Dear London

I wrote this on Facebook a few days ago but wanted to save it here (with some linkification to give context to the sappiness), since Facebook will inevitably go kaput at some point in the future.

Dear London,

I was not physically there with you to celebrate winning the bid in 2005, or to stand in solidarity with you when terrorists attacked everything you stand for the very next day[1. Well, I was there soon after, but to be honest I had been quite a scaredycat about deciding to go.], or now in 2012 to welcome the world to your wonderful, unforgettable embrace. But (if you will forgive me an overblown poetic reference) just know that there’s some corner of this foreign heart that is FOREVER LONDON.

Have an awesome Olympics.

Love, Michelle

Bigging Up The Borribles

While randomly surfing Facebook groups after first joining, I found and immediately joined “The Borribles would kick Harry Potter’s bourgeois arse“, a view which I heartily subscribe to and have hinted at here before too.

From that group I discovered the author’s official site and this article by Peter Lyle for TANK magazine which captures much of what I really love about these books, as well as my usual experiences in trying to tell people about them.

“They’re called the Borribles.”

(Blank look)

“It’s this children’s book from the ’70s.”

(Blank look)

“They’re these oiky kids with pointy ears who live in all the shitty bits of London and fight the grown-ups and the Wombles and…”

“Do you mean the Borrowers?”

Except that for me, no one brings up the Borrowers either. (Which is fair enough really, they were pretty lame.)

Anyway, I just wanted to encourage anyone who’s done with the latest Harry Potter and feels a sense of loss or whatever to give the Borribles a try. They are some of the most memorable and gripping children’s books I have ever read, and I really don’t understand why no one seems to know about them.

Reading the books again as a grown-up living in London gave me new insights into what made them so great (Lyle likens the presence of London in the books to its presence in the writing of Dickens, and to the Dublin of Joyce’s Ulysses) and the rest of the article continues to open my eyes to things I hadn’t thought about before: that the areas in which London’s Borribles choose to make their home – Battersea, Tooting, Wandsworth, Stepney, Whitechapel, Neasden and Hoxton – are today an “index of then down-and-out, since gentrified, bits of the city,” and that “in an era when children’s books about chosen ones, picturesque and ethnically-cleansed boarding schools, timeless English architecture and the universal use of received pronunciation dominate the entire fiction market, The Borribles is a celebration of everything that doesn’t fit with that vision.”

You can read the first chapter of each Borrible book at the site, though if you’ve never read any of them then I recommend (in case of spoilers) that you only read from the first book.

Harry Potter Can Kiss Their Arses

The books of The Borrible Trilogy (Michael de Larrabeiti) are full of theft, swearing, treachery and murder. Decapitation, electrocution, catapult blow to the head, crushing, burning, and innumerable stabbings are only some of the ways in which various characters, both good and bad, meet their deaths. And they’re among my favourite children’s books ever.

The London of these books is bleak, ugly, and riddled with decay and brutality. Borribles live in derelict buildings in rough parts of the city like Tooting and Peckham, and live off what they can steal. On their adventure, they travel by night, paddling up discoloured, viscuous rivers, wading through dank sewers, and seeking refuge in vast rubbish sites and industrial wastelands. It’s the London you glimpse through the window of the train half an hour before it pulls into King’s Cross, before you shudder delicately and return to your book. It isn’t the London I knew, but in my hopeless irrational love, even this London is intriguing.

Some points are perhaps made a little less subtly than some adults would like. As a child, I never picked up on the fact that the Rumbles of Rumbledom were a dark piss-take on the Wombles of Wimbledon Common, or that their arrogance, wealth and speech inflections (e.g. “I’m tewwibly sowwy, old bean”) were meant to satirize a certain class of English society. I also didn’t know enough about London to understand why the author chose to make the Borrible from Brick Lane a Bangladeshi, or the Borribles from Brixton black. (The German Borrible, for what it’s worth, is called Adolf.) Perhaps my political correctness hackles are supposed to rise in response to this, but they don’t, because none of these characters are ever confined to a stereotype, or a caricature.

There is no magic in these books. There is no train departing from platform 13 and a half at King’s Cross. The stories are as riveting as any good action thriller I’ve ever seen, and I remember many late nights spent as a wild-eyed hostage to distrust, suspense and genuine concern for the welfare of the characters, who live or die solely by their wits, courage and indomitable spirit. If the most recent children’s books you’ve read are the Harry Potter ones, step out of your comfort zone and meet the Borribles. Rated PG.

Don’t Think Of A Blue Elephant (Tangents Inspired By Love Actually)

A conversation yesterday:
Ken: So, Michelle, how’ve you been doing?
Me: Well, I’ve been having problems resettling into Singapore, and I’ve been missing London a lot.
Ken: Then whatever you do, don’t watch Love Actually.
Me: I’m watching it tomorrow.
Ken: Then watch it with someone you fancy. It’s a great date movie.
Me: I’m watching it with my mum.

Not the most promising prelude to Love Actually then.

Every time I go to the movies with my mum, I always manage to forget that apart from being witty and quirky, British romantic comedies are also fairly crude, or at least more so than their sanitized American counterparts. So there I am in the first two minutes of Love Actually, sitting in a cinema next to my mum as aging rock star Billy Mack gets the words to a song wrong for the umpteenth time and bursts out in a stream of “Oh fuck wank shit arse…” And while she isn’t quite so Puritan as to stand up and walk out or anything like that, she’d probably find it rather strange if I gave into my sudden impulse to sigh in happiness at the sound of those English terms I miss so much. “Wank”. “Arse”. And later in the film, “bollocks”.

Ken was right. The sight of London on the big screen almost physically knocked me back into my seat. The ice skating rink at Somerset House. Panoramas of the Thames. The Millennium Bridge. The Erotic Gherkin. Charing Cross Road. I could smell the winter air, feel the tug of my coat on my shoulders as I stuffed my gloved hands into its pockets, and hear the silence of London on Christmas Day.

The opening and closing scenes of the film make a big deal about how the arrival halls of Heathrow abound with love as people reunite. My first thought: my moments of highest emotion in Heathrow were always spent alone. Forget the arrival halls, every time my plane touched down on the Heathrow runway, I was already bursting with love. In the arrival halls, Russ would usually be there with a big hug and a strong arm for my bags, but the few times he wasn’t, I still walked through the airport, totally alone, giddy with happiness, straight onto the first bus for central London. When I left, forget what I went through in the departure hall saying goodbye to Russ and Alec – at least then I could cry freely. Sitting at the window of the plane as it accelerated and slanted skyward, surrounded by strangers, my face pressed against that tiny oval, and my body turned wholly away from everyone else so they didn’t see it shuddering as I tried to hold back sobs…well, let’s say that’s part of the London experience that wasn’t documented in this film. Unfortunately, it, too, came back to me vividly.

So I sat through this film, filled with scenes of the place I love, sounds of the accents I love, jokes in the humour I love. I didn’t even feel the slightest desire to rearrange Andrew Lincoln’s annoying fishlipped face the way I normally do. Conversely, my usual lust for Colin Firth was wholly overwhelmed by longing just to be walking the same London streets. (Don’t think I don’t realize how crazy this sounds, how mawkishly sentimental, how downright “unpatriotic”. I know.)

And all the time I sensed a creeping dread that at some point, this film had to end. When it did, with those scenes of the Heathrow arrival hall again, and the opening notes of God Only Knows, something triggered a perspective switch, and then only the most rigid control was keeping me from bursting into tears. Because in one week’s time, in the Changi Airport arrival hall, that will be me. That will be Alec. God only knows what I’d do without you. God only knows what I did to deserve you. I have lost London, but I still have so much.

Thanks For The Memories

I guess there’s just no pleasing some people.

For weeks I griped and complained about the fact that my boxes hadn’t arrived from England yet. And now they’re here, I wish they weren’t.

I never thought I would be quoting lyrics from The Tennessee Waltz in this blog, but while I was unpacking, one particular line kept playing in my head, louder and more insistently than the Fugazi on the speakers. Going flagrantly against the optimistic conclusion I forced myself to draw here in a previous entry, that line was: “Now I know just how much I have lost.”

I always intended, apart from living a proper goodbye to London (which I think I did), to sit down and write something about it, but in the pressures surrounding my departure I never got time to. Call it solipsism or exhibitionism if you will, but somehow it feels inadequate just sitting here alone with my memories, I want to tell everybody about what this city, these people, this time, meant to me.

Typical Michellian Disclaimer: What follows may not mean a great deal to people who either don’t know me or don’t know London, but if you’ve ever been madly in love with any other city, that’s all you’ll need to understand. And of course I don’t think London or England are perfect, and of course there are serious problems with them which I was just lucky enough to never really encounter personally, and of course there are things I like and respect about Singapore. It’s just that on balance I swing West rather than East. My attempts at translating jumbled ecstatic memories into dry electronic scribblings may therefore give but a rippled reflection of reality, either through my inadequacies with prose or my tendency towards sentimentality, but here is my goodbye. I pray it wasn’t a farewell.
Read More “Thanks For The Memories”


[I meant to post this about the weekend.]

Have picnic lunch on Regent’s Park grass, then stroll through the park taking in London panorama on Primrose Hill. Leisurely consume several pints and packets of addictive pork scratchings over the Sunday papers in a pub with jazz band and immensely endearing bulldog. Add good company in the form of Alec and Matt.

Stir and serve on Sunday.


[Can you tell I am trying not to write an essay?]

Richard II, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre London, 2003

Theatre at the Globe is not self-evidently a transcendental experience.

If you’re budget-conscious like us, you take the £5 tickets in the pit, where you get the best view in the place but have to stand for three hours. If it rains, you can’t use your umbrella, and if you don’t have some other waterproof covering you buy the theatre-issue plastic poncho which is extremely unglamorous and makes you very unpopular with the people around you due to the rustly noises you make while trying to wrestle it on. You then stand completely motionless in your cling-wrap prison until you can buy some overpriced tea in a paper cup at the intermission to clasp in your hands in the hope that it will warm your cold-stiffened body.

You are watching an all-male, all-authentic-practices production of Richard II. All the costumes look ridiculous. The men dressed up as women still look like men dressed up as women, despite the feminine mannerisms they take on. You miss the famous speech about England because you are wrestling with your poncho.

You should be miserable, but you’re not. The parting kisses between Richard and his Queen are heart-wrenchingly tender, and you’re transported beyond the cross-dressing, make-up and Adam’s apples to the simple acceptance that this is a man and woman in love. You have finally seen the great Mark Rylance, and are not disappointed by his subtle, many-textured Richard. Time and time again you are struck by the enduring power of Shakespeare’s words and wit today, and the ability of the cast to communicate this to us despite their lack of microphones and the occasional overhead helicopter.

As the company performs an ending dance, you vaguely note as you clap your hands sore that, again, they look ridiculous to your modern eye. None of it matters. In the midst of your euphoria, you are gripped by a sudden sadness, the same one that recurs every time you feel that surge of love for this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England: you are leaving soon.

British Museum (Africa Galleries)

I will slowly conquer the British Museum, bit by bit. I will. I can’t leave here saying I lived a stone’s throw from the British Museum for four years and didn’t.

The first problem was that every time I used to go in, I’d get sucked into the Egyptian or Greek sections, and get absolutely exhausted by these alone. The second problem was that they had to go and make that wondrous Great Court, and I started wandering in simply for that, cutting through the museum on my way home but not actually seeing exhibits other than by Norman Foster. The third problem, well, there is no third problem. I’ve just taken it for granted all these years. (No doubt because it’s free. When I went to the Louvre I was determined to get my money’s worth, and nearly had to be carried out.)

So on Friday I headed to the Africa galleries with Russ (just one part of another happy leisurely indulgent-yet-frugal afternoon. We had lunch, went to one of the greatest museums in the world, and spent hours reading in the Borders cafe. I think we spent about £5). Apart from the incredibly beautiful artefacts on display or the fact that I learnt a lot, what really struck me was how appealingly everything was laid out and presented. Throwing-knives encased in a wall of glass. Shark masks used in traditional masquerade ceremonies suspended in the air, as if in water. Brassworked panels dominating one side of a room, the stark, simple blocks of shadows they cast on the walls only emphasizing their intricacy. Everything meticulously labelled and explained.

Duly wowed. Next stop: the Orient.

Just For Today

Perhaps it’s just that it’s been a sunny morning, or that yesterday was both a site and relationship anniversary, but it’s noon and instead of having just woken up with a mouthful of sleep and obscenities as is standard operating procedure on other days, I’ve been up for hours, and feel great.

St Pancras station and the sun were loving each other this morning. Walking home from King’s Cross, I got the powerful sensation I experience from time to time, that London was reminding me it can still take my breath away, that being grim and jaded does not necessarily come with this territory no matter what some people seem to think, that I have been immeasurably lucky to have spent this time of my life here, for so many more reasons than just beautiful buildings.

I sometimes feel guilty about the fact that in over three years here, I have never once felt even the slightest twinge of homesickness, or that I wasn’t as much a part of this city as the blond lager lout staggering down Tottenham Court Road in his Saturday night fcuk T-shirt. So many friends of mine have missed family and friends at home dreadfully, have sat in a crowded pub silently staring at the yawning cultural chasm that invisibly separates them from everyone else. I used to somehow feel that I was just living the blissful life on borrowed time, and sooner or later I’d succumb to that same creeping feeling of not belonging, ultimately. Just for today, I reject that guilt. Just for today, I’m going to revel in London loving me back.

No Title Possible For Weeks Like This

The week was nondescript except for Neil; frustrating attempts at house-hunting in the absence of my flatmate, sudden awareness of an acute lack of reading material in my temporary lodgings (went through Time Out, Glamour, and two old Vogues in quick succession, finally bought A Confederacy Of Dunces and am chortling my way through it), dinner with Edith where I probably came on far too strong about how much I love love love London and how she should be exploring it day at night despite the fact that she really doesn’t have the time to. Oops.

Saturday open-air theatre in Regent’s Park (As You Like It), then a scoot to Harrow for Tony and Susie’s barbecue where the meat tasted like everything you long for from barbecued meat and hardly ever get. Back to central London by midnight to meet Russ and Gareth and various others for the optimistically-titled Hoxton Festival, which was basically large-scale noise pollution in a firetrap – an experience well worth £2, but perhaps not much more than that.

More Brick Lane bagel indulgence on Sunday – that damn salt beef one is possibly more addictive than crack. Lounging in the sun on a bench in the bombed-out church off Great Tower Street, reading Confederacy. Rushing for mass and microwave dinners before heading out to a pub in Waterloo for what was an enjoyable but rather couply evening. There were 4 couples in a group of 9. I couldn’t decide whether to feel old and boring or as if I was 14 and on an octuple date.

Lots of walking on Monday. From Brick Lane to London Bridge. Along the Thames on the riverside paths. An excellent violinist busking in the tunnel near the Tate Modern – his Bach Partitas were crisp and effortless, although perhaps the needs of busking made their delivery more flamboyant than they should be. Scouring the book market outside the NFT turned up a Gerald Durrell book I don’t remember having read before (The Whispering Land, £1.80). Across the bridge to Embankment, then in towards the West End, stopping in the National Portrait Gallery just because.

But then I ended up spending much more time reading old favourite children’s books on the floor of their current exhibition of portraits of children’s writers than looking at the rest of the gallery’s collection. Everything came back to me with such startling clarity – the illustration in The Borrowers of the door with the safety-pin catch which her father had to use his weight to spring open, the old irritation Mary Poppins books used to spark in me because I felt the way they capitalized words everywhere was Unnecessary and Patronizing, the desolation and bleakness I used to feel every time I read the first half of Joan Aiken’s Midnight Is A Place (they didn’t have it, so I leafed through The Wolves Of Willoughby Chase instead, disappointed. I always thought that one mediocre compared to her other stuff). I searched hopefully for Harry’s Mad (a highly underrated Dick King-Smith book which I think deserved to be as famous as The Sheep Pig) and Grimble (Clement Freud), but no luck. There were a number of other adults cross-legged on the floor with books, but I was the only one unaccompanied by a child.