Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: UK (page 1 of 28)

York Minster stone masons tour

I was recently in England with my wife, and one of the highlights of the trip was a spur-of-the-moment tour we took in York Minster of the stone yards and exterior scaffolding.

York

Like lots of cathedrals, York lets you go up to the top of its towers, and the view from there is great; but the stoneyard and scaffolding tours are more unique.

York Minster

In the stoneyard, you get to see how the restoration work is planned, and how stones are actually carved. You spend some time with the master mason in the main office, then head off to the workshop where the stones are actually carved.

York Minster

York is one of the few cathedrals that still has its own stonemasons on-site, and they’re busy restoring several areas, including the East Front.

One especially cool feature of the tour is that it give you a chance to see some up close carvings that normally you only get to see from the ground.

York Minster

For someone like me who’s interested in how people work, and how work changes over time, it’s a really interesting experience.

York Minster

The scaffolding tour is just as cool: you put on a hard hat, go up eight stories of scaffolding, and see how restoration work is actually done.

York Minster

York Minster is also interesting because there was a lot of restoration work done in the early 1800s that now has to be replaced, because they used a different kind of stone than was used in the 1300s, and the two stone types are actually (very slowly) attacking and eroding each other.

York Minster

York Minster is beautiful and the standard visit is well worth it, but I highly recommend checking out the stoneyard and scaffolding as well.

“entitled men who… sneer at those who have to endure the consequences of their actions”

Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain sounds like a good read. And this bit about the British elite, from the New York Review of Books review, is a nice little jab:

[P]atrician fecklessness is one of the most enduring modes of British upper-class charisma, a way to signify superiority over the rule-governed, bean-counting strivers of the bourgeoisie. O’Toole correctly identifies it as a type of camp, allowing mistakes to be laughed off and ignorance to be presented as a virtue, evidence that one is not “touched” by the matter at hand. The English public’s fatal attraction to this posture has been responsible for many otherwise inexplicable political careers. Boris Johnson’s improbable upward trajectory is, for example, entirely due to his pitch-perfect performance in the stock role of the rakish comedy toff, a figure whose avarice and incompetence is indulged because it is somehow enjoyable to watch him getting away with things….

It is Britain’s misfortune to have been ruled by such people, entitled men who don’t feel they need to master a brief and sneer at those who have to endure the consequences of their actions.

Russell Square and the creative benefit of a little stability

I’m just back from a couple weeks in England, and while I spent some time in Cambridge (where my wife is a dean in a summer program) and Southampton (where I was doing some work in the Mountbatten papers), I was mainly in London, and staying in Russell Square.

Russell Square

I realized on this trip that I almost always stay in Russell Square, ever since I first visited London as a graduate student in 1989. I was doing my dissertation research, and discovered Goodenough College, a place near Russell Square that hosts international students and visiting scholars. (One of the features of academic life in London is that there are halls or “colleges”– essentially single buildings or groups of buildings– that aren’t connected exclusively to one institution, and so can have people who are studying at SOAS, LSE, etc. It’s like if there were a dorm in New York City that had students who were attending Columbia, NYU, Cooper Union, and CUNY.)

Goodenough College

Back then, it was attractive because it was cheap, though to be honest I barely remember the accommodations; I would get into the Royal Astronomical Society archive at opening time, stay until it closed, then stagger out mentally exhausted.

Royal Astronomical Society

But the habit of staying in Russell Square stuck me with me. It’s on the Piccadilly Line, so if you come in from Heathrow you just get on the Tube and ride it to the Russell Square station; if you need to get to Cambridge, it’s a short ride (or longer walk) to King’s Cross; and of course it’s the home of the British Museum, the Bloomsbury group, and the University of London and its various colleges.

British Museum

The last time I was here, my wife and I stayed in the Hotel Russell, a wonderful Victorian hotel; it’s since become The Prestige and charges 21st-century prices, so we opted for one of the many little places on Bedford Street (all of which are in converted townhouses, and almost all of which seem to be owned by the same company). My last couple nights, I tried something new, and through a service called University Rooms, found College Hall, a dorm that rents rooms to tourists during the summer. It turned out to be a great deal: yes, it’s a dorm so it’s a bit spartan in terms of accommodation, but it’s also literally up the block from the British Museum.

University of London

Staying in the one neighborhood has also proved to be a good strategy because it’s allowed me to get to know the area pretty well, and to know where to go for the cheap lunches, where the supermarket is, etc.. All too often you need up spending enormous amounts of money eating out because it feels like too much trouble to come up with alternatives; I’m very happy to eat and sleep more modestly if it means being able to stay in a place another day, or spend my money on other things (like tickets to the London Hamilton, which my wife and I went to).

Hamilton

There’s a very interesting study of the impact of living abroad on the creativity of fashion houses directors, and it concluded that living abroad can boost long-term creativity, so long as you can spend more of your time studying the local arts, honing your craft, etc., rather than learning the language and navigating the bureaucracy.

I think a similar principle can be applied to trips like these. Simply being in London is stimulating, lets me meet all kinds of cool people, and gets my creative juices flowing; I don’t need to additional cognitive work of figuring out where to get dinner, or trying to get to all the places that the guidebook says are the hottest new restaurants. (Living in the Bay Area helps a lot: if I want world-class [insert name of cuisine here], I can probably bike to it.) Simplifying the logistics of travel makes it easier for me to spend time on the things that will be more valuable.

Caffe Nero

Marina Hyde on the Tory conference

I don’t always read Marina Hyde, but her piece on the recent Tory conference in Manchester– “From Boris the Lion King to Theresa May’s P45 – my malarial week at the Tory conference“– is hilarious in that way a deeply partisan piece (think P. J. O’Rourke) can be.

Though when you have Boris Johnson as a target, it’s hard to go wrong.

He’s not so much a cabinet minister as an event horizon.

Almost entirely because of Boris, the Tories now resemble a franchise of the reality-TV show Real Housewives: a cast of behaviourally incontinent people with zero idea of how to act when people are looking at them, with the most ambitious star seemingly having decided that conflict is winsome. Boris’s May-undermining Sun interview on the eve of conference was the intellectual equivalent of pouring a whisky sour over the head of someone called Cristee, yet was analysed as though it were one of Talleyrand’s more complex gambits. According to what one cabinet minister told the FT: “Boris’s own psychology is a matter of infinite fascination.” Only to Boris, surely.

As a bonus, there’s this bit about Katie Hopkins:

No one could fail to salute whichever Tory brain judged that this already toxic conference would benefit from issuing a guest pass to Katie Hopkins. It’s akin to surveying survivors of the Lusitania and thinking: you know what would really lift the spirits round here? A visit from Typhoid Mary. For reasons I briefly considered looking up, Katie had got herself up in a full wedding dress for her turn at a fringe event. All that effort and still only the second most irksome and publicity-crazed blond at conference.

It’s kind of nice, in a heaving-a-sigh-of-relief-that-it’s-not-your-trainwreck-for-once kind of way, to read this kind of thing from across the Pond.

Visit to Charles Darwin’s Down House

After I finished my London publicity tour for Rest (which is coming out with Penguin Life in February 2017), my wife and I spent the weekend being tourists. On Saturday I did something I’ve long wanted to do, but never got around to: we went to visit Charles Darwin’s house in the village of Downe. I’ve written about the house, the nearby Sandwalk, and Darwin’s time there in my last two books, but I’ve never actually been there until now.

Darwin moved to Downe in 1842, to give himself more privacy and room to raise his growing family. He and his wife Emma both wanted to be in the country, and they intentionally chose a place that would not be very easy to get to.

It still isn’t.

First, you get to Charing Cross station, then take the train to the town of Orpington.

DSCF0852

From there, you get the number R8 bus that makes the rounds through the country, and stops at Downe. You then walk about a third of a mile to Down House. All told, it’s about 90 minutes to get from Charing Cross to Down House, but in reality, it’s longer: the trains and buses aren’t likely to sync up perfectly. In our case, that was a bit fortuitous, as it allowed us time to have lunch at the Maxwell pub in Orpington.
DSCF0854

After that, it was on the bus to Downe. When the roads are open, the bus stops right in front of Down House. This time, it didn’t, so we had to get off and walk.

However, this gave us a chance to visit the church in the village, which is really quite lovely.

DSCF0875

There’s also a “Darwin Bar,” rather inevitably.

DSCF0867

From the village, it’s a few minutes’ walk to Down House. However, it’s worth noting that much of the walk is along a narrow country road with hedges on either side and no sidewalk, so you really have to keep to the very edge of the road and yet let cars know that you’re there so they don’t accidentally run you over.

Eventually, though, you arrive at Down House.

DSCF0917

The house itself has been part of National Trust for a few years, and they do a good job with the exhibits. The upstairs has been converted into an exhibit space, while the downstairs, with Darwin’s study, billiards room, dining room, etc. has been restored and looks like it did when Charles was living there.

Unfortunately you can’t take pictures there.

For me, though, as big a draw as the house was, the Sandwalk was almost as big an attraction. The Sandwalk is a circular path that Darwin laid out on the property as a place where he could go walk and think, and he went out there at least a couple times a day, every day.

To get to it you go through the gardens, and down a path on the edge of the property.

DSCF0939

At the end of the path you come to the Sandwalk itself, just past the age tree on the left (which I believe Darwin himself might have planted).
DSCF1001

The path is a couple hundred yards long.

DSCF0948

At the end, there’s a little place where one can sit if it’s raining. To the left, you can see the path turning and starting to circle back.

DSCF0956

The return is through a darker grove of trees, but still quite pleasant.

DSCF0977

After we were finished, we walked back to the village, and waited a while for our bus back to Orpington.

DSCF1006

All in all it was a very pleasant afternoon. And having come with me on my thing, my wife then took us to see In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about life in Brooklyn.

Packing this weekend

Among other things I’m doing this weekend (mainly related to my son’s rugby career, it seems) I’ve got pack and get ready for my Big European Tour: I’m off to London for several days to promote the Penguin Life edition of Rest, then will go to Amsterdam for the release of the Dutch edition of Rest and a talk sponsored by The School of Life.

It promises to be a fun time, particularly because after I take care of some business my wife will able to join me. (Next time, kids!) And because after years of writing about it, I finally plan to go to Downe and visit Charles Darwin’s house.

I’ve never been to Amsterdam, so I’m very much looking forward to spending several day there. I’m going to be speaking at the Westerkerk, which promises to be a pretty extraordinary venue.

I just hope the dogs don’t get too flipped out by seeing luggage. But they usually do.

“nobody knows what is going to happen but everyone can explain it afterwards”

Britain cannot leave Europe any more than Piccadilly Circus can leave London. Europe is where we are, and where we will remain. Britain has always been a European country, its fate inextricably intertwined with that of the continent, and it always will be. But it is leaving the European Union. Why?

A universal truth: nobody knows what is going to happen but everyone can explain it afterwards. If just 3% of the more than 33 million Brits who voted in this referendum had gone the other way, you would now be reading endless articles explaining how it was, after all, “the economy, stupid”, how British pragmatism finally won through, etc. So beware the illusions of retrospective determinism.

Source: As a lifelong English European, this is the biggest defeat of my political life | Timothy Garton Ash | Politics | The Guardian

In London

I’m in London for a few days, doing some research for Rest.

My table at LSE archives

We’re staying at the Hotel Russell, which overlooks Russell Square in Bloomsbury. I’ve passed by it many times, and have always been curious about what it was like. It’s nice.

Hotel Russell

Our room doesn’t overlook Russell Square, of course; ours overlooks one of the other hotels, though if you crane your head out the window, you can see some of the trees.

Thursday I was at the British Library, and the Wellcome Collection. Both were great.

British Library

Friday I went down to the London School of Economics, and spent the day in their special collections. The LSE library has this wacky spiral staircase in its center.

LSE library

London is great as always, and being here in the summer (which I’ve done very rarely) is great. We did happen to be in town during a huge anti-austerity rally, which meant we could forget doing normal tourist stuff, but which proved interesting on its own terms.

DSCF4914

Wednesday I go up to Cambridge, to do some work in the archives there. Then it’s back home.

O Yes

No more Waterstone’s 3-for-2

The end of a marketing era!

No longer will readers be able to chuck a third free book onto their pile of purchases as they head to the till at Waterstone's: the UK's biggest bookseller is bringing its long-running three-for-two offer to an end.

The Bookseller reports that staff were told of the move yesterday, with the current three-for-two promotion across all paperback fiction to come to an end today. The demise of the famous offer, which has been running for more than a decade, follows the sale of the chain by HMV to Russian billionaire Alexander Mamut, and the appointment of independent bookseller James Daunt as managing director in June.

My son at the Science Museum

Just came across this picture from their trip to England in April.

At the Science Museum
at the science museum, via flickr

Older posts

© 2019 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑