Archive for the ‘England: America’s Weird-Looking Uncle’Category

I Think I Got a Little Too Much into the Librarian Thing

Today was going to be one of those normal days where I, you know, get out of bed and do stuff, but then a series of events saw that this was not going to be a likely outcome. Firstly, I realised that if I stretched myself out enough I could reach my laptop and bring it back to bed, all the while retaining contact with my mattress and duvet, and secondly, I touched the radiator that I sleep next to and found that some poor kind housemate had deemed our home freezing enough to turn on the heat, thereby condemning me to at least another hour in bed. Any other day of the week, these events would spell disaster (rushed shower, skipped breakfast, failed degree) but on a Sunday, I let that lazy part of my personality take precedence for a few hours. I can go save the world in the afternoon.

It’s been a week made busy by interviews and coursework. I also found the time to have a nice little trip with my friend Cat to London to see Iron & Wine. I know there were some naysayers among you who commented and emailed about the ‘meh’ quality of Iron & Wine’s latest album, but after seeing Sam and his band perform at the Roundhouse on Tuesday night, it became apparent to me how much of a ‘live’ album this is supposed to be. The interwoven percussion and echoey synth and sax solos and falsetto shrieks just seem to work when you’re seeing them do it live. To be fair, I got a little tired of the long, artsy instrumental breaks that occasioned throughout the concert, when it seemed like the band just wanted to have a drawn-out jam session, and we all kind of swayed awkwardly in the audience, wondering if we could get to the bar and back before the next song started.

For the most part, though, it was an excellent gig, and Sam Beam was such a performer, despite having a cold that nearly made him cancel the show. He collectively called us ‘man’ the whole night, and responded with charm to those weird people you inevitably get at gigs, who made awkwardly bad jokes and shouted out how much they wanted to live in his beard. Even if you were underwhelmed by the latest album, I definitely recommend you go catch Iron & Wine on their tour through the UK and US. Sam knows that we all really want to hear the old stuff, and I would have gone just to be able to sing along with him as he played Naked As We Came.

Do you remember when my older sister Holly called that guy in the library a D-bag? Since then, I’ve found serious pleasure in egging myself on to speak up against strangers who are getting away with being jerks in public. I specialise in shushing people who are making too much noise, politely but firmly silencing loud earphones and giving death stares to cell phone chatterers on the Quiet Zone section of trains. I call myself The Librarian, but I am constrained by no library: if you talk when sound is not allowed, YOU WILL BE SHUT DOWN.

A group of girls suffered my muting wrath on Tuesday night as they chatted and laughed through an otherwise gorgeous rendition of Lion’s Mane. I sighed inwardly, and donned the armour of The Librarian.

I just can’t let people get away with being obnoxious! Ugh! The injustice of it! I assume that the crowd of people around me are always also silently cursing the noisy perpetrators and it feels good to do my public duty. Sometimes after the deed is done I make eye contact with fellow passengers or theatre fans who smile and nod, as if to say, Thank you, Librarian, you have conquered another obstreperous foe, kudos to you. Of course, I am humble and expect nothing but thanks for the duty I perform. It’s my cross to bear.

And so the moment came, the chatty girls had surpassed the minute of grace they are allowed, they had deflected my Polite Stares of Justice, they had talked over my Throat Clearings of Valour…I was left with no choice. I struck.

“Excuse me ladies, but if you’re going to chat, could you do it at the bar?”

Silence. They were dumbstruck. Behind me I heard Cat groaning with embarrassment. That’s okay. She doesn’t understand the tenets of The Librarian Code.

Suddenly I realised the three teenagers I had expected to be talking to were not teenagers at all. They were much older than me, probably in their early thirties, and probably wondering why such a little boy was telling them to shut up. I held my ground. The standoff continued for a few seconds. Then the leader spoke:

“Oh, sorry. Sure.”

Justice was served. I removed my Librarian cape (lest anyone should learn my true identity) and returned to the concert. The rest of the song was beautiful, and only made sweeter by the silence behind it. Of course Cat spent the rest of the night trying to disassociate herself from me, but I wasn’t ashamed. Sometimes honour comes at a price.

Remember, The Librarian cannot work alone. Have you ever stood up to a stranger, or been too afraid to say anything? Cacophonous foes lie everywhere and the League of Silence needs your help to subdue them. Will you answer the call?


Talking of justice, Iron & Wine’s opening act, Daniel Martin Moore, who you might remember as the duet partner of cello-jammin’ Ben Sollee, is a big activist in the fight against the mountaintop removal mining that is slowly destroying his home state of Kentucky. He gave us a brief overview of the scourge before playing a beautiful rendition of his own Flyrock Blues, written about the large flyrock boulders sent cascading into people’s homes when mining engineers blow pieces out of mountains with explosives. Listen to him singing with Ben Sollee below.

Mountaintop removal has been a key issue with folkists today, which is an incredible echo of the past. It seems Sollee and Moore have picked up on the same sort of issues Guthrie and Seeger were singing about more than half a century before. Tom Paxton is a big activist too, maybe he provides the link between past and present.

Whatever your feelings about MTR, I’m pretty sure your feelings about Daniel Martin Moore are the same as mine. I’ve posted a slightly less politically-charged song below, one he played on Tuesday night, for you to enjoy and let me know what you think.

But please, guys, no talking while the song plays.

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Sticking Up for Students Was a Lot Easier Before a Drunken Gang of them Formed Outside my Window Ten Minutes Ago

Being a student means a lot of things to a lot of people.

To my mother, for example, being a student is about being in the prime of your life, about freedom and enthusiasm and new experiences. It is about being fresh and young and staring down a corridor of open doors. It is about turning up receptive and sponge-like and leaving with a cranium brimming with knowledge and intellectual fervour. To my mother, when you’re a student you are in the salad days of youth. I don’t know about salad days. I think cup noodles and beans on toast would probably be more accurate.

Well, what a surprise, hearing another student moan about something. Next thing you know you’ll be dodging fire extinguishers and helping me convert ‘Tory Cuts’ into a cheeky slogan for my picket sign.

Before you start unwraveling your fire hoses, I’m not here to complain about being a student. For the most part, Mama Burns is right: student life is exciting, stimulating and, in certain moments, romantically bohemian. It is not, however, easy.

Like many cities in the UK, there is an attitude of reluctant tolerance between students and locals. This is understandable. When I wrote for the university paper we had weekly stories of students being asked outside clubs what school they went to, before getting thumped by groups of locals if it was the wrong one. On the other hand, I’ve seen my fair share of drunken students weeing on parked cars/statues/traffic wardens. You can kind of see where the resentment originates.

(To my American readers: have you ever seen a public urinal? Apparently it’s so difficult to keep yellow puddles off English streets these days that they have to actually build these four-person towers for drunken men to pee into. It’s like multiplayer urination. These were one of the first things I saw on my first night out after eight years of living in a country where it is illegal to chew gum and spit on pavements. Of course I used it–to make a stark political statement–two minutes later.)

Sometimes all the blame that gets shifted onto students is a little unfair. Sure we all seem noisy, obnoxious and perpetually inebriated, but that’s only because you can only ever see the noisy, obnoxious and perpetually inebriated ones. The quiet ones are in the library working on their degrees, or in lecture halls actually doing the thing they came to university to do.

The truth is, sometimes people forget that life as a student can be tough. I remember a few weeks before I started uni in the UK I was working as an intern at my brother’s company, and he turned to me during a lunch break and gave me this really creepy far-off look. “You don’t realise,” he said. “That you are about to enter the easiest part of your life.”

In a sense he was right. On the surface, students have it made. They are young and innocent with oodles of free time and a whole city of pubs and clubs to explore. The problem is, there’s only so much exploring you can do with an empty wallet.

Most students get a sizeable grant, either from the government or their parents. Very few students I know are properly poor, even those who are self-funded. Even so, spending is always tight. The phrase I’m a student has now become instant waiter code for No drinks, thanks, we’ll just have a couple of tap waters.

Alright, you may be thinking, O pity the poor students who have to forgo the Evian when dining at Daddy’s restaurant chain! You don’t realise, however, how soon the life of la bohème wears off, kind of like how on the first night of camping, eating straight out of a frying pan is really fun, but by the final night you are gagging for silverware.

It’s the little things. Walking everywhere, instead of forking over £2 for bus fare. Relying on Sainsburys Basics Everything. Volunteering for experiments in the pyschology department to pay for Christmas presents.

Now, this blog post has suddenly become a lot more ranty than I intended. The truth is that despite the slow weariness of scrimping, student life really can be incredible. Not only have I learned some fantastic things about the subject I came here to study, but I’ve trained myself to be self-dependent, to take responsibility for my actions and to be much more aware of everything I do and buy. Most importantly, I’ve really, really, really learned to appreciate my mother’s cooking and ironing skills.

It’s good I’m starting to get used to this life, because at the very least I can expect another six more years of it, and for the ten years after that, while I’ll no longer be a medical student, I’ll have roughly a quarter of a million dollars of debt to economise myself around.

However, like I’ve said before, the fact that none of this fazes me in the slightest is testament to how stubborn I am about getting through medical school. There is no doubt in my mind that I’d rather love life as a student than hate it as a millionaire.

I’ll just end up really, really good at making beans on toast.


It makes sense to continue my defense of students by promoting something that they can often be pretty good at: making music. There are a few folky bands floating around Bristol, but one that has been humming through my cheap, student headphones lately is Joyshop, a five-piece collection of sound that certainly makes me want to forgo the £2 bus fare, just so I can listen to their album Casual Sincerity a little bit longer on the walk home. They’re what I like to call ‘Clever People Music’, the kind of music that you know is based on actual key signatures and can be described with words like syncopation and tonality. The fact that their logo is an ambigram kind of makes you want to drop out of university and start a Sarah Palin fan club.

In essence, Joyshop is deep, and the more you listen, the more you’ll uncover, plunging further everytime until you realise you’ve been enveloped in their sound and you don’t know how to get back out again. Suddenly, though, that trail of breadcrumbs doesn’t seem so enticing and you’re happy just to melt in the afterglow of someone else’s genius. Let’s just say, the cup noodles taste a lot better when you’ve got a bit of Joyshop in the background.

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When the Weather Turned Sour

I woke up yesterday morning, opened my blinds and uttered a word that would probably make even the Scroogiest of Christmas-haters blush.

There was snow everywhere.

I had a plane to catch.

Oh, Internet, I am ashamed at how, only days before, I had laughed at the anxious proclamations of the BBC weathermen. I shudder to think of my arrogance at forecasts of airport-clogging blizzards, of snow-choked rail networks. It won’t snow in Bristol, I guffawed. It’s sunny, I am wearing a t-shirt for crying out loud!

Even after I had seen the snow blanketing the streets outside my window, I still had full confidence that the train carrying me to Surrey, carrying me to our family friend Tina who would later carry me to the airport, would tunnel its way through the drifts with ease. I was convinced that the confident managers of Heathrow must be walking around in short-sleeves, pointing at the unblemished skies above them and laughing at those other wimps at Gatwick who had chosen to shut down for the day.

I probably felt my first pangs of worry at the same time that I felt the icy bonnet of my friend’s car under my fingertips as I helped push it out of a snow drift and up a slippery hill a couple hours later. He probably felt pangs of his own, of regret that he had offered to give me a lift to the station that wintry morning and of fear that he might not ever make it back again.

Arriving at Bristol’s main station gave me hope, however, especially when I arrived with plenty of time to spare and hopped onto my Surrey train with confidence. I secured my present-laden suitcase onto the luggage rack, slipped into my pre-booked seat and waited for the train to take off.

I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited and waited and waited. When we finally left the station nearly an hour later (now accompanied by the delayed train manager we had been waiting all that time for) I was starting to reconsider my earlier confidence. Standing around at Reading for another hour with two hundred other disgruntled passengers while children had snow ball fights around us further chipped away at that confidence, and by the time I got to the tiny station of North Camp and had to be picked up in an all-terrain Land Rover, I was despondent, shivering and miserable.

The 2 hour journey had become a 7 hour one, the casual trip across the width of the country had become one fraught with negotiation and anxiety. When I did finally arrive at Tina’s door, I collapsed into bed, triumphant in the knowledge that in twenty-four short and easy hours I would be hundreds of miles away from my nearest snowflake.

By the time I had woken up, though, everything was shutting down.

Our flight had been cancelled, the arrogant men in shirtsleeves at Heathrow had decided to close their airport, the phone lines where sagging from the inundation of phone calls from anxious travellers. I spent the morning chasing down leads and reaching dead ends, frantically negotiating with my parents who were up at 2 am on the other side of the world doing the exact same. The Twin and I put £10 onto a Skype account and spent the next two hours sitting by my laptop on hold, until, just as I reached the point where I thought one more crackly rendition of whatever overplayed piece of generic classical music I had already listened to thirty-four times would send my fist through the screen, a friendly, but very tired sounding, airline representative picked up. She politely informed the Twin and me that the next flight to LAX would not be available until THE TWENTY-FIFTH OF DECEMBER. Were there any flights to San Diego available? Could we get to maybe Atlanta and reconnect there? Wasn’t there anything else we could sneak onto? No, no and certainly not. It was either fly home on Christmas day or duck tape your suitcase to your back and start paddling.

Suddenly, the Twin’s spluttered out the word that saved Christmas:


The airline operator was doubtful at first but decided, Yes, Mr. Burns, it does in fact seem that we have some seats available on a flight to Las Vegas for Wednesday the 22nd, and, yes, we will transfer you to this flight free of charge, and, please Mr. Burns, if you and your sister would like to stop screaming for a second and perhaps return to the microphone so we can discuss contact details…

Okay so sure, it was a small victory. We are still stranded in England, we are still going to be a little late this year, and Papa Burns still has to drive five hours to come pick us up, but after a weekend full of minor tragedies we had to rejoice over this minor triumph.

Indeed, every cloud has a silver lining, even the ones swollen with impending flight-delaying doom, and I couldn’t help but consider the tiny happy moments and joyous coincidences that passed me by over the last couple of days.

There was the overcrowded train from Reading to North Camp where some fellow passengers and I banded together and stormed the empty First Class carriage, sharing the crisps and cookies and bits of fruit amongst each other we had been hoarding all day and reluctantly saying goodbye as, one-by-one we–nameless, anonymous and unlikely to ever meet again–parted company. The train driver waved to me from an open window with unwavering enthusiasm as they crept out the station.

Then there was the driver of the Land Rover, Tina’s ex-husband, a man linked to me by the most tenuous of connections but still willing to take an hour out of his day to negotiate slippery country roads to get to the station where I was stranded. We talked about manly things, as men forced into polite conversation often do, and I pretended I knew what ABS and a high-ratio gearbox was.

Finally, there was this evening, where a friend of Tina’s who also knew my mother invited us over for a cup of tea, which quickly turned into several bottles of wine and a gut-busting roast. There I met her son, who casually mentioned that his girlfriend lived in Singapore and that she was coming over later, and I casually remarked that I used to live in Singapore, and he casually enquired if I had met her before and I proceeded to casually flip out at the incredible coincidences this crazy world is often so capable of producing. I did indeed know his girlfriend, and, in fact, at age 12 I had asked her to be my girlfriend. The affair lasted three weeks before she dumped me by the swings. Suffice to say, she was pretty shocked when the Twin and I jumped out of a closet to surprise her an hour later.

It’s so important to extract the little islands of interest and coincidence of your day that would otherwise get swept up amongst its tidal waves of monotony and tedium. Getting trapped by a bad weather is a bummer, missing quality time with my family is a drag, but whining about it won’t melt the snow. If this whole mess has taught me anything, it’s to relax, stay calm and deal with problems as they arise.

Also, to next time pack a coat.


This time of year Australia turns its big Uluru-shaped middle-finger towards the rest of the world and hits the beaches. To prove that really I’m a good sport, today’s offering will be direct from Down Under (I’ve never understood this expression. Down Under…down under what? Indonesia, perhaps? Papua New Guinea? A hole in the ozone layer?). Australian folk still has something raw about it, something Country & Western as if it was too cool to jump on the poppy folk-rolk bandwagon, something that makes it feel like it would still be welcome by a midnight campfire on some rattlesnake-infested plain. Glenn Richards (of Augie March fame who I have quietly mentioned before) joins music legend Paul Kelly and local star Missy Higgins for a song infused with curly fierce accents and plenty of ranching references I can’t understand.

Thanks to Kev, my Australian Folk Ambassador.

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Droving Woman – Glenn Richards, Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins

Let It All Out

I’m sure there must be some way we can increase the number of hours in a day.

Let’s do the maths. Say we wanted a couple extra hours more than the 24 we have already. Simple. It’s done. This would make the average week 182 hours long, 14 hours longer than the measly 168 we’ve grown accustomed too. This it turn would mean 780 hours in a month (up from 720) and 9360 hours in the year.

Right, okay so like an eager British politician we’d have to do cut something out of the budget to make up for the deficit (you’re really only supposed to have 8640 hours in a year). Something would have to go. How about February? Any bits left over I’d just add on to June.

In doing so I would go a long way in eliminating two of the biggest issues I’ve been having problems with lately: time and climate. (I might also eliminate your birthday too, though, if you happen to be born in February, so perhaps not the best plan.)

I’m back at university now and have made it to the dreaded final year when the working world begins to flash its big ugly headlights in your rear view mirror. My housemates spend their free time answering weirdly revealing questions about themselves for graduate intern schemes (my favourite so far for a friend applying for a position at an oil and natural gas company: “Firm X prides itself on safety in the workplace. Describe a change you have made in life to ensure that you are safer.” I can’t imagine how telling an HR Manager that you look both ways when crossing the street or make sure the lights are switched off before changing a bulb will make you that much more attractive an applicant, but apparently if they take the effort to hire you they don’t want to see you perish in a nasty stapler-related incident at the office) while yours truly works long unpaid hours at night shelters, charity shops and hospital wards to try to make myself that much more attractive to medical school admissions officers.

Add in the increased work load of 3rd year, plus needing to somehow find the time to feed, clothe and bathe myself and you start to get the picture. I’ve always thought the worst thing about being super busy is not having the time to read books. There’s a pile of untouched novels I was given at Christmas beckoning me from the bookshelf, but so far this term I seem to be limited only to journal articles with ‘feminist thought’ in the title. It’s getting hard to stay enthusiastic.

Everything is made that much trickier by the fact that England IS SO INCONCEIVABLY COLD. My room in the house I share with four friends is an old front room with a big bay window. Lovely, you might say, and indeed it would be if it’s glass wasn’t two-hundred years old and two micro-millimetres thick. I wake up in the morning and instinctively reach for my bedside table for a pair of gloves (this makes putting my contact lenses in later a little tricky) before retreating under the covers to psyche myself up for the perilous journey to the shower that awaits. Then in one swift movement I explode out of bed, grab a towel as I accelerate out the door and shoot up the staircase. The worst site in the world to see at this point is a closed bathroom door indicating occupancy and a freezing retreat back to my bedroom but usually my crazed thumping up the stairs warns the others that an icicle-laden housemate is approaching.

The shower itself is another issue. You see, among the fun little idiosyncrasies of our house is that if you have the shower too hot, the internet turns off. It’s something to do with plugged up pipes messing up the electricity which affects the router, and the end result is a tepid shower. The front and back sides of my body have to take turns facing the reluctant stream of lukewarm water, which means that any given time 50% of my body has the opportunity to develop frostbite.

The next part in the process is of course the worst part, when you are dripping wet but need to complete that final journey back to your room. Ususally I black out at this point and wake up sprawled beneath my covers, my hair damp and my glasses foggy. Meanwhile, the boiler sits quietly gathering dust in the corner of one of my housemate’s bedrooms.

Oh dear, only three weeks in England and I’m already complaining like a Brit. There are, of course, a number of ways to deal with the issues of climate and time. My two favourite happen to be whisky and music. Though the former is not such a feasible solution at any time before 3 in the afternoon, music is accessible 26 hours a day, 182 hours a week.

When your pining for the warmer climates of your home town, what else can you do except listen to the music that always makes you the most homesick. I actually have a playlist called ‘Homesick Music’ on iTunes (or alternatively, Hey! My Door Was Shut For a Reason! …No, I’m Not CRYING! Music) and the undefeatable Josh Ritter always figures numerous times on this list.

So this is for all you kids living away from home, even it’s been a while since it was somebody else’s job to pay your heating bills.

‘Another New World’ comes from Josh’s latest album So Runs The World Away. If you listen closely to the lyrics you’ll hear the gorgeously crafted tale of a sea captain trying to find a passage around the ice of the poles. In classic Josh Ritter fashion, the song seems to have layers upon layers upon layers of meaning, but Annabel Lee, the name of the sea captain’s ship, actually comes from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. What really kills me in this song is the story, which you really should sit and pick apart by listening to the lyrics as the music flows around you.


10 2010