Sunday, July 31, 2005

Baseball? Really?

It's almost one o'clock in the morning, and there is a television show on right now that appears to be a baseball talk show. With actual Britons discussing actual baseball. Very weird.

In other news, I spent the last few days reading and processing Lydia Goehr's The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. My random thoughts:

1. Goehr was apparently chair of the Philosophy department at Wesleyan. Who knew?

2. The book is not really musicology, it is full-fledged philosophy. I realized this when I started to get a headache midway through, and realized it was actually a painful flashback of my undergraduate introductory philosophy class. Academic philosophers are a bizarre set of people, with a writing style that boggles the mind. Every possible aspect of an argument must be explained in excruciating detail, and with frequent recourse to strange metaphors. My favorite: in trying to explain the idea of compliance (in other words, how correct does a performance of a musical work need to be in order for it to qualify as that work. Does it need to be 100% Is it Beethoven's Fifth if you only get 50% of the notes? ) Goehr compares the situation to a balding man: how many hairs does he need to lose to be considered bald?

In summary? It's a really tough read, and it probably isn't necessary to read every chapter, but it is worth every musicologist's while to sit down and read as much as one can thoroughly. It's smart, valuable, and provocative.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Mary Poppins

We went to go see the new musical version of Mary Poppins in the West End, with our two friends who were visiting from the States. It's the latest in the series of Disney movies reworked as musicals, in the vein of The Lion King and Beauty in the Beast. I haven't seen either of those two, but I gather that Mary Poppins is more in line with Beauty in the Beast, in that is a fairly straightforward, non-Taymor-ized adaptation.

My review? In short, it was dreadful. Perfectly dreadful. A treacly mishmash of Disney dreck, unconvincing Andrew Loyd Webber-style techno gizmos, and some of the worst singing I have ever heard by supposed professionals. Granted, an understudy was singing Bert's role, which can throw things off, but in a mainstream West End musical that has been open for a few months, that should not be an excuse. And not only was the performance amateurish, the script was dreadful, a complete disaster. The pseudo-Anglican-mysticism of the books and the movie were replaced with miserably sentimental muck. My favorite number from the movie, "Feed the Birds", was ruined. In the end, when Mary Poppins opened her umbrella and floated out over the audience, I wanted to retch. And let it be known that I have no problem with popular culture, or even with trash. My love for Britney Spears is completely genuine, I watch Friends re-runs nightly, and I read Defamer religiously. Mary Poppins was just bad. Bad, bad, bad.

My quandary, however, is not that the show was bad. My problem is that everyone loved it. Not in the applause-inflation sort of way that characterizes a lot of shows nowadays, with the automatic standing ovation every five minutes, but real, genuine love for the show. Occasionally at the end of a number, you could see everyone just lurching half out of their seats with appreciation, shouting bravo with glee. This included literally everyone in the theater, including my two friends from college. (Mary is on my side, thank god.) My two friends are very intelligent people, very sophisticated. They are, respectively, a linguist and an astrophysicist, for god's sake. I have known them for a long time, and have had many sophisticated aesthetic discussions with them. My former roommate, whom I love dearly, proclaimed it the best musical she has ever seen.

So I am left with the conclusion that there is something very wrong with me. Have I been so thoroughly disciplined by graduate school that I am no longer capable of being swept away in what seems to be a magical experience for everyone else? Has a summer's worth of reading Adorno, Marx, and Goehr completely corrupted me? Am I now so irredeemably academic that I will never know happiness again?

No, I just think everyone else is crazy.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Driving Less Wrongly

I know that everyone is fascinated by my continued attempts to drive, so here is another update:

The big news is that last night I drove from Barnet all the way into central London, to the Euston train station just south of Camden. This was presaged by a less successful attempt to drive a friend to Heathrow Thursday morning. I got there fine--it was ridiculously early in the morning, so there was no traffic on the M25 and I could just cruise in fifth all the way there. I managed to pull up to the terminal fine and drop my friend off, but once there I got stuck. There were crowds of people surrounding me, and with the pressure I began to stall spectacularly. After trying for several long minutes, I finally gave up and Mary drove us home.

Last night, however, for various complicated reasons we had to return a rental car to Euston. It was fairly late at night so there wasn't tons of traffic, and I stalled two or three times, but more or less I made the drive successfully! It's about a thirty minute drive, with a variety of roundabouts, stop lights, tight busy streets, and one very steep hill through Highgate, so I am quite proud of myself.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Cotswolds Photos

I have uploaded a few photos of our weekend expedition to the Cotswolds.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


My girlfriend is an American who has lived in London the past three years studying for a graduate degree. Several times in her short stay here she has witnessed explosions of what the British press have come to call “yob” culture, the vicious and brutal attacks by young Britons against random strangers on the street. The worst incident she saw occurred on a bus. A young man boarded the bus with some friends, and tried to sneak by without paying. The driver, however, noticed him, and yelled at him to come back to the front of the bus. When he pretended not to hear, a young woman informed him that the bus driver wanted a word with him. The young man proceeded to tear into the woman, screaming at her to mind her own business.

The woman, however, was not the victim of violence. The victim was, instead, a man in his mid-twenties who was sitting nearby with his mother. When the young hoodlum had been screaming at the woman for a good while, the victim finally told him to lay off her. That was enough of a spark to light off the yob mentality. He and his friends grabbed the man, dragged him off the bus, and pummeled him bloody on the sidewalk. My girlfriend, and the rest of the bus passengers, watched through the windows in silence as the man’s mother screamed for help.

This month has witnessed several much worse violent explosions on London buses. Strangers, as innocent as if less valiant than the man on bus, have died for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The perpetrators of these acts were very different, of course. The men who attacked my girlfriend’s bus were white. Those who attacked trains and buses on July 7 and July 21 were, it is believed, not white. The similarities, however, are more important. The men who bombed London’s transportation, and the men who terrorize its streets after closing time at the pubs, are all young British men, who, adrift in this nation, have found personal realization through vicious, indiscriminate, violence.

The Labour government believes that the best way to stop violence such as this is to prohibit it. Yob culture is being attacked with the infamous Anti-Social Behavior Ordinances, which allow local governments to impose severe penalties on specific people for any sort of activity that might be deemed “anti-social”, broadly defined. Terrorism is likewise to be combated with increased police powers, and the occasional public execution on a crowded tube car. Those on the left, of course, insist that what we really need to do is attack the motivations. In the case of the yobs, this means more “opportunity” and better youth programs to keep them occupied in the meantime. In the case of terrorism, this means fighting racism at home and ending Britain’s involvement in the war on Iraq.

As much as I would love to blame terrorism such as London’s on the Iraq war, I just do not think it is justified. The Iraq war provides impetus, to be sure, just as the man on the bus provided his attackers with an impetus, however mild. And surely, the young men from Leeds were organized, trained, and equipped by larger forces. But in reading the biographies of the original bombers, young Muslim men from Leeds, I can’t help have the feeling that even if geopolitics hadn’t intervened, violence and trouble might always have been down the road for them. One of the bombers, after all, had been sent to Pakistan in the first place because his mother hoped a traditional education might keep her son out of trouble. And although I am mostly sympathetic to the argument that poverty and a lack of social opportunity encourages violent youth cultures, I just also know too many privileged rich kids who are as violent as the next. And despite Michael Moore’s simplifications, I don’t think it is a matter of national culture. Nations and political movements give formal shape and coherence to violence, but they don’t actually create it.

I just wish I knew where it did come from. It seems to be everywhere, lying ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Living amongst the bombings this summer makes you realize, first of all, how dreadful it must be to live in areas where much more horrific violence flourishes daily. But it also makes you realize that maybe you might have some of that violence in you too. I have never been a law-and-order person in my life, and six months after the terrorist attacks in New York City I marched in Washington, D.C. against the war in Afghanistan. I never have believed that punitive actions help to stop violence, and I have been against the death penalty as long as I have been alive. And yet, in the midst of these bombings, I occasionally feel these little surges of violence within myself. They aren’t particularly directed at anything coherent. If I were a British police officer, or an American president, it is the kind of surge that would cause great damage. Instead, they just kind of muddle around within me. Am I angry at the terrorists, or the American government, or British hooligans? But most of all, where does it come from?

Monday, July 25, 2005


The three of us went on an impromptu little trip to the Cotswolds this weekend. Mary's boss at the most recent internship kept on going on how lovely they were, and how easy it was to get there and see the sights, so we finally gave in. We just drove up Saturday at noon, motored around seeing the cute little villages, spent the night in an inn, motored around a bit more in the morning, and then came back home.

Most of the towns in the area developed in the 12th and 13th century as markets to support the region's wool industry. Of the towns, Chipping Campden was by far the cutest and most well-preserved. Every single building in sight is made out of local limestone, which is a kind of brownish-yellow. Lots of buildings still have thatched roofs, and there is very little recent development. It's all very cute and adorable to the point of sickness.

We did have a very nice evening in Tetbury though. We stopped off there to have dinner (lamb, of course) at a pub called the Royal Oak, and while there began to look vaguely for a place to spend the night, although since London was only two hours away we could always have returned for the night if need be. That seemed to be the case, as everything was predictably all booked for the height of the summer tourist season. The pub owner, however, heard our plight, and made a phone call to some friend who managed a pub just a block up the street. It turned out that she had a spare room that she wasn't ordinarily letting, as it needed some repairs--perfect for us, especially at only thirty pounds for the night. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the pub, which was a rather shabby, and very local, place in an sixteenth-century stone building. Once it was closing time, and we were full of beer and lamb, the three of us squeezed into a little room upstairs, and had a lovely night's sleep.

These next few days we're lucky to have two friends from college visiting--Ruth, who had been visiting her parents in the South of France this summer, and my former Cambridge roommate Sun, who is stopping off here for a day en route to Germany. A random convergence of people, but fun.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A Northern Breeze

Barnet usually smells fine. Today, however, the wind was blowing from the north, and all of a sudden, the whole area smells distinctively of...cow. Yes, definitely cow.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Roof, the Roof, the Roof is on Fire

Remember the idyllic scene I posted earlier in the summer, where I lounged in our garden underneath drying laundry? Well, this picture is what that looks like now.

It's been hot and dry here all week, so much so that I watered the lawn this morning. As I was inside doing dishes, I suddenly smelled smoke, and noticed out the window that ash was falling down. I go outside, and lo and behold, there is a gigantic conflagration in our backyard. It seems (according to the fire brigade), that a neighbor's garden shed spontaneously combusted, which then lit off our shed, and two others in adjoining yards. While another neighbor and I wrestled with a water hose, the fire brigade took their sweet time getting to us--the flames were meanwhile as high as our house. They later told us that there was, believe it or not, a similar fire elsewhere in Barnet at the same time, so the crew that responded to us had to come from Finchley.

In the end, no real damage except to the garden sheds, the fence, and our next-door neighbor's prized birch trees. Guess I don't have to worry about maintaining the garden anymore!

Another photo here.


Yesterday I managed to drive home from the RVC campus in Hawkshead. I was by no means ready to do so, having barely mastered getting into first in the RVC parking lot, but Mary convinced me I had to try. There was a bad moment trying to pull out onto a fast-moving street, and some close calls with the left-side-of-the-road issue, but I made it home safely.

The picture is of Zoe, a four year old Rottweiler we babysat this weekend. Her owners, classmates of Mary's, were in Cornwall for the weekend, so we got to enjoy some furry companionship.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Dilemma Solved

Bought the book at midnight. Just finished it. Liked it. Now going to bed.

Dilemma: Harry Potter

Do I buy the new Harry Potter book at midnight, and then stay up all night reading it? Or, do I buy it in the morning, and spend my Saturday reading it?


Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Organization Man

Warning: Boring Academic Navelgazing

The next phase of my graduate school career is passing another exam in January. Unlike the comprehensive knowledge exam I took in Mary, this next exam is a test of me knowledge of a particular field. The idea, according to our department, is to develop a specialty framed in the terms of a job announcement. For instance, nineteenth-century opera, or American popular music, or eighteenth-century instrumental music. Basically, we are told, the sub-field of musicology towards which our dissertation will eventually contribute.

At a progressive department such as ours, it is actually a bit difficult to figure out what your field should be. For instance, one of our students is writing a dissertation on piano fragments from Schumann to the present. There is no one widely-recognized sub-specialty that such a dissertation would belong to. It is conceptually organized, rather than by genre or period. I have a bit of this problem myself. I'd really like to see my dissertation be a whole range of different musics, bound by a particular conceptual thread and a tight chronological focus. Ideally, it would contribute both to popular music studies, and to twentieth-century modernism. In the end, I've chosen to focus my special field on just one of these areas--modernism, specifically American modernism from about 1920 to about 1965. I know the literature better, and I feel (slightly) more comfortable in those circles.

Having chosen a field, I then have to put together a list of fifty books and musical works which, after having studied, will give me mastery of the field. Although my list isn't officially approved, I have a rough draft of it that is providing me with reading material for the summer. Today I've started on an interesting section of the list: social theory from the 1950s. I tentatively have put five books on the list, under the category of primary texts. John Kenneth Galbraith, C. Wright Mills, David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, William Whyte's The Organization Man, and some yet-to-be-determined Adorno. I probably won't have all of them on my final list (one of my committee members didn't really like including them, another loved it. Sigh) But as I constantly refer to these intellectuals in a lot of my work on post-war American culture, it seems like I should read them all anyhow. I'm reading The Organization Man now, William Whyte's best-selling polemic against the decline of individualism. It's a little boring, to be honest, but worth the time.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


It has been a long time since I have posted. Not for lack of time, or for events to post about, but just for laziness. Since my last post I have...

1. Watched the BBC for two days straight after the bombings. Ken Livingston is my hero.
2. Had a crazy night at a pub.
3. Went to a farewell barbecue in Cambridgeshire for an Irish horse manager who is moving to New Zealand.
4. Poked around the Camden markets and explored Primrose Hill
5. Made fitful progress on my summer reading: five books down, thirty to go!
5. Strolled around the public footpaths that criss-cross Barnet's golf courses and commons.
6. Watched waaaay too much Big Brother, which, unlike the pale imitation they show in the United States, is fascinating, and is a national obsession.

I will probably back-post about most of these things individually.

Weird Britishism of the day: Some of the commercials they show here are just American commercials, except with British accents badly dubbed over.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


A series of explosions went off this morning in central London, in tube stations and on at least one bus. We are all fine here, although the tube stations affected are ones that we often use on a regular basis. I had vague plans this morning to try and go visit Windsor Castle by train; I'm glad I didn't.

Strangely, this is not the first terrorist bombing I have been present in London for. When my family was here for Christmas in 1983, my father took my then-newborn sister in a stroller to visit the Harrod's department store in Knightsbridge. Streams of people suddenly started pouring towards him, away from the store. It turned out that the IRA had just bombed Harrod's, killing five.

I initially thought that only a few people had died in the bombings this morning, but it now appears that many more have been killed. Scary stuff.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Changing of the Bands

We went to Buckingham Palace on Sunday to see the changing of the guard with my grandparents. I saw this once before, when I was about three years old and visiting my other grandparents, who lived in London at the time.

It's probably due to the time of year (July vs. December) but there were a LOT more people there--probably about 5,000 crammed in. Barricades were set up, police horses were patrolling the edges, the whole deal. We were supposed to meet my grandparents at the foot of the Victoria Memorial, but that was clearly not going to happen

The changing was a bizarre experience, however. It was announced by a military band coming tromping down the street playing a march. They went through the gates into the Palace courtyard, shuffled around a bit, and then stopped playing as the men in furry hats strutted around doing their thing. Then the band trotted over to the side, picked up some music stands and set them up in a semi-circle, and then proceeded to play a little concert. It was hilarious--they more or less played the same music that my high school wind ensemble used to (at more or less the same skill level, to be honest), highlighted by a spirited rendition of Billy Joel's "Piano Man."

It was a truly bizarre sight: thirty British soldiers dressed in their red coats and furry hats, standing stiffly at attention, participating in an ancient ceremony at the seat of the British monarchy, surrounded by all of the imperial monuments of the Victoria Memorial, playing..."Piano Man."

Weird country.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

A Midsummer's Night Roadtrip

Drove up with the girls to Stratford-upon-Avon yesterday to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer's Night Dream. It was a pretty drive (especially with Mary doing the driving) up the M40 past Oxford and Blenheim Palace. It would be nice to do it again with time to linger at some of those places. Stratford-upon-Avon is a tourist trap, but a pretty one with lots of nice Tudor buildings. We unfortunately didn't have much time to tour around before the show. The RSC theater, I have to say, is perfectly dreadful. It was built in the 1920s, and was just awful: hot and sweaty, cramped, awkwardly laid out. From the outside it looks like a failed Robert Moses housing project. The audience has to wind its way through narrow hallways to reach their seats, which, if you are in the upper balcony as we were, were mere feet from the rafters. Apparently, the backstage is even worse, with the actors having to run outside round the back of the building to switch sides of the stage. Plans have been in the work for a new theater for ages, but with no result yet.

The production was great though. It was a mixture of rather modernist starkness (particulary in the Athenian context) and then busier, more fanciful sets for the fairy bits. The Athenians were dressed in contemporary clothes, and the fairies were all punked out in grunge garb. There was some slightly eerie puppet work--Titania's fairy attendents were a flock of plastic baby dolls held aloft by actors, and her boy page was a knee-high puppet being guided from behind. In general, it is a pleasure to watch some very well-trained Shakespearean actors do what they do best.

Beforehand we had a pleasant dinner with one of Mary's classmates and her mother, who live in Sheffield. One of the facts of my time here is that I never actually have much interaction with real live British people. Mary's close friends are Americans, and there aren't really many other opportunities to meet people. My main contact with them is dodging the endless stroller-wielding yuppies that plague the Barnet High Street. So it was actually really great to talk with two intelligent, non-stroller-wielding Brits.

Saturday, July 02, 2005


In a random but nice treat, my grandparents came up to Barnet to have dinner with us. In an ambitious but probably misguided attempt to cook British, we made roast beef, yorkshire pudding, potatoes, and roasted fennel. An oven mishap nixed the Yorkshire pudding, and a tube mishap meant that Laura and her mother were only able to come for the apple pie at the end, but it was very pleasant. The roasted fennel was odd, but good to try.

My grandparents (my father's parents, who live in North Carolina) are in the middle of a ten-day trip around England, which centered around going to the bicentennial celebration of the Battle of Trafalgar, at Portsmouth. We're going to meet them on Sunday to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace, and then to Westminster Abbey.