On London

I love London. It’s such a stunningly beautiful city, a fact I was reminded of the other evening while sitting on top of Primrose Hill at sunset. It was my wife’s birthday and we had eaten dinner at Trojka, a Russian restaurant nearby, and then walked up to the top of the hill in the cool, late dusk. From the top ofPrimrose Hill, you have a panoramic view of the city. It can be alarming at first, because right in front of your nose is that hideous spark plug of a building, the BT Tower. But further east, you can see the London Eye, the Gherkin, the majestic dome of St. Paul’s, a bit closer is the new Arsenal stadium, and further east is Canary Wharf. If you look very closely, you can see the tiered steeple ofSt. Bride’s Church, which is where whoever got the idea for the layered wedding cake got the idea for the layered wedding cake. The beauty of this scene was enhanced by the regular appearance of a rubber chicken, which made a brief arc across my line of vision before disappearing again.

It was a guy walking his dog. He was crouched on the grass, just over the lip of the hill so that I couldn’t see him or his dog from where I was sitting. But he was playing a game of fetch with his dog, and every time he tossed that rubber chicken into the air it rose briefly into view before disappearing below the horizon line. I only had a glimpse of it each time; chickens really can’t fly that far. But it truly was a thing of beauty, that gangly, pimply, yellow, featherless projectile. I followed its brief flight eagerly, then turned my attention back to the lovely view. And the lampposts. The lampposts on Primrose Hill are some of the loveliest lampposts I’ve ever seen. Especially when you’re walking uphill and there’s no one at the top, and all you can see at the summit are the silhouettes of those elegant London lampposts etched against the pink-streaked sky. I love London.

London always reminds me of a brain. It is similarly convoluted and circuitous. A lot of cities, especially American ones like New York and Chicago, are laid out in straight lines. Like the circuits on computer chips, there are a lot of right angles in cities like this. But London is a glorious mess. It evolved from a score or so of distinct villages, that merged and meshed as their boundaries enlarged. As a result, London is a labyrinth, full of turnings and twistings just like a brain. Its intelligence is distributed, too, like a brain’s. Each of these little villages—Primrose Hill, Highgate, Clapham, the City—has its own specializations and expertise. They are self-sufficient, even as they are inextricably and essentially part of the whole metropolis. It’s easy to get lost in London, something that probably has as much to do with my poor sense of direction as with the intricacies of the urban layout. Because it’s like a brain, London has loads of folds and crevasses that you’re always falling into unexpectedly. Until last week, I never knew there was a deer park in the western part of Hampstead Heath. And I never would have found it if I hadn’t gotten briefly lost while out for a run on the Heath. London is so rich, so twisted, it always has something new to show you. There’s always something you didn’t know about it. Samuel Johnson, who lived across the street from St. Bride’s Church off Fleet Street, was certainly right when he wrote his famous aphorism about London:

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.

But I also like what Henry James, an American who lived in and loved the city, had to say about the place, even though it doesn’t really qualify as an aphorism:

It is difficult to speak adequately, or justly, of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.

On Stepping on a Sliver of Glass

It’s incredibly hot. Every window in the house is open, in the hope of conducting any passing breeze through some steaming corridor or room. One of these gentle breezes knocked over a framed drawing by my daughter, propped on a shelf in my study. I was on the stairs when it happened. Thought I heard someone drop a handful of cutlery. Couldn’t find the source of the noise, though. Not in the kitchen. Not in the bathroom. Then noticed the frame face down on the floor of my study, some shards of glass poking out from underneath it like splayed cartoon limbs from under a boulder. I picked up the frame and drawing, shooed my curious daughter away from the glass, and swept it up. Like an idiot, I continued to walk around in bare feet. It’s so damn hot, you see.

So I stepped on a shard of glass, well away from the spot where the frame actually fell. It pierced the side of the toe next to my little toe. It was excruciating. A sharp, icy, cruel pain. I literally leaped off the ground when it happened. I hobbled to the chair and extracted the tiny sliver from my toe. It was smaller than a grain of rice, but possessed of incredible power to inflict pain. I walked over to the waste basket and dropped it in. It made a tiny but satisfying “chink” sound as it hit the metal bottom. Then, on the way back to my chair, I stepped on another shard of glass. I was now officially in my own slapstick comedy, bouncing around like a pogo stick, cradling my left foot in my hand, cursing under my breath while trying to chart a course through the room and into the hall that wouldn’t take me over any more broken glass.

This shard lodged near my heel. It’s still in there, I think. My wife poked the bottom of my foot with a sewing needle for about 10 minutes and couldn’t find it. Not even with the toy magnifying glass she grabbed from our son’s secret spy kit, which he got for his birthday a couple of years ago and hasn’t looked at since. We’re a family that thinks ahead, you see, well prepared for any emergency. There is just the tiniest pin prick in the rough skin on the bottom of my foot, a drop of blood no bigger than the head of a pin. Really very small. Probably no more than a dozen angels could dance on it in a pinch. It hurts to touch and makes my whole foot feel sore, though that may just be my imagination. When you are in pain, and can’t immediately find the cause, you imagine you’re in much greater danger than you really are.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg—scientist, astronomer, discover of Lichtenberg figures and aphorist—said it all when he composed this aphorism:

Why does a suppurating lung give so little warning and a sore on the finger so much?

It’s bizarre and scary but true: little things often pain us more than far graver things that keep themselves hidden. The speck of glass that even now may be working its way deeper into the flesh of my left foot hurt a lot today but will soon be forgotten. A close friend told my wife last week that an ex-lover of hers, someone whom at one point she was ready to marry, was diagnosed with lung cancer. He’s in his mid-forties, never smoked, has a couple of kids; now he’s got three months to live. We get no warning, and we have no idea how far the shards of experience will scatter—or when and in what form they will resurface.

On Football (Soccer)

I have tried to love it, I really have. But I have failed. As an American living in Europe, I almost feel it’s incumbent upon me to take an interest in the game that obsesses Europe and so much of the world, all of the world, in fact, apart from the United States of America. Here I am: I eat the food, speak a language or two, observe the national holidays. Surely I can manage a little passion for football, too. But I have well and truly failed to care. I even watched the World Cup with my son, who is a football enthusiast. But while I enjoyed watching the game with him, I did not enjoy the game itself. On the contrary. It reminded me of why it is I can’t get worked up about it. I used to think it was a ‘cultural thing.’ Like cricket; I just don’t get it. Any sport in which the players wear sweaters and break for lunch will, alas, remain forever alien to me. But there’s more to it than that with football. It really is a beautiful game–Zinedine Zidane’s header and Italian goalie Gianluigi Buffon’s save were gorgeous–but there’s an ugly side to it that really turns me off.It almost seems as if all of the vices (nationalism, racism, hooliganism, violence) that Europe has so successfully repressed, suppressed or sublimated for much of the past 60 years suddenly burst to the surface in football. What a shame, a disgrace that the World Cup final should be marred by insults (whether racist, mother-related or whatever) and headbutts. That’s obvious, I know, but as far as I know things like that don’t happen in other sports on the same scale. Sure, every sport has its neanderthals—just as every country, society and social class does. But thuggishness seems so prevalent in football, among players, coaches, fans. For all I know many sports may be riven by the same kinds of attitudes. Why does it spill out onto the pitch so often in football? Take ice hockey, for instance. That’s an incredibly violent game, with fights regularly breaking out among players. But they’re usually fighting instinctively, as a result of crashing into one another so often not because one player allegedly insults another player’s mother. That doesn’t justify it, of course. But somehow it’s less of a blight on the game. You come to watch an ice hockey match, but get a round or two of boxing as well.

So, I have resigned myself to not loving football. The sport won’t miss me. But I can still appreciate football’s great aphorists. Baseball has Yogi Berra, who said, among other things:

It ain’t over til it’s over.

But football has Johan Cruijff:

Every disadvantage has its advantage.

and Brian Clough:

I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.

and Bill Shankly:

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

It’s tough to compete with that.

On Finding A Bird in the House

Encountering a bird in a house is always an uncanny experience. There is something both frightening and compelling about it. Frightening because birds can be very scary in confined spaces; they dart around in a panic, their wings beating furiously, making a sound like someone violently punching a pillow. Compelling because birds suddenly seem so alien when you find them unexpectedly perched in your kitchen. Poised on top of a cupboard, a bird seems like a little household deity who’s dropped by for a quick visit. I can see why some ancient peoples believed they were gods. I have found birds in houses three times in my life, and the experiences never really fade with time. The most recent encounter was just last week, when I found a wood pigeon poking around on the kitchen floor.

It’s been so hot recently that we always keep the kitchen door, which leads onto the garden, open. I came downstairs to make some tea and saw the wood pigeonscavenging for crumbs on the floor. My arrival startled it and it flew up on top of a cupboard. Wood pigeons are truly enormous birds. Plump and pugnacious, they remind me of those backpackers on the Tube who are constantly prodding you with the sleeping bags that are strapped to their backs. This wood pigeon kept its beady little eyes on me as I carefully shut the kitchen door to prevent it flying into the rest of the house. The door to the garden was already wide open, so all I had to do was guide the beast in that general direction. It was pretty easy to do. I just walked toward it and it took off, bumping into the window once before finding the door. I spent the next 15 minutes locating and cleaning up the droppings it left behind in its hurried departure.

Just a few weeks before my pigeon spotting incident, I was in France and what I think was a yellowhammer finch flew into my bedroom. This bird was harder to liberate. It was timid and perched on the window, so it flew to the opposite side of the room every time I approached to open the window far enough so it could escape. Eventually, after a few tours around the bedroom, it did manage to get away. It’s a pitiful, lightly thudding sound, though: a small, desperate bird repeatedly hurling itself against glass.

The first time I found birds in a house was when I was about 18 and camping in Maine. I came across an old, boarded up hut in the woods. I snapped a few planks across the door and climbed in. Immediately, a small bird (I don’t know what kind it was) swooped and swirled around my head. I spent the best part of an hour trying to herd it toward the small opening I made in the window. But it was difficult because the window was so tightly boarded up that I could only open it a crack. Eventually, though, the bird did get through and I celebrated. But it was a short-lived celebration. Looking around the place more closely, I discovered another bird—the same type as the one that escaped and no doubt its partner—dead on the floor.

The Austrian aphorist Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach has some nice aphorisms about birds. Actually, they are about flying, but they give me that same kind of frightening, compelling feeling as finding a bird in the house:

You can sink so fast that you think you’re flying.

Just rise up again after every fall from a great height! Either you’ll fall to your death or you’ll grow wings.