play, but I first came to know it as a novel that I picked up in college simply because the jacket cover looked silly. The book didn’t disappoint. The inside was silly as well, brilliantly so.

Adams sold more than 15 million books in the English-speaking world, and at least two or three everywhere else. Adams died of a heart attack while working out at the gym in 2001. He was only 49 years old. Lesson here? Never go to the gym.

KarlMarxAdams’ grave is unassuming (fitting for the atheist he was), not like that braggart Karl Marx. Marx’s tombstone is at least 12 feet tall, and topped with a head that looks like a really pissed off Santa Claus. Marx, the revolutionary socialist who wrote “The Communist Manifesto,” lived 15 years longer than Adams, and his book wasn’t nearly as funny as Adams’ book. Nope. Not even close.

Adams’ stone, a slight piece of granite, simply says, “Douglas Adams, Writer, 1952-2001.” A vase rests at the foot of the headstone, and is filled with ballpoint pens. There’s a reason for that. In “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” a student named Veet Voogajig, “became increasingly obsessed with what happened to all the ballpoint pens he’d bought over the years.” He claimed to find the planet at the end of a wormhole where all pens went to find “the good life.”

I took the best pen from my pocket (it wasn’t a great pen. I buy them in in big bags) and placed it in the vase. Thanks for all the laughs, Douglas.

Admission to the section of Highgate Cemetery where Adams is buried is £4; entrance to the entire cemetery is £12.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments