Strange Days in the UK

fox-cityAlthough it’s disastrous for the environment, flying to a faraway place or different culture provides a great opportunity to hone your observational skills, and to open up your senses and perceptions and tune into your instincts. In familiar environments where ritual drives much of our conscious activity and the landscape is so familiar we hardly notice it, this is much harder to do.

My two days here in London so far have given me the chance to do this, with some remarkable results:

  • I had never noticed before the number of narrowboats moored along the city’s canals. I’d never thought of the UK as a country of canals.
  • The new express train from Heathrow to the city is extremely modern, fast, and eerily silent. This is clearly the future of transportation. By contrast, London’s famous and extensive Underground is bordering on dysfunctional, with frequent security alerts and problems with switches and other crumbling infrastructure delaying and disabling large parts of the system for protracted periods. It is not uncommon for message to say, essentially, “find some other way to get where you’re going”. Given the extraordinary quality of its online site, this is a tragedy.
  • Public transport is a much more social activity than it is in North America. The Underground is buzzing with conversations. In Toronto by contrast the subway is mostly silent, with solitary people lost in their books and newspapers.
  • Much less visible than in past are the once-ubiquitous large communal garden plots (“allotments”) dotting the countryside. Perhaps London is just running out of space. Or maybe in this age of fast food, people have no time for it anymore.
  • The city has a lot more dogs than I remember, all of them on leash. Like the British people, British dogs seem exceedingly well-mannered. They also seem to be very happy as city dogs go.
  • London is becoming more like European cities in the fashion consciousness of youth, and in the tendency of the fashion-conscious to be constantly checking out others in public places. But among older males the notorious ‘bankers’ nondescript dark grey suit, white or blue shirt and tie still prevails. And while in Toronto the latest fashion craze visible on public transport is shawls, in London it is scarves wrapped around the neck, for both sexes. Or maybe it has always been so in the cooler months here and I’ve just never noticed it.
  • As much as I’m trying to avoid it, it’s becoming harder for me not to see the recent large number of astonishing wild animal encounters I’m having as some kind of omen. In Toronto, in addition to the now-famous PucPuc, who still accompanies me on my regular 5k runs in the back yard, it’s recently become a regular occurrence for me to have to stop my car for deer crossing the road. The dogs of friends who used to be indifferent to me (the dogs, not the friends) are now staring at me oddly and following me around. And here in London, at the Knowledge Cafe I spoke at yesterday, a mouse scurried across the room, to the amazement of the local guests who said seeing mice in commercial buildings in London is almost unheard of. And then as I walked from the Underground to the hotel, a fox dashed across the very busy Kensington High Street and leaped up onto a stone wall right in front of me and hence into the consulate grounds I was passing. What’s going on here?

By the way, I want to thank the conference organizers, my blog readers who have dropped by or who I will be seeing later in my trip, andespecially David Gurteen, for their wonderful hospitality.

Watercolour by Julie Zickefoose

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9 Responses to Strange Days in the UK

  1. Jules says:

    Take the bus! That way you’ll avoid the smelly old Tube, will see more of the sights and people and will be able to get around just as quickly, now that Congestion Charge keeps many motors off the city centre’s steets.

  2. Raging Bee says:

    Sorry you had such trouble with the Tube. I’ve been to London many times since 1972, and the only real problem I’ve had was once in the late ’90s, when SOME Tube lines were shut down by a strike, and the remaining lines were packed like Tokyo sardines. As for security checks, I never had a problem there, even after the 7/7 bombings.And speaking of wildlife, I’ve heard that hedgehogs are less visible than they used to be. Have you heard anything on this?

  3. Rayne says:

    Thought of you today, Dave, when watching the related video linked at this site. Let us hope this is a sign of better things to come on both sides of the border. Have great time in the UK!

  4. etbnc says:

    Hmmmm….I tried to submit a supplementary comment, but I get a 403 Forbidden error. Bummer.

  5. etbnc says:

    Dave, your thoughts about the London Underground — and its web site — immediately reminded me of Geoff Ryman’s wonderful book, _253_. Ryman is a Canadian-turned-Londoner who writes fiction and manages public service web sites. He drafted _253_ online, and there’s an intro page at: . I’d write more, but the comment parser seems balky. Enjoy your journey. Cheers

  6. Melinda says:

    We lived in Birmingham (England’s second largest city) in the late 90’s. Saw the same fox crossing the same suburban road every morning as I went jogging. Our suburb was a 20 minute walk from the city’s center.

  7. Raging Bee says:

    etbnc: By any chance, did your post contain the word “soci@list” or “soci@lism?” I just tried a test post with such a word, minus the disguise-character, and got the same error-message. Apparently the comment software has a spam-filter that sees part of those words and thinks you’re advertizing a certain ED drug.

  8. Pearl says:

    Shawls huh? And I thought it was Ottawa fashion that was in trouble. Good to hear it’s improving in the UK.What about battery assist bicycles as the future of transit?Lovely that people actually converse in transit in London. That’s a good norm. :)

  9. Its just nice to read all that – makes a person homesick! Enjoy your trip Dave, and fascinating diagram by the way. Is your presentation public anywhere?

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