Friday, October 15, 2010

Venturing further afield

'The Gherkin'
Yesterday I ventured into Financial London to see a man about a bank account. Liverpool Street Station (lovely old train shed; charge you 30p to use the toilets); busy Bishopsgate; and views of ‘The Gherkin’, the Norman Foster designed building at 30 St Mary’s Axe (a very intriguing address in itself) which opened in May 2004. This is probably a politically-incorrect comment in this town, but I have never found that building attractive. Distinctive, yes. Beautiful, no.

The bank man was very helpful and bought me a coffee and filled out many forms. I am hopeful of actually achieving a UK bank account by next week. This will considerably assist in many regards, and is long overdue. I have applied to become a customer of NatWest Bank, which is owned by RBS, which has had some bad press, but then again which bank hasn’t lately? I asked the nice bank man if they were bouncing back in this part of Town from the blows of the Great Financial Crisis. I had read that grown bankers were seen sobbing in the streets of London in the worst of the GFC. He said he could tell that things were better because there was no longer a continuous mob of journalists outside the doors of his bank building. The building had the now usual stiff security for entrance. There was a sign at the doorway which proclaimed: “Today’s Alert Level: Black” Somewhat counter-intuitively, this means things are fine. (Oughtn’t it be ‘sunny yellow’ or something?) The bank also proclaimed on the wall of its lobby: ‘Make it happen’. This I hope to do, as ever.

Harrods Food Hall
Today I explored another corner of central London which had so far escaped my attention: Knightsbridge, home of Harrods and Harvey Nichols, department stores par excellence. At the end of the day they are just great big shops, but how can you not be a little bit intrigued by something called ‘The Egyptian Hall’, and indeed, in a somewhat strange updating, ‘The Egyptian Escalator’. It is de rigueur to become hopelessly lost in Harrods, which I did with ease. At one stage – having moved through Antique Furniture, a large outlet of Waterstone’s Bookshop, and a well-stocked Computer Department - I found myself in the Musical Instruments Department, where I visited nostalgically with a Roland digital piano just like mine which is now stored in a box at home...but I am determined not to subside into homesick meandering.

If you are interested, I bought a pair of house slippers in Harvey Nicks and a decent pillow in Harrods, both items which will greatly increase my comfort.

I also perched on one of the bar stools at a dining counter in the Harrods Food Hall, which is certainly a magical cornucopia of foods galore. I enjoyed my lunch at the ‘Iberian Ham’ counter and then took an unsolicited lesson in how to properly use a cafĂ©terie in the coffee department while purchasing my Italian Espresso Blend beans.

Speaking of matters further afield, I have also attended a lecture and seminar on the work of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, just for fun, you know?  The class is taken by a small, elderly, wispy-haired blond German lady named Gudrun who has a mind like a steel trap. She is passionately interested in Herr Schopenhauer and can answer any question you care to ask about him. As I came into the class she was chatting to a young student who had sat down in the front row directly opposite her. He was tall, skinny, massively dreadlocked, and was wearing a shirt that said in large capitals: F*CK (the word on his shirt didn’t have the * in it, but I don’t want my blog to be blocked by the bad-language filters). Two more unlike people you would be hard-pressed to imagine. However, they were talking eagerly about the German Idealists and Schopenhauer, and she was urging him to do a presentation for the class. Later, in the seminar part where everyone speaks up and discusses, the contributions from this guy showed him to be extremely intelligent and mightily well-read, and streets ahead of anyone else there, in what was generally a very, very smart and engaged group. I should probably put in something here about not judging books by their covers, etc., but I’d like to be able to come up with something more wittily philosophical.

I am finding that there is a massive difference between doing philosophy on-line, as I did last year, and dong it face-to-face with lecturers and an engaged classful of co-students . The online course had recorded lectures, print materials, many readings and on-line resources, email access to the lecturers, an active discussion board....but I am surprised to find how much more engaging it is to be in a room full of like-minded people who are passionate and eager about their subject, all talking at once sometimes, with the opportunity to say or ask what you are thinking as it occurs to you, and to hear others doing the same, all moderated by people who are top in their fields. Chalk and cheese, to insert another cliché. I find myself looking forward to class time very much.

There are some interesting people in my classes. One frequent and fast talker is from St John’s University, US of A – ‘yes, m’am’ – and has completed the entire Great Books Program which aims to give ‘a rigorous education in the liberal arts’ (though my new acquaintance John said they stopped at Heidegger and didn’t read Bertrand Russell, or presumably anyone after him.) John is ‘auditing’ (i.e. sitting in on) two other subjects in addition to those in which he is enrolled. ‘I came over here to study’. Most full-time people (of which there is only a small band – we are gradually finding each other) are auditing at least one subject in addition to their enrolled subjects. Oliver, a young Brit, is enrolled in Political Philosophy (‘you should see the reading for that one!’) and is auditing the Greeks. Gracia is a young woman from Athens who is, amazingly, attempting this stuff in her second language. She said she needed to read John Stuart Mill with a dictionary beside her (which possibly may not have helped much).

From the classroom to the household, I can report that a cast of thousands is now working on the hot water issue. Yes, despite repeated visits by Concierge Stuart, the timing apparatus is not delivering. So desperate did I become that this morning I called my landlord again. Have I mentioned my landlord? He plans to manage the property himself, rather than through a professional property manager, which sets all kinds of alarm bells ringing. This morning he told me that he would come and visit himself to program the HW system – eek! By this evening, he had phoned Mary, the Head Concierge, and asked her to arrange for a plumber to inspect it. He also said that future concerns should be channelled through his representative, his solicitor, who is – as long-time readers of this blog may recall - the LESIL (Least Efficient Solicitor In London). In my prayers at night I ask especially not to have to deal with the LESIL ever again. However, cold showers have a very focussing effect and this point I am willing to give my first-born for a hot shower in the morning.

The subject of this blog entry has roamed further afield than I intended. But at least – after a very long time on the phone with the internet provider help desk – I feel confident that I will be able to post it (she says, tempting fate)! So today was a day of Progress.

My cosy new house slippers:
 ready for the Northern winter?

Images from these websites:

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