(I think I've realized that I'm dragging out these travelogues because writing them lets me reminisce in detail, pretending I'm still in London, pretending it's not yet over. Sigh.)
Monday, 10/24, AM. Split-up. Nerdery. Frustration. The Southeastern Line. Swanley. English Leather.
The split-up. Every now and then even the most loving of couples needs a break, and today was a day that Sturdy Helpmeet™ and I had set aside to go have separate adventures until it was time to meet for dinner. I got up early and caught the train; she slept in and went to the Museum of London and did some shopping. I did some shopping too, among other things. I just had to catch the train to do it.
Nerdery. Today's adventure begins 30 years ago with a boy, 12 years old, who's just realized that if he pesters his parents and grandparents often enough, he can see Raiders of the Lost Ark three or four times in a single summer. In the next year, he will acquire a fedora and a bullwhip* of his own. He will read about archaeology, including Heinrich Schliemann and the discovery of Troy, in Ceram's Gods, Graves, and Scholars. He will take to searching for lost bits of junk in the overgrown drainage creeks that lace the local suburbs. His love of science fiction and popular science will learn to cohabit with a world of divine mysteries that lurk in everything old, exotic, and strange.
In short, he'll grow up to be me.** And a year ago this overgrown kid decided he'd really like to have a leather jacket, because leather jackets are cool.***
Frustration. I shopped the department stores and the leather goods outlets, and I never found quite what I wanted. The department-store goods were a little too sleek and urban, or else they were festooned with chrome gizmos for wannabe Hell's Angels. A real motorcycle jacket was a possibility, but still too fancy, and besides, I don't ride. Then there's the whole leather blazer/trenchcoat look, which I didn't think I could pull off. (And the less said about dusters and fringe, the better.) I was looking for something with a classic collar, cargo pockets, and no elastic cuffs or waist (i.e. not an aviator or bomber style). It turned out to be remarkably hard to find, and when I did find something that seemed in the ballpark, it would invariably cost a thousand dollars.
It wasn't long before I confessed to myself that I didn't want just any jacket: I had a jones for a Jones. The Internet even said I could have one for a reasonable price. But there were two problems. One, I'd have to order it from England. And two, I'd have to get my measurements taken by someone who knew what they were doing. The first issue was a problem because if I didn't like the product, returning it would be a hassle, and even if I liked the product I'd have the embarrassment of knowing that I was such a huge nerd that I'd ordered a movie prop from a foreign country just to make myself feel cool.
The second issue was a problem because I was 50-75 pounds overweight, depending on how charitable you wanted to be, and what looks stupider than a fat man walking around in cosplay?**** A fat man going to the Men's Wearhouse just to get measured for cosplay he intends to order off the Internet, that's what.
Really. I mean...really.
So I found a nice extra-large jacket on deep discount at a local department store, and I was very happy with it. I wore it all winter and for as much of the following spring as I could before the weather got too warm.
But now it was a year later. I'd lost over fifty pounds, I was in London, and I had a day to kill and an itch to scratch.*****
The Southeastern Line. But first I had to get on the right train. I'd purchased a ticket on the Southeastern line on Saturday (I didn't yet trust my understanding of the Oyster Card and it's relation to the national rail system), but on Monday morning I was clueless about where to go. I searched the arrival and departure boards at Victoria Station in vain for Swanley. Eventually I asked for help, which wasn't very helpful because the information guy just told me I was referring to the wrong booklet, and gave me a different booklet, which did nothing to help me find the right platform.
But soon I understood that in my nervous anxiety about missing the train, I'd shown up too early for Swanley to be posted on the boards. Time passed, Swanley appeared, and I caught the train without incident. (Surely there's a lesson here about making things harder than they need to be by expecting complexity in the wrong places.)
The ride itself was illuminating—looking into so many back yards and playing fields and community gardens and industrial parks and little streets full of little shops, not to mention the occasional rolling hill and brief burst of woodland—it reminded me how much you miss just by running around in one city, playing the tourist. It's hard to imagine a better place to be a tourist than London, but it's like being wrapped in cellophane. Nearly all your interactions are with people hired to cater to tourists and the elite business class, and they're very good at it, swaddling you in clean cultural plastic engineered to minimize friction and fuss. As the train neared Swanely I felt the cellophane begin to peel away.
Swanley. After debarking at the Swanley rail station, I shouldered my backpack and took a long walk through the center of town. Swanley reminds me of the kind of bedroom community/suburb I grew up in. Half an hour in one direction, and you're in the city; fifteen minutes in the other, and it's farmland and pasture. There's retail and a bit of light industry, lots of churches and residential neighborhoods, a big store called "ASDA" (that proudly advertises its affiliation with Wal-Mart) and a Jehovah's Witness hall. Among the small shops and restaurants lining the main street I spotted a place called Caffe Cinos and made a note to return for coffee after my mission was done.
The sky was clear, the sun was bright, and you could tell the chill in the air would lift before the morning was over. Most things were green, with a few leaves starting to turn color for the fall. At one point I hopped on a railing to get out of the way of a sidewalk-cleaning machine (I'd call it a street-sweeper, after the large devices I've seen in the US, but this one was tiny and designed for driving on sidewalks). The driver and I exchanged a friendly wave as he went past, and I then I hopped down and continued my walk.
I crossed the A20 on London Road and briefly imagined myself as Jeremy Clarkson preparing to do something stupid in a high-visibility jacket.
On Wested Lane I turned right and passed through a small industrial park before finding myself on a one-lane country road bordered with trees and hedgerows on either side. The walk seemed to take forever, time stretched thin by nervous anticipation. I saw a sign announcing a public footpath, so I took it and emerged into a pasture filled with birdsong and overlooking Swanley. I saw hanging from tree branches small memorials to loved ones killed on the road. I saw the drivers of oncoming cars react with peeved consternation to finding a damned pedestrian on the far side of a blind turn.
English Leather. And then I saw Wested Leather, a modest workshop and storefront that looks like it would be at home in any small Texas town, the kind of place that would be advertised as "Famous" by a faded ten- or twenty-year-old billboard by the side of the highway at the city limits if it was in the USA, but in Swanley it's just there, nestled in a gap in the hedgerows, invisible until you're on top of it.
Finding the right jacket took ten or fifteen minutes. The young woman at the counter was friendly and helpful in response to my "I know I'm being a huge geek but I've wanted to try one of these Indy jackets for ages," and I only spent about five minutes total being terrified because I was convinced that they lots of "one size too big" and lots of "one size too small" and none of "just right." But then I found the Chosen Garment, and all was well.******
I felt like a colossal nerd pervert—a nerdvert, if you will—flush with the mixed thrills of shame and victory at having finally found a knowledgeable and sympathetic pornographer. Embarrassed to want something so silly so much, but thrilled to get it.
As she rang up the jacket, the saleswoman asked where I was from. "Texas," I told her. "Oh, I bet that's a really busy, fast-paced kind of place," she replied, sounding impressed. My brain curdled for a moment, since most of Texas is scrub and dirt, and London, which is right up the road after all, puts every place I've ever been in my life to shame.*******
"Well," I said. "Texas is just small towns for the most part. Places where some roads or some railroad tracks come together. Small communities, small businesses. In fact, Swanley is a lot like a lot of Texas towns, except it's green and it isn't on fire."
And I meant it. London is enthralling, but in Swanley I found myself relaxing, feeling surrounded by people whose lives weren't organized around catering to tourists. Of course, it's possible that Wested Leather gets more tourists than I realize—selling an Indiana Jones jacket may well have that effect—but by the time we were done I felt tremendously at ease. I folded the jacket up carefully, placed it in my backpack, and left.
Then I popped my earbuds in and set my Zune******* to play the soundtrack to Raiders of the Lost Ark, because I am totally that big a nerd.
* You know that thing Indy does at the beginning of Raiders, where he wraps the whip around a tree branch and then swings from it? You can totally do that. The 30-foot tall Anubis statue, however, is a bit more difficult.
** This is how bad it is: it's taken me two weeks not to write you a lengthy confessional essay about my personal relationship with Indiana Jones.
*** Fezzes are cool, too, as proven by John Rhys-Davies, not to mention the amazing Kevork Malikyan ("Kazim") in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (By comparison Doctor Who's a gate-crashing latecomer to the fez party.)
**** Be honest. You were hoping for Sailor Moon, weren't you?
***** I tried very hard to talk myself out of this. I told myself what I big geek I was being. I reminded myself of all the problematic racism, sexism, and colonialism implicit in the Indiana Jones movies. And shouldn't I spend the money to support, say, Occupy Wall Street? Or UNICEF? In the end I just talked myself into it.
****** Imagine a classic shopping montage (TV Tropes!) followed by a verse of "I feel pretty, oh so pretty...."
******* Except maybe New York and San Francisco. But still. London. And of course Texas has a natural beauty of its own, but it's not bustling cosmopolitan world-historical urban beauty.
******** Yeah, that's right, a Zune. Fuck you.
The Electric Smack Shack
If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn.
- Belated observations from Londinium #4a