It’s been a while since I’ve posted a new blog. But I haven’t forgotten about you…
Rest assured that I’ve been hard at work on a new book and new articles. And I’m busy wading through stacks of reading and marking up maps as I plan several cool new trips for 2016.
I’ll have lots to share with you in the coming months.
In the meantime, I’m just back from a quick weekend trip to London, and I’ve returned with new boots, used books, and unsolicited advice. Pull up a chair and I’ll dispense the latter.
The first is an outstanding exhibit of photography that was hosted by the Science Museum. It’s called Alec Soth: Gathered Leaves. And if it comes to your area, I recommend you check it out.
Several collections of Soth’s work were on display, but the highlights for me were his intimate portraits of people living along the Mississippi, and his documentation of Niagara.
The Mississippi portraits capture an intimacy that’s so difficult to achieve, especially when crossing vast gaps of wealth, education and possibility. Such photos can come across as condescending or mocking of the people portrayed, especially if the photographer was unable to build a real human connection with his subject. But Soth seems to have a gift for transcending those barriers of understanding.
His portrayal of these people left me with a deep sense of empathy and compassion for their lives. The poverty of their surroundings and clothing just felt so hopeless, and the lack of education evident in their eyes and in the religious imagery that they clutched (one woman held a framed photo of a cloud that she sincerely believed was an apparition of Jesus) left me with a sense that their lives would probably never change. That they would struggle and struggle, but so few would ever be able to rise out of it because, much like someone born into the wrong backwater African or Amazonian jungle town, life and random chance had simply dealt them a very limited hand. Soth managed to capture both the dignity of their lives, and the sadness that is our lot as humans.
The collection of images from Niagara had a similar tone. Soth was intrigued by the fact that Niagara attracts both honeymooners and suicide jumpers — hope and despair. And his photos show us strangely sad and pensive newlyweds, forlorn motel parking lots, and threadbare rooms that couldn’t possibly contain the hopes and dreams of the people who go there, but that somehow reveal the disappointments that haunt all our lives.
The artifacts he gathered to present alongside the photos — love letters written on simple lined paper, or coloured scraps — added even deeper layers of story, combining the pain of their loss with flashes of memory for the letters all of us must have received in the naive days of our youth.
You can see a wide range of photos from both collections HERE on the artist’s website. And let me know if you spot a copy of either of these books for a reasonable price. They sold out long ago and are fetching very high prices on eBay.
Did someone say books…?
The other wonderful thing about a trip to London is the opportunity to browse through so many great used bookshops.
My bookcase shelves have long since overflowed, and I took over one of the kitchen counters two months ago to pile it with stacks of books. I’m told that I will no longer be fed if I can’t get things under control. But I was looking for cheap Penguin paperback classics, and now that the wonderful Island Books in Malta has closed, I can’t get them here.
Tell me, what else is a bookish man to do?
The first place you’ll want to check out if books are on your agenda is Skoob. It’s a sprawling basement bookshop in Bloomsbury. And they have stacks of orange Penguin classics, and a very good Travel section where you’ll be sure to find several true gems.
We went there directly from the Soth exhibition. Tomoko spotted a photographic shop a couple blocks away, so I walked on ahead. And when she arrived at Skoob 10 or 15 minutes later, she saw me and said, “What the hell? You’re still just there?” She blurted it out loudly enough that several other patrons turned away to laugh. I hadn’t gotten past the shelf right at the bottom of the stairs.
The other place to go if you’re looking for books is Charing Cross Road. Take the Underground to Leicester Square or Covent Garden, and explore the streets around the Leicester Square tube station for small antiquarian bookshops before working your way up Charing Cross Road for a couple of blocks. If you’re facing towards Tottenham Court Road, you’ll find several used bookshops on the right side of the street.
Make sure you pop into Any Amount of Books. Their basement is a great place to find bargains: £1 paperbacks, or 5 books for £4.
Contrary to what my wife might tell you, it’s not just about spending or hoarding for me. The atmosphere of a used bookshop is a restorative place. The smell of the books acts like temple incense on my mind, and the silence of shuffling feet, ruffled pages, and a politely cleared throat have a reverential quality. To be surrounded by studious, quiet, respectful people in a world that’s often too loud, too brash, and too “look at me” is better than any hectoring Sunday sermon. And an hour or two in a good used bookshop — followed by an hour in a nice bar to sip a drink and read the first few pages — will do for your peace of mind than any meditation retreat.
Speaking of bars…
I like historic pubs and old-style cocktail bars, and I usually have a list of places that I hope to check out anytime I’m in a city like London, Vienna or Berlin. I keep a small list scribbled on the margins of my map, just in case we happen to be in the neighbourhood when the clock strikes cocktail hour. And to be clear, if we’re not in the immediate area by accident, I’ll make sure my wandering leads us that way.
So, as always, I found a couple really cool watering holes on this trip that you’ll want to check out next time you’re in town.
First up is the Old Bank of England pub on Fleet Street. Pull up a stool or grab a plush booth, and raise a glass of fresh ale in the former Law Courts branch of the Bank of England. Built in 1888, this is one of the finest pubs in Central London. It’s all dark wood, gilding, high ceilings and chandeliers, and you can be forgiven for getting a crick in your neck just from looking around.
Their specialty is pie. They make them by hand every day, and their crisp shortcrust pastry is filled with all sorts of lovely combinations. I had the steak and parmesan pie with a pint of stout, and it’s the best pub pie I’ve ever eaten, bar none. […sorry, that was impossible to resist…]
Next up is a cocktail bar that should be on any serious connoisseur’s agenda: the venerable Duke’s. Hidden down a tiny courtyard in a 5 star hotel in Mayfair, this wonderful little bar is internationally renowned for its martinis.
Ian Fleming lived in the neighbourhood, and this is the bar where the famous Vesper from Casino Royale was created. It’s also reputedly the inspiration for the line, “Shaken, not stirred.”
Of course I couldn’t come to Duke’s without ordering this Bond classic. The original ingredients of the Vesper are no longer available — Kina Lillet removed quinine from their recipe in 1986, so today’s Lillet is a different drink. But the expert barmen at Duke’s have concocted some alternatives to come as close as possible to the specifications that Fleming intended.
After we’d placed our order, the bartender wheeled over a trolly, placed the bottles on top, and expertly mixed our drinks while answering my questions about his choice of gin. Be warned: the drinks at Duke’s are strong, and unruly behaviour is neither encouraged or tolerated. A house limit of three per person is firmly applied.
Finally, I found one other cocktail bar that any book lover absolutely must add to their agenda. It’s called Mr. Fogg’s Residence. There’s no marking on the wall of this back alley speakeasy in Mayfair, so you’ll want to have the location firmly marked on your mental map.
When you round the corner, you’ll see a doorman in period dress standing outside. I approached him and had a brief chat. And then he looked us up and down, pulled an old fashioned doorbell, and a waiter in a bellboy outfit came out to escort us inside.
The entire place is themed on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, and more particularly, his hero Phineas Fogg. All of the cocktails are based on scenes from the book, and they each reference different countries, climate zones, and their associated tastes. The walls are crowded with artifacts from the imaginary adventurer’s home: pith helmets, gramophones, velocipedes, insect collections in glass cases, and of course a hot air balloon. Our drinks were served in lead crystal glasses. And they were very very good.
I hope you’ll have a chance to check out these bars on your next trip to London. Be sure to drop me a line if you do. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.
Finally, no weekend in London is complete without a visit to the Royal Geographical Society.
We were able to catch the tail end of an exhibit of large scale photos from the 1914-1917 Shackleton expedition called Enduring Eye. Taken under the most extreme conditions of climate and human struggle by expedition photographer Frank Hurley, they reveal new details of what is perhaps our most incredible story of courage and survival.
The exhibition is closed now, but it will next be on show at the Manchester Central Library from April until June of this year. Check out the link above to get a look at a few of Hurley’s images.
So there you have it. A few new links and places to check out. I hope you find them as interesting as I did.
I’m back on the island now, with a badly needed new pair of hiking boots, which I’ll put to good use this year in the north. I’ve got a few weeks of reading and work ahead of me, and then it’s off to Japan for a month and a half. Let me know if you’re in the Tokyo area. It would be a pleasure to raise a glass with you.