Sunday, April 08, 2007

Travelogue: April 1, 2007

Maybe They Can Teach Me to Be a Proper Gentleman?

I met up with Tom today (previously mentioned in this space) and met his friend Kitty from Kings, along with her sisters Lily and Bella. Collectively, these 3 sisters are the poshest-named family I've ever come across. Everything about their manner is consistent with this. They live in a home in Mayfair, across the street from the Sultan of Brunei (that guy whose main residence is a 1700-room palace that's bigger than the Vatican). Outside their house is a sign that says "Fight discrimination: repeal the ban!" I thought to myself, what ban could that be? The headscarf ban was in France. Tom explained: a more complete version of the sign would read "Fight discrimination against the wealthy: repeal the ban on fox hunting!" Though actually, this is apparently a very heated issue...a protest about the ban broke down into fistfights last year. The 3 sisters are actually the only residents of the home: their parents live in the country, and keep the London house for the girls while they're all in school.

As we headed out for the afternoon, Bella lamented that she had hurt her feet by walking around in uncomfortable shoes the night before, and was stuck wearing a "dreadful" pair of boots. The boots, of course, looked like positively glamorous formal riding wear to me, but hey, what do I know?

As we passed the stables in Hyde Park, one of the girls scoffed, "The horses in Hyde Park are such nags. I mean, I barely like reading my own horses, why would anyone want to ride those things?" The conversation then turned to horses, polo, and other things that seem very interesting to me but that I know absolute nothing about. Horses are pretty. I like them. Yep, sure do.

I should follow all this up by saying that they were quite nice, and made for quite good conversation. I liked them all, and I didn't think they were being intentionally ostentatious or anything like that. Still, one can't help but feel a little class consciousness in such company.

God Save the Queen...or I Will Take God Down

There was one exchange today that I found to be incredibly revealing about British society. As we were sitting in the pub, having a few pints, Tom got a text message reading, "Mate, have you heard? The Queen died." A pallor fell over the whole group. They very immediately realized it was likely an April Fool's joke, as there's no way they wouldn't have already seen or heard it somewhere, but the reaction was palpable. This was not perceived as an appropriate joke, and Tom called his friend and gave him a bit of a railing for making it. Monarchy seems like this totally alien concept to most Americans, and totally anachronistic but it's pretty clear that for these people, you do not fuck with the Queen.

"Release Our Seamen!"

I went with Tom and the ladies to a protest outside the Iranian embassy to call for the release of the 15 British Navy soldiers being held by the Iranian government, with a dispute over whose waters they were actually in at the time they were captured (editor's note: after being compelled to declare their own guilt on camera for the Iranians, the British soldiers have since been returned to the UK unharmed). One entertaining part of this whole crisis, by the way, has been seeing all of the amazing yellow journalism in the British papers. After the Iranian government started releasing videos of the captive soldiers admitting to invading Iranian territorial waters, the UK papers responded with headlines like, "Who do you think you're kidding, Mr. Ahmadinejad?" and "Our soldiers forced to lie by the Iranian cowards." It's like William Randolph Hearst is still running the papers. Many of the English people I talked to about this couldn't understand how headlines would look any different in the U.S.

Anyhow, about 20 of us collected outside the Iranian embassy in Knightsbridge, waved amusing signs in the air (Tom had been planning his since we had lunch 3 hours earlier), and chanted various things at the impassive building across the street. The London Police officially moved us across the street early on, but a few sympathetic officers kept letting us creep more and more into the street to get cars attention and solicit some honks. A good time in spite of the low turnout, but I think we have a lot to learn about protests from the Iranians themselves, who managed to turn their own government's aggressive act into an excuse to throw firecrackers and rocks at the British embassy in Tehran. Yeah, that'll learn the Brits for asking for their own soldiers back.

For the record, we ultimately declined to create another sign that would read, "Apply heavy-handed pressure until they release our seamen!"

Clausewitz Trained on a 19th Century Battleship Game

Went deep into Zone 5 of South London to visit with some of the War Studies folks for dinner and drinks this evening, and spent much of our time at a pub with a healthy board game collection. Alex, 80s Tom, and I got there early, and decided to immediately indulge all our old War Studies instincts. There wasn't enough time for a full round of Risk before the ladies arrived, so Battleship it was. We approached that game like a strategy exercise in a military academy. Look at that intensity. Look at that focus. No, this was no mere game at all. This was the culmination of everything that Carl von Clausewitz and Lao Tzu (patron saints of the KCL War Studies program) stood for. A game like Battleship is the ingenious product of a truly militarized society. The perfect way to prepare our youngsters for the inevitable conflict ahead. "Ender's Game" is just an extension of whatever Battleship started.

And really, it was a good way to capture being 8 years old again. Alex emerged as champion, triumphing over both Tom and myself with his ingenious and counterintuitive grouping strategies. Man, Alex wouldn't have let 15 British Navy soldiers be captured by Iran, that's for damn sure.

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