Mind the gap

Mind the gap

Hello everybody, I seem to have got here at last, it's been a long long time but here I am and jolly glad I am to be here at last (to quote Amy Johnson). I've been in Blighty for almost 24 hours at this point; here are some random thoughts and observations. Of course these are based only on what I've seen today, and should not be taken as representative of London or Britain as a whole!

  • the flight(s) went very smoothly (almost literally, only a few minor patches of turbulence), no major delays. I missed out on the window seat from Sydney but as it was dark for most of the flight that's no great loss.
  • going through Customs/Immigration is not as bad as I expected (particularly given the recent bomb plot).
  • public transport prices are ridiculously high.
  • Tube trains seem a bit, well, poky -- very narrow. Presumably that's a consequence of it being cheaper to make the tunnels narrower.
  • my first thought on the trip in from Heathrow was that the suburbs reminded me a bit of parts of inner Sydney. Except here it went on forever, in Australian cities good old suburban sprawl soon sets in.
  • Bloomsbury is rather nice. Lots of nice old buildings and leafy parks. Quiet. And so clean!
  • after I got settled in at Goodenough College, I went for a random wander. Found Oxford Street and made my way back to the British Museum, which is like 5 minutes' walk from the college. How cool is that?
  • I evidently put the mozza 1 on Leo Amery a couple of years ago by remarking how often he turns up in my research. I've hardly ever come across him since then! But here he is again at last, not exactly in my research but as one of the founders of Goodenough in 1930.
  • four-way traffic lights seem weird to me.
  • I was surprised at how fast the traffic moves along Oxford Street -- without parked cars to act as a buffer, seems like it would be easy for a pedestrian on the footpath trip over and get your head split open by a double-decker bus. Of course, it was a Sunday, so maybe the traffic is jammed the rest of the week.
  • I keep thinking I see familiar faces among the crowd when walking down the street. Since just about everybody I know is on the other side of the planet, this seems unnecessarily perverse.
  • I can see I'm going to end up with pockets of loose change -- I'm bad enough at home! But now that I look at it, the coins are mostly similar enough in shape and colour to Australian numerical equivalents that I'll get by. 5p/5c, 10p/10c, 50p/50c are very close. £1 coins look like $2 coins. 20p coins just look weird. We don't have 1c and 2c coins anymore in Australia, I'll have to get used to counting in units of less than 5 again. And paper banknotes! That's a blast from the past.
  • so many internet kiosks out in the street, like phone booths. Is that a sign of progress or the lack thereof? In Melbourne, the few there are don't seem to get used much.
  • it IS possible to go the British Museum and not see either the Rosetta Stone or the Elgin Marbles. Like I said, it's only 5 minutes away ... I'll be back!
  • I wasn't tempted by the overpriced food inside the museum, the hotdogs being sold out the front were very tasty and much cheaper.
  • speaking of which, what's with all the hotdog vendors? It's not something I'd associated with English cuisine. Catering to American tourists, perhaps?
  • speaking of which, it's true what they say about American tourists.
  • I would just like to thank the many generations of British plunderers of the cultural heritage of conquered and otherwise downtrodden peoples for helping to make such a brilliant museum. You guys rock!
  • so did the Aztecs.
  • when both your mum and Douglas Adams tell you not to forget your towel, you should listen. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to find somewhere to buy a towel in this town.
  • on the other hand, every second shop around here seems to sell luggage, among other things. OK, there's lots of tourists about, but don't most of them already have luggage?
  • the concept of "service" doesn't seem to have made it into the philosophy of customer relations here yet.
  • but the nanny state ethos seems ingrained: trains telling me to mind the gap between the train and the platform, markings on the road telling me which way to look when I cross, no taps in the shower to let me do something as radical as adjusting the temperature of the water to my liking (though to be honest that probably has more to do with the nature of student accommodation than anything else).
  • biggest culture shock of the day: not being able to find anywhere that sells 500ml bottles/cartons of chocolate-flavoured milk (my currently-preferred way to get a chocolate fix). Neither Waitrose nor Tesco Express had any such thing, maybe this is more popular down under. On the other hand: mmmm, Milka. Hard to get back home.
  • I got massively ripped off on a 5m ethernet cable on Oxford Street. On the other hand, I did successfully haggle for perhaps the first time in my life, so I consider it a moral victory.
  • Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, LOL. Is there a Royal London Placebo Hospital as well, or would that be redundant?
  • you call that a night?! It's 5am and already bright as, well, day.
  • despite all my efforts and disruptions to my normal schedule, my body clock is evidently still on GMT+10.

Despite some of the grumbles above, it's fantastic to be here. As I said to a friend the other day, there'd be no point in coming if it was exactly like home!

Airminded will likely become something of a travel blog for the next couple of months, which will no doubt bore my UK readers (for which I apologise). But there'll also be more of the usual aeroplaney stuff too, particularly once I get stuck into the British Library ...

Edit: the photo was added two months later!

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  1. Austral. colloq., "jinxed".[]

12 thoughts on “Mind the gap

  1. Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, LOL. Is there a Royal London Placebo Hospital as well, or would that be redundant?

    It's a huge office tower, and in somebody's desk drawer on the 75th floor, there's a tiny hospital whose memory influence permeates the entire building.

  2. Jakob

    To be fair, the markings on the road are to stop tourists who are used to having traffic on the Wrong Side of the road from killing themselves... ditto the gap announcements - there are some platforms where the gap can be a foot wide.

    Also, the hot dogs outside the British Museum? I anticipate your next post title will be something along the lines of 'the terrible burning stomach pain!'

  3. Jess Nevins

    I'll be interested to see what you think of the British Library. I've had horrendous experiences with the staff there every time I've gone, but (being a librarian myself) I may be too critical. Or it may be an American-v-British thing.

  4. Post author

    Alex:

    Well, that would be cheaper than maintaining a full-sized hospital! Perhaps the NHS should look into deploying placebo hospitals more widely.

    Jakob:

    That thought did occur to me, but I just couldn't resist. I'm happy to say there were no ill after-effects!

    Jess:

    I found the staff at St Pancras to be very helpful (though I only did the reader registration thing there, this time), the ones at Colindale more of a mixed bag. But that's about what I would expect from my experience with Australian librarians -- about half are fantastic, the rest are just surly. And the proportion of surliness seems to increase with the size of the library. (Though I probably wouldn't be terribly happy if I had to work at Colindale, it must be said!) Overall, though, I'd tentatively regard the BL as one exception (and there are others) to my above snark about service. (I'm not used to being looked at with dismay when I try to get assistance with a purchase. I'm trying to give you money, you pillock, you could at least be pleasant about it!)

    Oh yeah, Jess, you may find a previous comments thread on the BL to be of interest.

  5. Allow me to agree with you in rare 'Daily Mail' style: London has the rudest, laziest 'service' industries in the world. No doubt about it. The entire economy of the South-East of England is now predicated on hundreds of thousands of people being paid to fail to do (sometimes pointless) jobs. From "Estate Agents" to 'security guards' to shop-workers, so many take no pride whatsoever in the job that they are doing. The result is 'service' workers effectively committing fraud by taking wages while deliberately failing to serve. One could say that is because the jobs are demeaning, but even when that is not the case this attitude is dispiriting (to themselves and us) and endemic. These are the types of people who tend to come out with profound contemporary 'yoof' 'truisms' like 'I work to live, I don't live to work'. Like yeah, dude, whateva.

    I have a friend who has been pushed to say 'Oi, you work in a shop. Drop the attitude and serve me.' Or he just walks out if people are rude. I've been known to say 'I am the customer. Even when I'm wrong I'm always right' or 'I'm sorry, I thought you wanted me to buy things in order to pay your wages'. Now I just walk out too. That is 'consumer choice' and 'free market economics' in action - which is, after all what Mrs Thatcher taught us would make Britain 'Great' again... 'Respect agenda'? - I think this is where it should start.

    Here endeth rant! :)

  6. Jess Nevins

    Sad to say that I've found service in London to be horrendous as well. Quite a shock, coming from America. It's one thing to suffer through rude tourists, and to be embarassed for my countrymen abroad--I expected that. But to be enraged at continuous bad service...oy. The British Library has been especially bad. If I or other librarians at my library acted like that and did the things I've seen, we'd be fired. Not given warnings or bad performance appraisals--fired.

    I know the BL is badly run and that the workers have reason for bad morale, but, my god, many of them need a good slapping.

  7. Jakob

    What kind of bad? I must admit I've only rarely had to use the BL, but I've always been happy with the service - turn up, order books, wait until light goes on, go to pick up stack of books, work, return books. That all ran smoothly enough. Admittedly, I've not requested anything other than plain books, so I may have to revise my opinion.

    As for the lack of service, it's partly a cultural thing - US ultra-cheery service always leaves me wanting to do a Garbo...

  8. Post author

    I'm glad it's not just me then! I haven't been to the US and only know of its service culture from TV/movies, but I certainly don't want whoever I'm dealing with to act like they're my new best mate -- just some basic manners would suffice. Example: I went to the "Welcome and information" (or something like that) counter at Waitrose, the guy in front of me was served, and then I waited while the woman went on with another task for a couple of minutes, not in any way acknowledging my presence, and even complaining to a co-worker that she was not getting the task done because of all the interruptions. Eventually she did get to me, and was actually helpful. I wouldn't even have minded waiting for her to get to me if she'd simply said "I'm sorry, I'll be with you in a minute!" instead of pretending I didn't exist. That's all it would have taken for me not to have been really irritated and still going on about it a couple of days later!

    Jack, I always enjoy your rants :) It did seem to me that there were lots of people being paid to stand around and not do very much, so it's interesting that you say the same thing.

    Jess, I too am curious now about your negative experience at the BL. I used the St Pancras reading rooms for the first time today (actually for a book you might be interested in, W. Holt-White's The Man who Stole the Earth, 1909) and found it very smooth process -- I was told off a couple of times for not knowing the procedure but wasn't made to feel like an idiot about it (an induction for new readers might help though). The microfilm printers (and the print/photocopy costs!) at Colindale are another story altogether! They are going to become the bane of my existence here, I can see.

    Finally, to soften the negativity somewhat, a positive consumer experience. On Sunday, after trudging nearly a mile down Oxford St looking for a towel, and near closing time, I stopped to buy a milkshake. In desperation, I asked the guy serving me if he knew anywhere I could find a towel. It was the end of the day, I'm sure he was tired, it wasn't in his job description, so he could have just shrugged his shoulders and said "Dunno". Instead he wracked his brains and came up with a shop not far away, which I made with 10 minutes to spare. I was 36 hours without a shower by that stage and may well have gone another 8 or 10 if he hadn't helped me out, so nameless guy at BB's Coffee and Muffins of Oxford St, thanks mate, you're a champion!

  9. Not every American shop-worker wants to be your friend forever - there are plenty of examples of rude and lazy service staff here. As a rule of thumb, the larger the town, the worse the service. And government institutions (particularly the post office and the DMVs - the state driving agencies) are notoriously awful. It's that I've-got-a-job-for-life attitude that's truly international.

  10. By the way, I just noticed that you "found" Oxford Street. I am profoundly sorry; no-one should be subjected to it without prior preparation.

  11. Roger Todd

    Brett, good to read that your first impressions are so positive! I have to say, as someone who has lived in London for ten years, I agree with most of what you write (though I've never really minded the poor customer service in shops, I regard it as part of the bloodymindededness of the British character).

    Oxford Street is ghastly. However, during the week it more or less seizes up, clogged to death by buses (especially those bendy bastards). You try cycling up it (or down it, for that matter) during rush-hour...

    One thing that has always hacked me off about this damn town - all those wretched metal barriers along the sides of the pavement. If I want to cross the road at a particular point, I'll do it, damnit! Not be constrained by the nannying of some arrogant town planner. They're more dangerous than just letting people cross where they like, as they funnel people into dangerously narrow gaps - outside Holborn station is the worst.

    And yes, you're right about the public transport prices. Horrendously excessive for such cruddy service. My advice: get a bike!

  12. Post author

    Having been here a bit longer now, maybe I was a bit hasty in pointing to the nanny state -- there are areas where Australia is perhaps more nannyish than the UK. For example, I'm amazed by how many cyclists don't wear helmets here. I don't know if it's compulsory to do so; it is back home. So maybe it's just that some things are different here.

    We seem to be getting the barriers in Melbourne too, at least in a few places, and they annoy me for the same reason! But I can sort of understand why they are more common here, given the lack of separation between the rushing traffic and the footpath here, as noted above :)

    One last whinge: why do shops never seem to have fridges to store cold soft drinks and the link in? Instead they've got these chilled open shelves which are a few degrees below ambient temperature. Seems pointless and inefficient. I knew about the warm beer but this is really too much!

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