Recurring memories: A London long weekend, lonely and lovely

The things we remember, the things we forget.

Recently, a memory resurfaced after years lying dormant in my befuddled brain.

It was of a long weekend in London, that has stayed with me I think because I spent the three or four days of its duration almost entirely on my own.

I don’t recall the month or year, but it would have been around 2003 (I lived in London from 2000 to 2004) and probably in summer, as my memory is of it staying light till late.

The emotions that accompany memories of that brief period in my life are: loneliness, contemplation, poignancy and a strange feeling of pleasure. This last feeling I connect to the enjoyment of my own company and the absolute freedom to do as I pleased for 72 or or more hours.

At 46, balancing the demands of family and work, the idea of having all that time to just wonder about at my leisure, exploring new streets and old lane ways in that ancient city, idling away my time over coffees and beers, is hard to fathom.

My time now, though incredibly rich and meaningful seems so incredibly rushed.

Foolishly, I have dived straight into a pool of warm nostalgia regarding my London days, trying to reconstruct that distant weekend.

Most of the details have disappeared with just a ‘sense of things’ dangling before my eyes. Here I must resist the urge to use some corny poetic metaphor such as ‘like dust dancing through a ray of sunlight in a quiet room’ but its true, my recollection is both tangible (and potent) and intangible (and elusive).

Who knows if what of the little I remember of that weekend actually happening or is nothing more than a wishful re-imagining of events, moments and places, like how one constructs fragments of a quickly disappearing dream upon waking up.

So what do I recall of that lonesome and lovely long weekend, long ago?

I remember (quite distinctly) that almost everyone I knew – friends and family – were out of town or worse, not seeking my company, leaving me to my own devices.

I remember that the weather was good, and that I was outdoors a lot, exploring previously undiscovered parts of North London, not far from my home base, a flatshare above a kebab shop on Brent Street, Hendon and one floor up from Harold Schogger’s Bridge Club (also my landlord).


My flatshare above the kebab shop (third floor) in Hendon

I recall almost for certain that I walked up Primrose Hill opposite London Zoo (a feature of many London movies) and took in the famous view across to the city (now with so many more skyscrapers).

Later, I am almost certain, I explored the nearby cobbled streets lined with stately Victorian terraces, the homes of rock stars like Oasis’s Noel Gallagher and movie god  Jude Law and his former wife, the actress Sadie Frost

plath-plaqueMore than likely, I was descending into London’s rich literary history, seeking out the Blue Plaques, which commemorate the homes where famous residents once lived.

At the time I was quite obsessed with Sylvia Plath (her plaque is at 3 Chalcot Square in Primrose Hill not far from where she gassed herself  at 23 Fitzroy Road), the doomed poet whose biographical novel The Bell Jar I read so intently in London.

I even memorized one of Plath’s poems (a feat I have never yet attempted since) – ‘Lady Lazarus’ – about her numerous suicide attempts.

I had experienced something of a mental breakdown of my own – panic attacks mainly – and was undergoing therapy which I think explained something of my fascination with Plath and her poetry and prose.  Perhaps that also accounted for my solitary status that long weekend. Depressives reciting Sylvia Plath poems out aloud are not usually magnates for social invitations.

This state of mind – a search for meaning of some kind – had no doubt encouraged my interest in the more morbid side of literature more generally. I recall reading a book about Plath and suicide called ‘The Savage God’ by the English Poet Al Alvarez (who Wikipedia tells me died in September aged 90) and enjoying long periods of introspection. (I was also doing yoga at the time, one evening a week in an old church building in Hampstead and falling asleep, accompanied by snoring, during the meditation at the end of the class).


Primrose Hill

But I am digressing from that London long weekend to general London nostalgia.

Like an iceberg, I only remember a fraction of what floats above the surface of my conscious mind: memories of walking past the still, dark green waters of canals, walking over bridges to peer down at the boats and barges below, a sandwich at Pret-a-Manger, maybe a gelato at that Italian place near the Chalk Farm tube station. Maybe Nandos?

Whatever did or did not happen, I am there, on my own. A backpack, glasses, comfortable walking shoes, lost in my own thoughts, searching for those blue plaques. Perhaps George Orwell‘s at 50 Lawford Road, Kentish Town or Dylan Thomas at 54 Delancey Street in Camden Town or William Butler Yeats at 23 Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill.

Perhaps I walked all the way up to from Camden Town, through Chalk Farm, past the trendy cafes and shops of Belsize Park and into Hampstead Heath, that giant, sprawling, and in parts wonderfully untamed London park for a bit of wander.

Then finally, as the sky darkened, on the tube or bus (route 113 or 13) home to my grubby flat in Hendon, stopping for a greasy kebab and then relaxing on the blush blue sofa, perhaps smoking a joint offered by a flatmate, flicking the through the endless channels on Sky TV.




Black people with cockney accents and London flatshares: A tribute of sorts to Clive James

clive james bookI’ve started re-reading Clive James‘ second wonderful memoir “Falling Towards England” which recounts ‘our hero’s’ migration from Sydney to London in 1962.

I loved reading all of James’s hilarious, witty and erudite memoirs and it is a real treat to dip back in to the early year’s of one of Australia’s finest literary exports.

It is an endeavour tinged with sadness and nostalgia: sadness because Clive James has a terminal illness and because reading his memoir stirs up so many London memories for me.

I am only 40 or so pages into “Falling Towards England” where we find ‘our hero’ virtually penniless, rejected for numerous writing jobs, ill-prepared for the English winter and frequently surrounded by ill-mannered boorish South Africans, or ‘voortrekkers’ as he calls them who don’t like it when the ‘bleks’ talk back to white policemen on television.

James captures perfectly the harsh Afrikaner accent and the mentality of the neanderthals he was living with at the time:

“That’s what’s rewning Efrika,” said a voice from a winged chintz chair, ‘litting a keffir talk to them like thet.” Another chintz chair agreed. “Thet’s right,” it said. “They mist not be allowed to enswer beck.”

I remember with great clarity on my very first trip to London with my mother, aged 13 in 1987, when there was still an anti-apartheid protest moored permanently outside South Africa house on Trafalgar Square, walking into McDonald’s for the first time (that too a novelty) and hearing the black man in dreads behind the counter ask me what I wanted in a thick cockney English accent. I got the shock of my life.

“The bleks are not supposed to talk like thet,” is probably what raced through my naive South African head at the time.

Beyond that funny re-collection, Clive James’s depiction of flat sharing in the 196os  reminded me of my own early years in London (I was there from 2000 to 2004), when I lived above a kebab shop on Brent Road, Hendon.

The top floor flat above "Flame" kebab shop was my home for three years

The top floor flat above “Flame” kebab shop was my home for three years

Of course, I didn’t have to feed money into a heater to generate some warmth as James did and my finances were not quite as dire as his – my first full time salary was £16,000 a year working as a ‘content developer’ for Accountancy Age on Broadwick Street, Soho.

I do though remember the barrenness of my little room with its pigeon-shit encrusted window that overlooked some miserable discount shops, a ‘caf’ where you could get breakfast for a few pounds and my local Tesco, where I witnessed numerous disputes between the staff and local yobbos, attempting their daily ritual of shoplifting bottle’s of Winkleigh’s White Lightning cider.

My landlord was a kindly, jovial Jewish man called Harold Schogger who ran the local bridge club on the floor below our third-floor flat. Coming home from work, I’d have to make my way past a posse of bride club players filling the air with a dense cloud of tobacco smoke (One later had a heart attack and died on the landing).

My first flatmates were as follows:

  • Andy and Dave, who both hailed from Rochdale, near Manchester in the North of England. Andy, a chubby, bearded fellow, fond of eating but not washing up and Dave, a quieter, intellectual type with the eyes of kindly badger, whose chief pre-occupation was smoking marijuana on a fairly continuous basis
  • Sagey, a lanky, pony-tailed Israeli, who spent large parts of the day and night in his lair (the biggest room in the flat) smoking dope, and shagging women (the moans reverberated through the passage walls). Sagey would sometimes invite me into his darkened den for a smoke and to watch a movie.  I would sit on a large poof in the cozy lounge area he had created next to his bed, getting deeply stoned, watching something or other on Sagey’s television.
Brent Street Hendon, where I Lived above the kebab shop

Brent Street Hendon,

My evening activities home from work via the Northern Line began with concocting some kind of meal in our narrow little kitchen usually piled up to the ceiling with dirty plates, or grabbing a kebab from the Afghanistani  who ran the shop below our flat. Then I would sit with Andy or Dave watching something or other on television (the Frank Skinner show was a favourite) as they passed joint after joint around the pungent room.

I must confess here to mild theft – having asked Dave, for a bit of weed one evening, I discovered that he kept it in a drawer by his bed. Later, when my own stash ran low, I’d help myself to some of his when he’d left work for the day – never too much to arouse suspicion, but enough to get me “nicely toasted”. For this act of treachery, I do apologise to Dave, where-ever he may be these days (probably stoned somewhere).

My old landlord and bridge club mafioso, Harold Schogger

My old landlord and bridge club mafioso, Harold Schogger

Thus I spent much of my first two years in London in a weed-induced trance, often finding myself up past midnight flicking through the endless channels of Sky TV. Or else, taking the bus up Finchley Road to visit my friends in a share house in Golders Green.

Over three years, a whole stream of eclectic and eccentric characters came and went from the three bedroom flat above the kebab shop. There was:

  • Debbie,  curly-haired aspiring singer from Cape Town, who aroused the passions of the local drunks in the nearby pub, when she sang show tunes for them (and who rejected my advances on the living room couch)
  • Jacqui,  a lovely ‘older’ woman (she was in her 40s to my late-2os) with a high-pitched voice, red-cheeked face, who took up the violin with great passion
  • Joe, a googly-eyed school assistant, drug fiend and cyclist, fond of opium-dealing in our living room, whilst quietly building a North London property portfolio
  • A good-looking Spanish guy (his name has disappeared from memory) who received phone calls on our landline from Europe at all hours of the night and whom I distinctly remember hating.
  • Two Israeli girls, one fond of loud bonking (though not with me), the other…sleeping (she worked the 11pm to 7am shift at John Lewis)
  • and many others whom have disappeared in the marijuana haze.

I remember those flat-sharing days in much the same way as  Clive James recalls his formative months in London with poignancy, hilarity, shocking embarrasment and a great deal of nostalgia.

There was also plenty of rejection and a fair degree of loneliness too among those years.

I recall being turned down for half a dozen other flat-shares,  inviting places with big open plan lounges, people that dressed well and leafy gardens.

I remember those experiences like Clive James wrote them, where each incumbent resident “wants to interview you personally before okaying you for the shortlist, after which the final selection is by written examination”.

In the end, I think I got the room in the shabby flat above the kebab shop because no one else wanted it, but at the time it was a cause for major celebration: London, I had arrived!

The flat is no longer there, given way to some apartment development, but the bridge club has remained.

And the kebab shop, where I paid frequent late night visits drunk or stoned, is still there, serving its greasy fare.

Threshold to the Kingdom: Art, MH17 and sudden departures and arrivals

In November 2001 I visited the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the East End of London.

In a darkened room  I watched a video art installation called “Threshold to the Kingdom” by the acclaimed British artist Mark Wallinger

It showed the gates at an airport arrivals hall opening and closing in super slow motion as passengers emerged and made their way home after a long overseas flight.

In the background, rang out the 500-year-old chant of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus‘ – a psalm about a man asking for God’s forgiveness written to be sung in the Sistine Chapel.

Their slow movements and the haunting music transformed the arriving passengers into poised, graceful dancers, as if each movement of arm and leg were in perfect rhythm.

(A 3 min excerpt of the 13 minute art work)

I remember being completely mesmerised,  in a state of Zen-like contemplation: I saw the passengers coming through the automatic gates as angels arriving into some earthly heaven, not one full of puffy white clouds and cherubs playing harps.

This  interpretation may sound strange, but it was only two months earlier that I had walked back to work in the West End and watched with sheer disbelief as jet planes crashed into the World Trade Centre towers in New York, bursting into balls of red and orange flame, obliterating lives in an instant.

In that darkened art gallery room, I thought of people that never arrived and those they left behind in airport arrival halls.

The recent shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH 17  brought the memory of that London afternoon vividly back in my mind.

As I did back in 2001, I think now of all those bright, happy people, returning from family holidays or on their way to an exciting destination- and then gone in an instant, never to arrive at their final point of disembarkation.

Perhaps they have not disappeared, but have arrived someplace else. It is that feeling which “Threshold to the Kingdom” instilled in me so powerfully.

Daily Telegraph art critic Martin Gayford  wrote of the effect of the artwork:

 It gets its strange power from the conflation of Allegri’s soaringly spiritual music with the banal, anonymous setting of an international airport. Yes, the gates of heaven might be like this – ordinary, yet marvellous.

Reflecting on all the families and friends of the passengers of flight MH 17 dealing with their overwhelming, unbargained for grief, I remember “Threshold to the Kingdom” with ever greater poignancy.

It seems a fitting memorial to the victims of MH 17 as it was back then – in my mind – to the victims of 9/11.


The full, haunting version of Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei, Deus:

Back on my bike: Of Essendon Station bicycle vandals and London memories

3645939622_505a2122f2A quick post to faithful readers of my blog, of which I hope there are a few.

I’ve been off air for a while moving house and getting set up with a new internet provider.

Moving has necessitated me buying a bicycle and cycling to the train station at Essendon, about 5 kilometres away, a 10 to 15 minute bike ride depending on how fast I’m pedaling.

It’s been a long time since I’ve cycled regularly and it’s not been the best of experiences to date.

Last Friday night I came back to Essendon Station late after going to the rugby and as I was wheeling my bicycle down the platform, a police officer asked me if I had a lock on my bike as they were on the lookout for thieves – they had set up an unlocked, previously stolen bicycle as a trap.

The news was somewhat unsettling.

Returning to pick up my bike on Monday after work, I found the plastic cover on my lock had been ripped off, apparently, I figure, so that someone could try and manipulate the lock.

On Tuesday evening I returned to the station to find one of the brackets that keep my front wheel on lifted up and the front brake cable pulled out of position, rendering the brakes useless.

These incidents angered me and I could just about imagine a couple of young punks in hoodies, messing with my bike out of boredom or frustration at not being able to steal it. I hope they fall on the train tracks!

Tonight I parked it across the road from the station in the Rose Street shopping strip and it seems to have been left untouched.

Hopefully this new spot – under the gaze of shopkeepers and with constant passing foot traffic – will ensure my bike remains the state in which I leave it in the morning.

I’ve been tempted to put a note on it saying:

“Dear bicycle thieves. This bike cost only $200. Please try steal a more expensive one!”

It’s not quite the London experience I recall, the last time I cycled regularly.

I bought a cheap bike at this enormous French sports store called Decathalon somewhere near Docklands and pedaled it back all the way to Golders Green in north London.

I remember the first time a double-decker bus loomed up behind me, it was terrifying.

But I soon grew used to the buses and London cabs, the traffic build-up on Finchley Road and the other mad cyclists, weaving in and out of the traffic and thundering down the road at crazy speeds.

Cycling was best in the summer, those long London days when it was light till 10pm and I would head out through Soho, up through the cobbled streets towards Goodge Street, sometimes detouring through Regents Park to read a book on the grass for an hour or two or just to people watch. Sometimes I’d cycle past Lords cricket ground with its UFO-like media centre hovering above the stands and then up through Finchley, whizzing past the O2 Centre and then into the thigh-burning upwards climb towards Cricklewood and down into Golders Green.

On other occasions I’d chose a route through grimey Camden Town, but then up the steep climb through the wealthy, leafier, cafe-lined suburbs of Chalk Farm, Belsize Park and Hampstead, zooming down North End way (where once I lost my back and front lights over a bump, the gadgets smashing into pieces on the road) and passed Golders Tube Station.

Sometimes on a Sunday’s I’d hop on my bike and explore the East End with no definite destination in mind (though always with my A-Z guide just in case) exploring the quiet streets, stopping for a pint in a pub and taking detours on a whim.

Other times I’d cycle along the Thames, stopping to eat a sandwich in a park near the river.

Great memories.

My ride now is not quite historic, passed largely uninspiring suburbia, but dotted with a few appealing, squat California bungalows and Victorian-era relics, slowing down at traffic circles, freewheeling where I can and mostly alert to the rushing early morning traffic.

It’s good to finally be doing some regular exercise and feeling the wind rushing past my face.

Let’s hope the bicycle vandals don’t spoil my fun.

The junkie in literature: A review of “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” by Thomas De Quincey

confessons of an english opium eaterConfessions of an English Opium-Eater” written by Thomas De Quincey in 1821 is the third book I have read as part of my mini-project examining the portrayal of the junky in literature.

The first book I read was “Monkey Grip” by Australian writer Helen Garner, about a single mother in love with a heroin junkie and writer/artist set in Melbourne in the 1970s.

The second was “Junky” by William S. Burroughs, an autobiographical tale of his life as a heroin addict in New York, New Orleans and Mexico City in the 1940s.

“Confessions of an English Opium Eater” takes place in London, Manchester and the remote English countryside of the early 19th century.

It’s a remarkable novella – only about a 100 pages in length – not the least because it gives a glimpse into the life of a drug addict nearly 200 years ago in a very prudish age, at a time when the idea of an English gentlemen meant that you never speak of such abhorrent things.

The book is not just an investigation and illustration of opium use and its effects on the mind and body, but also social commentary on what it means to be a bright, sensitive outsider in an English society of order, privilege and class.

In fact a lot of the book is not about opium at all, but about the events leading up to De Quincey’s addiction including a period of eight years when he took opium in controlled amounts and which enriches his experience of the world:

“Here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle and piece of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.”

The book also serves as a 19th century guide about what opium is, what it does to you and also to dispel some of the myths and there is the familiar warning that comes with all tales of addiction.

Apart from affirming that opium is a “dusky brown in colour”, De Quincey says:

“If you eat a good deal of it, most probably you must do what is particularly disagreeable to any man of regular habits, viz., die.”

Throughout the book, De Quincey comes across as a man both ahead of his time and out-of-place.

Ahead of his time, because he is willing to take the reader on his journey into opium addiction and out-of-place, because though an intelligent, educated man, with a seemingly bright future, he shuns his place in society and chooses to tramp around England and Wales. He is as comfortable speaking in Greek as he is in the company of a prostitute.

De Quincey is sometimes an infuriating storyteller – he constantly apologises for what is about to tell and frequently tells the reader that he must spare the full details of his pain and suffering because it would not be proper (one must constantly bear in mind the epoch the book was written in).

As for the true pain of opium, you have to wait until you’re about three-quarters of the way through the book to reach the part where a stomach ailment forces him into “eating” high dosages of opium.

At first though his opium use is controlled giving him a sense of “halcyon calm, a tranquility that seemed no product of inertia”.

He later remarks:

“I ought to be ill, I never was better in my life than in the spring of 1812; and I hope sincerely that the quantity of claret, port…which in all probability you, good reader, have taken…may as little disorder your health as mine was disorded by the opium I had taken for eight years between 1804 and 1812.”

But then in a state of “unutterable irritation of the stomach” he becomes a heavy and daily user of opium, when it starts having a “palsying (paralysing) effect” on his intellectual faculties.

This the most fascinating part of the book, because De Quincey experiences an unusual form of suffering though his dreams and nightmares, which take on a surreal and bizarre quality that would not be out-of-place in painting by Salvador Dali.

This is where does his best writing, describing his dreams with their strange juxtapositions:

“I wa buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the hear of eternal pyramids. I was kissed by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”

His “oriental dreams” (the oriental man is one feared at the time for his strangeness) are “monstrous” and fill him with “hatred and abomination” with the main agents being “ugly birds, or snakes or crocodiles”.

The crocodile is a recurring image in his dreams:

“The cursed crocodile became to me the object of more horror than almost all the rest. I was compelled to live with him for centuries.”

The dream imagery is astonishing given we are a hundred years before Freud’s theories about dreams and the unconscious, and no doubt Freud would have enjoyed analysing De Quincey’s dreams and his state of mind.

The horror and terror of nightly visions culminates in his declaration:

And I awoke in struggles, and cried aloud – “I will sleep no more.”

As with the moment in “Junky” when William S. Burroughs looks in the mirror and realises he is hooked on heroin, De Quincey reaches a point where he cannot give up, though he wishes to and knows that the drug will kill him.

Somehow he devises a way to succeed – he comes up with a method of reducing his usage of opium (the dosages are recorded in the appendix) though he also suffers relapses.

Outside of the book, I read that De Quincey, having overcome his addictions, got married and fathering eight children, though only three daughters survived him.

He is remembered principally for this book, but also as an essayist and social commentator.

“Confessions of an English Opium Eater” beautifully and horribly conveys the journey into addiction and suffering at a time when such things were not discussed in a very prudish, conservative age.

But many modern-day junkies I suspect would wholly identify with his nightmares and sufferings.

A review of “The Finkler Question” or how I contemplated a return to the synagogue

I cannot recall a book I have read that has moved me more to contemplate a return visit to the synagogue (I have not been back for many years), but I have an urge to do just that after reading “The Finkler Question”.

And not for religious reasons, though that may sound odd. But for nostalgia’s sake, to hear the old tunes and sing along.

“The Finkler Question” is a tragic-comedic novel written by English writer Howard Jacobson that won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2010.

“Finkler” refers to one of the characters – a popular jewish philosopher, writer and television personality called Sam Finkler – and also is the word used by Julian Treslove, the main protaganist of the novel, to describe all jews – he calls them “finklers”.

Julian Treslove, 49, is educated, intelligent and middle class, living in the part of Hampstead (a wealthy, predominantly Jewish suburb of North London) “that is not in Hampstead” – an often-repeated joke in the novel.

He regards himself, with a degree of complacency, as a failure of a man, as someone who never achieved much. He has two sons by different women, who left him before they gave birth (all women leave Treslove once they get to know him) and he has played no part in raising his children, and even dislikes them.

Once a radio producer of late-night music shows no one listened to on the BBC, he now earns his living impersonating celebrities like Brad Pitt, not because he looks so much like them, but because he does bear some passing resemblance to a lot of famous people, though no one in particular. An older American women who picks him up at a party, confuses him for Colin Firth.

The other principle character is Libor Sevcik, an 80-year-old Czech-born jew, former biographer of Hollywood stars who managed to resist the charms of Marilyn Monroe (she would ring him at odd hours because she could never figure out timezones), Jane Russell and other glamourous icons who confided and tempted him, and yet he remained faithful to his beloved, but very needy wife Malkie.

Both Sam Finkler and  Libor Sevcik are recently widowed. Finkler misses his wife Tyler, though not desperately (he regards having an affairs as an acceptable male compulsion) while Libor is deeply sad at the loss of his wife and companion.

The friendship between the three men is the central plot of the novel  as indeed is the notion of friendship, loss, guilt and loyalty.

But, at it’s heart ‘The Finkler Question’ is about Julian Treslove’s obssession with all things Jewish and his desire to penetrate, understand and become accepted into the mysterious but always scrutinised Jewish race.

He suffers the ignomy of being mugged by a woman in central London who he believes utters the words: ‘You Ju?” and comes to the conclusion that she mistook him for a jew or for his friend Finkler. But he can’t be sure.

The book really is about the “jewish question”. There are a number of anti-semitic incidents, which bring the idea of Jewish identity into sharp focus.

Jacobsen through his characters, is questioning what it means to be a jew in the modern age and all those things that bind one jew to another – the “jew-dar” as Treslove asks of his Jewish girlfriend Hephzibah.

And there’s all the other contemporary Jewish themes – Zionism, family, tradition and history explored in the stories of the three men.

And there is the food of course, which brings them all together, whether it’s the seder meal or the lunch prepared by Hephzhibah:

“‘What’s good,’ said Finkler “is this…” He reached for more of everything. Herring in red wine. Herring in white wine, herring in cream, sour cream, vinegar, herring curled around an olive with toothpics through them, herring chopped in what was said to be a new way and of course chopped still in the old…and then the pickled meat, the pastrami, the smoked salmon, the egg and onion, the chopped liver, the cheese that had no taste, the blintses, the tsimmes, the cholent.”

Treslove wants to be a part of this community.  But always feels excluded. No matter how many words of yiddish he learns.

He is forever the non-Jewish outsider – the goy, the gentile – trying to get in, marvelling at it all, such as when he falls in love with Libor’s grand-niece Hephzibabh:

“He thought his heart would break with love for her. She was so Jewish…For his part he was ready to jump right in. Then and There. Marry me. I’ll do whatever has to be done. I’ll study. I’ll be circumcised. Just marry me and make Finkler jokes.”

Alongside the humour, there’s the anxiety, the worry, and the guilt all beautfiully written by Howard Jacobsen in his wonderful prose.

And it is all these elements that make me think about being a jew, though I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue or even fast on Yom Kippur, I feel part of the community, like all Finklers.

The Finkler Question poses so many questions, it is about the mystery of being a jew and it’s that mystery that makes people want to be jews and to be rid of them in equal measure.

If there is one telling paragraph that sums up the book and what Jacobsen is trying to convey it’s this, as pondered by Julian Treslove:

“You could divide the world into those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews. The bad times were simply those in which the former outnumbered the latter.”

And sometimes, you want to feel connected again by singing the Shabbat songs in synagogue on a Saturday morning, or attend the Passover seder and swap stories of the exodus from Egypt and ask the Four Questions – whether you believe in God or not.

Better, faster: Has the modern age spoiled the romance of travel?

Have you ever pondered what it must have been like travelling across the world more than a century ago?

 When there were no aeroplanes, let alone long-distance flights or high-speed trains or even the ability to experience a faraway place through cinema, television or Google Streetview?

Take for instance a trip from London to Mandalay, Burma.

If you lived in Central London you’d take a cab, or catch the tube or take the Heathrow express to the airport.  Maybe it would take you 40 minutes. You’d check in, spend an hour or two perusing duty free, stocking up on magazines, flight remedies and sweets and then you’d be off.

Your Thai Airways flight departs just after midday on a Wednesday. After a stopover in Bangkok, where you have time for an overpriced green curry and a Chang beer, you board the plane again and touch down in Rangoon (Yangon) on Thursday around 9am.

 Its 700 kilometres north on the expressway to Mandalay.

You feel brave and a bit adventurous so you hire a car. En route you stop to visit an ancient pagoda and to take in the Shan hills in the distance. You arrive at your hotel in Mandalay just before 7pm.

It’s taken you a little more than a day and half to travel 11,000kms. You kick off your shoes, order a meal from room service, jet lag sets in and you drift off to sleep dreaming of pagodas, the London tube and football.

Rewind 126 years.

 It’s 1886.

A London piano tuner named Edgar Drake sets out from London to a remote town in the Shan Hills of Eastern Burma to repair a piano belonging to surgeon-major and rogue British officer Anthony Carroll.

 The British empire is fighting for control of Burma.

Drake’s journey from London to the wilds of Burma begins on the 26 November.

A horse-drawn carriage picks him up in the early hours of the morning from his elegant terraced home in Fitzroy Square, Central London, a home he shares with his dutiful wife Katherine, not far from Regents Park.

The carriage drives him east to Royal Albert Dock (now London’s Docklands) on the Thames, a journey of about 11 kilometres.

Here he boards a waiting steam ship, belching smoke from its stack, which sets off up the Thames at about 17 knots (30 km/hr).

It travels all the way along the Thames until it reaches the Thames Estuary – a journey of about 60kms with Essex to the North and Kent to the South and then enters the cold North Sea.

It heads south through the English Channel and arrives in Calais, France a few hours later.

From here Drake takes a train 292 kilometres south to Paris, but he has no time to stroll the famous boulevards of the French capital as he boards another train for a 770 kilometre journey further south to the port city of Marseille on the Mediterranean coast of France.

It’s 1886 so the train travels around 100 km/hr at top speed reaching Marseille eight hours later.

In Marseille he boards another ship and heads across the Mediterranean telling Katherine in a letter: “How I wish you could see the beauty of these waters! They are a blue like none that I have seen before.”

The ship passes through the Strait of Bonifacio, which runs between the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, where Drake gets his first view of the Italian coastline. He passes Palermo and then Malta and arrives in Alexandria, Egypt five days after he left London. A blind Arab man called “the man with one story” tells a fantastical tale of being ship-wrecked in the desert, of tribes and tents and feasts.

The ship docks for a few hours and then heads east along the Egyptian coast to Port Said, where it enters the Suez Canal and travels south to the Red Sea

 Edgar Drake’s ship passes what is now the western shore of Saudi Arabia, crosses the straits of Bab al Mandab and drops anchor at Aden, a harbour “full of steamers destined for all over the world, in whose shadows tin Arab dhows darted beneath lateen sails”.

 Two days later, he passes the island of Elephanta, where the Hindu worship an “Elephant with Many Arms” and into the teeming harbour of Bombay (now Mumbai) where vessels of every size and description bob about. A carriage takes him to the railways station and to platforms full of people, “crowds such as he has never seen in London”.

The train takes him north east into the Indian interior. He passes Nashik, Bhusawal and Jabalpur – the names growing “stranger and more melodic”

When the train stops vendors descend at “wind-beaten, lonely stations” and thrust “pungent plates of curried meats, the sour smell of lime and betel, jewellery, fans, picture postcards of castles…”

Vendors hang onto the train as leaves until prised off by a policeman’s baton.

The train passes the holy city of Varanasi and they arrive in Calcutta, in West Bengal after three days, a journey of 2,200 kilometres.

Here he boards a ship for Rangoon (Yangon), travelling along the “muddly outflow of the Ganges and into the Bay of Bengal.

 Three days later the ship gets its first sighting of Burma, via a “lighthouse perched on a tall red stone tower” which guards against the reef, a graveyard for many passing ships; they pass buoys and head up the Rangoon River.

The ship winds its way around sandbanks and sharp bends, where Edgar gets his first sighting of the gold-painted Schwedagon pagoda capping a distant hill. Rising 99 metres into the air, it is the epicentre of Rangoon.

 He is a delayed in Rangoon for four days by British military bureaucracy – he goes hunting in the jungle with officers. There is an incident. A young Burmese villager is shot by mistake.

A few days later Edgar boards a teak ship to Prome (Pyay), and travels up the Rangoon River, a journey of around 350 kilometres passing the Pegu Hills –  a range of low mountains before the dense foliage changes to “thorny trees and toddy palms”

Here he goes sightseeing to the ruins of Pagan, the ancient capital of a kingdom that had ruled Burma for years.

 Up a dusty path he walks until he gets the “finest view in all Pagan”:

 “…a vast field of pagodas that stretch away from the river to the distant mountains, floating in the dust and smoke of burning rice fields”

 “What are those mountains?” Edgar asks a soldier

 “The Shan Hills, Mr Drake. Finally we can see them.”

 The next morning they arrive in Mandalay.

Delayed for many days in Mandalay because the town of Mae Lwin – his final destination – is under attack, he writes to Katherine:

 “I spend hours looking out at the Shan hills, trying to decide how to describe them for you…I wander the markets, following the flow of ox-carts and parasols along the rutted roads, or I sit by the river watching the fishermen, waiting for the steamer for Rangoon that would bring news of my departure or bring me home.”

 And here we leave piano tuner Edgar Drake, who will eventually journey through the jungle and hinterland of Burma to an uncertain fate, travelling first by elephant and then on foot.

You see Mae Lwin, does not really exist, nor does Edgar Drake.

 Both are a creation of Daniel Mason in his novel “The Piano Tuner”.

 But the journey itself is accurate.

 It is taken Drake and any other English gentlemen of that time many weeks from closing the front door of a London terrace to waking up in the pungent air of Mandalay, where woman have painted faces, called Thanaka that runs down their cheeks.

 It has been a journey of horse-drawn coaches, steamships, trains and river boats.

 He has seen many strange and wondrous things, watched the world change in front of his eyes.

And today, we hop on a plane, watch a movie, close our eyes, order another wine if we can’t sleep and wake up in a new world with all that is  it in between the start and the finish missed out.

To experience the world, we must slow ourselves down. Choose a slower mode of transport. Allow ourselves time.

But who has time to spare these days – even if we hold the latest iphone in our hand?