Saturday, September 30, 2006

Just A Bit More Art

Find this image vaguely familiar? Of course you do. Especially all you fans of Desperate Housewives out there. This is a picture depicting Adam and Eve by the Renaissance painter Lukas Cranach the Elder, which forms part of the permanent collection at London's Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, which I visited earlier today. And the link to Desperate Housewives? Well, you may recall the opening sequence, which begins with the Adam and Eve imagery, followed by comic depictions of other famous iconic art works featuring a man and a woman.
In fact, I believe Cranach composed a few versions of Adam and Eve, and the one that formed the basis for the Desperate Housewives sequence may have been based more upon this portrait in Florence's Uffizi gallery, rather than the one I saw today. But I'm sure you can see the similarities between both representations. Eve holds in her hand, tantalisingly, the apple, while Adam wears nothing but a perplexed look on his face.
I was glad to have made the trip to the Courtauld Gallery today. I stumbled upon it only in 2003, and visited it twice that year. It's a little gem in the Somerset House complex at the Strand in London. Set just opposite Somerset House is Bush House, home of the BBC World Service, which listeners in Singapore are able to listen on high-quality FM transmission.
You cannot begin to imagine the artistic treasures that the Courtauld contains. Especially this Impressionist masterpiece by Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. It shows a bar lady, for lack of a better term, who gazes enigmatically outwards, her blank, even sad expression a stark contrast with the celebratory mood of the salon. We see her reflection as well, and she's apparently in conversation with a mustachioed gentleman in a top hat.
Now, you can tell in an instant the disconnect between the image which faces us, and the supposed reflection. One doesn't seem linked to the other at all. Their relative positions would be different, if it were a true and accurate reflection. I've not read up much into this, but my own take is that while her reflection shows what she's actually doing, we see instead from her empty veneer that she's hardly engaged at all. Instead, her mind's elsewhere. She's would rather not be there. Something's troubling her, perhaps. Read estrangement, alienation, and detachment.

After my visit to Somerset House, I took a pretty long walk down the Strand towards Trafalgar Square, whereupon I turned into Whitehall, passing by the great buildings of the British state, heading for Westminster Abbey. Alas, it closes early on Saturday. I would need to return some other day. Traversing the lovely St. James's Park, I walked past Malborough Road, before turning into Pall Mall and then up to Leicester Square and nearby Chinatown, where I had dinner at the infamous Wong Kei.
Accompanying me through the day was the Sister, who had been in London this past week. It's been nice having her around. But she left for home in the evening. And for me, it's the beginning of actual lessons next week. I think I may have to take a brief hiatus in my role-playing as tourist, and get down to some serious studying. But of course, it's been more delightful blogging about the pleasures of London. So stay tuned. In the meantime, here's an image of gruff old Winston Churchill looking at Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

My Ears Are Ringing

Right, if this happens a wee bit too often, it might get kind of unsustainable in the long term. After a hearty Indian dinner at Khan's Restaurant with the Sister, who's still in town, I met up with a group from school at O'Neill's along Upper Street, in the Islington area. It's ostensibly an unassuming Irish pub by day, but which transforms into a rather happening clubbing venue in the evenings. So, conjure up your impressions of what typically happens at such places on a Friday night. I'm still wondering how best to refer to these new people in my life, but for now, perhaps it might be safe just to say that we were a group of seven - myself, plus two Americans, two Canadians, a German and a native Brit. We've been hanging out pretty much over the past few days, so perhaps we should see more of each other in the coming term at least. Given that the class is rather large, it's nice to have a small group to hang around with.
All in all, it was also a pretty neat way to spend a nice day out...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Roast Duck

Another quick restaurant review - the Four Seasons on 84 Queenway, in the Bayswater area, near to Royal China, where I had the dim sum lunch earlier. I was there earlier this evening and managed to sink my teeth into their famous roast duck. And I can report that it definitely is as good, as yummy, as many have reported. Succulent duck, accompanied by soup, spinach, char siew and egg dishes. All in all, a very satisfying night out. Check out the reviews for the Four Seasons here, here and here.

My Modules

Well, in case anyone's remotely interested in what I'm going to be studying this coming year, here's the list of classes for which I'm planning for register:
  • Theories of International Relations
  • Public Policy Economics and Analysis
  • Qualitative and Quantitative Research Methods
  • Theories and Actors of the Policy Process
  • Globalisation and Global Governance
  • British Government and Politics
  • Governance of the Information Society

That's seven modules, comprising 70 percent of the MSc. In addition, I'll have to submit a dissertation that's worth the remaining 30 percent.

Wish me luck. It will take more than hard work.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I Hope I'm Not Getting a Hangover Tomorrow

Man, what a night. I think I've had way too much beer. Plus some wine added for good measure. But at least I'm lucid enough to sit here at my desk, a mug of coffee next to me, writing this. In the afternoon, we had two formal introductory sessions at the School, where we met some of the instructors scheduled to lecture us this coming term. This was also the first time that all the students of International Public Policy were brought together into the same room at the same time, and I was able to speak with many of them. It's a fairly big cohort, with more than 50 of us. And for those of you out there who know me, you can imagine that my name doesn't exactly register immediately in anyone's mind.
But I hit it off rather quickly with many of my fellow coursemates. There were three Canadians I met, two from Russia, two from the US, two from Germany, one from Finland, one from Ireland, and a nice, very lovely, very friendly lady from the UK. The class is clearly dominated by international students.
Many of them were rather young. I had expected that the course would attract mostly graduate students who would have some years of working experience. Instead, a majority of those I met had come straight from completing their undergraduate degrees earlier this year. But a few did have a fair bit of professional experience.
In any case, after the two afternoon talks, a group of us went out to one of the bars run by the UCL Student's Union, where, amazingly, you can get a glass of beer for just £1.60. That's the first thing I've come across in London that I can consider cheap. Thereafter, it was back to the School in the early evening, where welcome drinks had been arranged. Naturally, after that, we returned to the student's bar for another round of drinks...and I think you can work out easily my itinerary for the rest of the evening, which included stops at a pub called The Hope, and a bar at the University of London Union.
It's been great so far. I feel excited to be hitting the books again, although there is some dread at the same time. Hopefully, I'll learn much, make a few good friends, and see more of London, and of the world. I think I'm going to enjoy myself.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Into the Mousetrap

I've just returned from watching a performance of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap at the St. Martin's Theatre. How campy, how comical, and how wonderfully entertaining! This is the world's longest-running play, an institution in London's theatre heartland, opening way back in 1947 and still going strong. This report from the BBC a few years back sought to shed some light on why the play's had such incredible staying power. It's basically a classic whodunnit thriller which takes place in a manor house - a fictional setting that many of us would readily recognize. We sit there wondering whom among those present is the murderer? The Ralstons, who own the place? Their assorted house guests? Or could it be Mr Paravachini, the strange visitor who arrived unexpectedly? Could it even be the policeman, Detective Sergeant Trotter?
I do realise that I had said the school term would begin this week. And indeed it has. But the transition to reality has been more gradual than expected. Certainly no quick plunge into the deep end, for classes only begin some days later. Last week saw my enrollment into the university. This week sees more assorted orientation and induction activities, but centred this time at my School of Public Policy. I've registered formally with the School, and there are a few welcome presentations and drink sessions coming up later this week. I'm certainly looking forward to them. I've already found someone from my class who's also staying in the same hostel as me. I guess I should be seeing much of him in the coming months. Maybe there may be more of us who straddle both the School of Public Policy and Goodenough College. We'll find out soon.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Infused with Beauty

Many of you may be vaguely with this work - Millais' Ophelia. It's a prime attraction at the Tate Britain museum, which I visited today. Just a few years back, if one were to talk about visiting the Tate Gallery in London, one would have meant the current Tate Britain. Around the turn of the millennium, the Tate's extensive holdings of modern and contemporary international art were moved to the newly-opened Tate Modern down the Thames. The old gallery at Millbank was repositioned as the central showcase for British art from 1500 to the present.
I've never been to the Tate Britain before, and was glad to have made the journey today. Like another splendid attraction in the city, the Imperial War Museum, the Tate Britain lies just outside the tourist core of central London, with the nearest Tube station also a bit of a walk away. But that means you don't have to jostle for space with the thousands of other visitors, as you would often have to at the more well-known and centrally-located Tate Modern and the National Gallery. Instead, you have the chance to appreciate the artworks at your own pace, without hurry, without hassle, savouring what's on offer.
In generally quiet and well-designed galleries, the Tate Britain presents a chronological journey through the development of British art. That's where you would go to get a glimpse of great British artists such as Gainsborough, Constable, Sargent and, of course, the incomparable JMW Turner, who has an entire collection of his masterpieces on display.
One particular favourite of mine was the gallery introducing the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. This was the term used to denote the movement started in the mid-19th century by a group of British artists comprising John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and others. Rejecting the artistic conventions their time, the Pre-Raphaelites sought to hark back to a form of art and expression that was full of detail and focus, colour and, I would add, even beauty. Many turned to literature for sources of artistic inspiration.
Just look at Millais' portrayal of Ophelia, from Shakespeare's Hamlet. In the play, Ophelia was the daughter of Polonius, who was murdered by Hamlet. Utterly devastated, Ophelia slipped into a stream while collecting flowers and drowned. But her sanity had already departed earlier. The image I grabbed hardly does justice to the full richness of Millais' remarkable representation of Ophelia. A truly exquisite rendering, replete with such beauty in tragedy that one can only stand there, as I did, captivated, marveling at how subtly, how delicately even each strand and each stalk of nature was presented. It was truly, truly amazing.
As a post-script, I would add that Millais was certainly no one hit wonder. Right next to Ophelia, displayed in the same gallery, was this equally impressive image, also inspired by Shakespeare.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Suffused With Melancholy

Suffused with melancholy - that's how the late works of Modigliani have been described. Amadeo Modigliani was an early 20th Century Italian-Jewish visual artist who worked in France, living the life of an archetypal Bohemian, painting, suffering, and finally dying at only age 35 in 1920. You may recognize the distinctive and original Modigliani style - dark portraits of ladies, frequently seated, many with angular faces, an impassive demeanor, and empty eyes.
I went today with the Sister to the Royal Academy at Piccadilly, where a special exhibition on "Modigliani and his Models" was being staged. I've long been mesmerized by his haunting portraits, and once, a Modigliani painting had even been presented for sale at the Opera Gallery in Singapore's Ngee Ann City. I recall wishing that I had a million dollars to go buy myself the Modigliani to hang in my bathroom.
The exhibition at the Royal Academy brought together many of the portraits Modigliani painted during his later years. Many of them centred upon key female figures in his life then - Beatrice Hastings, with whom he had a tempestuous affair, Hanka Zborowska, the wife of his dealer, Lunia Czechowska, a friend and house guest of his dealer, and also the tragic Jeanne Hébuterne, a young lady who fell for Modigliani, and who threw herself and their unborn child to their deaths two days after Modigliani's own demise.
I wonder how many portraits in total did Modigliani create. Many of the works on display were borrowed from Moma and the Met in New York and from various private owners. The Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia which I visited earlier this year alone owns around six Modigliani portraits, but none of them were presented for this exhibition. My own favourite is an unnamed 1916 Modigliani nude that usually hangs at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, and I was happy to see it on display today. Due to exhibition restrictions, I wasn't able to capture any image of any of the works, but more information on the man and his creations can be found here - assuming that the Royal Academy does not trash the pages after the exhibition completes its run.

Sunday in the Park and More

The Sister is in town. She arrived on Saturday afternoon, and I've been spending most of the time since with her. Given that I'm here in the UK on my own, it's been nice to see a face from home. And thanks to her - errmmm - generosity, we dined last evening at Livebait, a nice seafood restaurant in the Covent Garden area. For starters, I had a delightful plate of crab cakes and potato slices. Ahhhh, and memories of Maryland return whenever I bite into crab cakes... I then had the Thai red curry as the main item, but it wasn't as spicy as I would have liked. But I don't blame the restaurant. If I had wanted authentic Thai curry, I should have dined in an authentic Thai restaurant.
We then tried out Royal China today for a good dim sum lunch. It's located on Queensway, in the Bayswater area, just north of Hyde Park, where you can also find many other Chinese restaurants. Apart from the glutinous rice, which felt undercooked, all other items were pretty yummy. It's definitely a place worth checking out. But want a ready seat on the weekends? Make sure you arrive real early.
Dinner was at Veeraswamy on Regent Street near Piccadilly. And what a wonderful experience it was. Veeraswamy's a pretty posh and upscale Indian restaurant, offering both North and South Indian cuisine. The interior was well decorated, the staff was friendly, and, most important of all, the food was sublime. Opened 80 years ago, Veeraswamy touts itself as the oldest Indian restaurant in Britain, "created by the great grandson of an English General and a Mughal Princess." Impressive lineage. And is this also the Grand Daddy of the literally thousands of Indian restaurants that have blossomed across the UK since? Curry is said to be the de facto British national dish now. No more fish and chips. No more English Breakfast. No more Ploughman's Lunch or Shepard's Pie...
The weather today was again delightful. Sunny skies with temperatures in the low 20s, even though we're only a week away from October. After lunch, we had a nice walk through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. Families out for the day, lovers lost in each other, haughty-looking swans and dogs roaming free, happy and wild. For my part, I managed to grab the following images.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Step Towards A Heart Attack?

Check this out - the classic English Breakfast. Or what some would term a calorie-laden, cholesterol-rich, artery-clogging, stroke-inducing pile of crappy grub. But I'm not one of them. Definitely not. Instead, I took some time out today to head to a particular favourite restaurant of mine, Benjys, located at Earl's Court, where breakfast is served throughout the day. I can't say that the nosh dished out there counts as fine cuisine, but I do have fond memories of Benjys, for it was a place that I had dined at on my first visit to London more than 10 years ago. And I've made it a point, for the food and for sentimental reasons, to eat at Benjys whenever I'm back in town.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Jewel of Bloomsbury

We continued today with the orientation programme, which wasn't exactly riveting stuff. I attended two sessions in the morning - one titled "Study Successfully at UCL," and the other was called "Living in London". One hardly needs to point out which was the more interesting talk...

But this was a good day. My fridge arrived - finally. And I'm certainly aware that I have the good fortune of residing within walking distance of not only UCL, but also splendid attractions such as the august British Museum, the jewel of the Bloomsbury area, the site of humanity's riches, a catalogue of civilization, or, if you come from a more radical perspective, a treasure trove of imperial plunder. On display are fantastic and famous exhibits, such as the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, and more Egyptian mummies than you would care to remember.

The last time I toured the museum, many parts of it were under renovation. As such, it was a delight this time to walk into the new and elegantly-designed forecourt, where the old circular-shaped Reading Room can still be found, the shafts of sunrays peering inwards onto the many volumes held there.

Proceeding up to Galleries 61-66, where the ancient Egyptian exhibits were on display - ie: actual mummies and assorted mummy-related paraphernalia - one does get a creepy feeling at times, tempered fortunately by the presence of other visitors, some equally creeped-out, others wide-eyed and relishing every moment. How many more mummies lie beneath in the crusty basement of the British Museum? This was a civilization that clearly devoted a lot of attention to the art and science of dying. And that's not meant as an inane comment.
But I had entered the museum late, and had time only to bash through a few epochs in time, before the galleries began closing. But never mind. What a place. I shall be back, often.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


I know it can sound like a cliche, but the diversity of people that one gets to meet here is simply amazing. I went to the Dining Hall at Goodenough again this evening, and sat together with individuals from Kenya, South Africa and Spain. There was also a doctor from Singapore at the table, here for a course at UCL, and the two of us took some time explaining the concept of the 5Cs for our new friend from Spain, who, in turn, lectured us on the difference institutionally between the European Commission and the European Council of Ministers.
Then, it was on to a Welcome Drinks event, where the bar hostess was from Syria, where a PhD student from Nepal came up to introduce himself......well, you get the picture. It felt at times like some receptions in my old job in DC, but decidedly less stuffy. In all, it was a nice gathering. I never turn down a free beer - an ice cold can of Stella Artois, but so far, the conversations I've been having centre mainly on the usual questions of what one's name is, where and what one is studying, and how long one has been in town. Everyone's comparing notes.
It's pretty easy code-switching, but every so often, you get the feeling that a judiciously timed wah lau or abuthen would convey that exact meaning you're groping for.


Went to UCL today for the first time for orientation and enrollment - what we used to call "matriculation" back home. What a quaint word. Many moons have come and gone since I first matriculated.
The campus wasn't exactly gleaming new. Certainly, you wouldn't find the modern facilities of NUS or NTU, both of which I had attended, but then, you can certainly feel a sense of history here. The professor who welcomed us spoke of how well-regarded and highly-respected UCL was. It was also pretty hilarious to come across that boxed figure of Jeremy Bentham tucked against a wall - something I had read about previously. Of course, I have to remind myself that it's not just an effigy there. His skeleton lies within as well.
The enrollment process brought together thousands of new graduate students, with uncertainty and unfamiliarity in the air, and it was a necessarily tedious process. But all's done, I hope. I retuned to Goodenough and had lunch for the first time at Freddie's Bar. Shared a table with someone from Costa Rica who had just moved in two doors away from my room. It's pretty neat to be able to meet someone from a country I had visited before. I made sure to tell him of my fond memories of Cafe Britt.


My hostel and my college are both located pretty near Tavistock Square, a leafy area surrounded by offices, shops and hotels. And also site of the bus bombing during last year's July 7 terrorist attack against London. We all remember the iconic image of the red double decker on the road, with its entire upper deck ripped off. I still recall where I was when I first learnt of the attacks. But Londoners have, as they say, moved on. There's little reminder of what happened here, just 14 months ago, except for this unassuming plaque, on the railings outside the British Medical Association, which overlooks the square.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

From St. Paul's to the Tate

I went this morning to St Paul's Cathedral. It must have been a full decade since I was last there, and its sheer scale of remains staggering. It's huge. Or, as I think a wag used to say, "Geez, check out that enormous erection!"

The interior was remarkable and resplendent, exactly as I had remembered. I took the opportunity this time round, though, to climb up the Dome, past the Whispering Gallery, up to the Stone Gallery even further up, and finally to the top Golden Gallery, where a wonderful view of London was on offer. The weather was prefect, the winds were light. This city - this metropolis of millions, my home for the coming year? I had better get used to it.

Down to the crypt, where the pantheon of British military heroes was on display - Slim, Auchinleck, Montgomery, Alanbrooke, Nelson, Wellington. Surely Mountbatten should also be similarly honoured? Or did I miss it? The stone marking for Sir Christopher Wren, however, was tucked away in a far corner, away from view. And it does say what I had often read about. For inscribed on it were the words "Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice," which translates as "Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you". Indeed. A tribute from the son for his father.
Crossing the Thames on the Millennium footbridge, I reached the Tate Modern. The permanent collection there had undergone a recent re-hanging, I seem to recall. But it wasn't difficult meeting up with some old visual friends there.

So far, I've had the good fortune of playing tourist today. But tomorrow, when university orientation begins, I think reality will hit.

The Cost of Coffee

I really have to stop multiplying the cost of everything I see by three, even if subconsciously. Had a crappy cup of diluted Americano this morning. Mind you, it wasn't some elaborate Double Mocha freeze with whipped cream or Caramel Macchiato...just a miserable cup of Americano. And that alone cost 1.7 pounds. Arrrrgh....


So, apparently people here do call it Good-enough. I was wondering if, perhaps, it should be pronounced Goo-dee-now - one of those sneaky English place names that trips up those from abroad, like Greenwich, Leicester, Southwark, never pronounced as they are spelt.

It's a pretty old complex, and my room looks as though it dates from the 1930s. But they've given it a fresh coat of paint and my window looks out to a nice, green park.

The College is located in Mecklenburgh Square, and nearby is Brunswick Square. Why these Germanic-sounding names in the middle of London? I suspect it might have something to do with royalty, given that the House of Windsor had such extensive ties with blue blood from the continent.

I've not had a chance to meet many people yet. When I moved in, the College was still pretty empty, but new members are now moving in steadily. We all scribble out names and countries on our doors, and already, I can spot members from nations such as Egypt, Pakistan, China, Ireland on the same floor.

KH's room is located opposite Sam's, who's from China, and by a sheer stroke of coincidence, they are both doing the same course at LBS. Went out with the both of them for dinner a couple of nights ago at Chinatown. I had the beef noodles, or something that purported to be beef noodles. I am so going to miss food from home...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Art and Music

With some time to spare today, I visited the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square again. I'm still amazed that all this great art is accessible to the public entirely free of charge. All one needs is to walk in and be surrounded immediately by works which have taken literally thousands of hours to create. And each time I head there, I learn something new. The Impressionist gallery was closed, so I wandered through the works of the earlier centuries, and learnt more today about Pieter de Hooch, possibly a contemporary of Vermeer. There were a couple of portraits by him that echoed Vermeer's style. One featured a street scene of Delft, which Vermeer also painted. The other employed Vermeer's favourite setting of light streaming into a house from a window on the left of the picture. Compare this with this - both of which hang in the same gallery.

Stepping out of the National Gallery, I headed next door into St. Martin-in-the-Fields - or more accurately, into its crypt. The brass rubbing stand was still there, as was the gallery, the gift shop and the cafe. I still wonder why all the commercialism wouldn't disturb the spirits of the bodies that used to lie there. But I picked up a concert guide for performances in the coming months, and spotted an alluring triple Bach cantata performance on October 12, complete with Bach's Brandenburg Number 5. Perfect.

Walking down Piccadilly, past the Royal Academy - where I snapped the image above - and then up New Bond Street towards Oxford Street later on, I chanced upon 25 Brook Street, where the Handel House was located. So that's where Mr Handel spent many of his years in Britain, and where famous works such as the Music for the Royal Fireworks were composed. One room contained a harpsichord, on which a man was practising. I think that's the first time I had been so up close to that instrument, barely a couple of feet away. There was also a small exhibition featuring Handel's collaboration with famous castrati of his era. Problem was, the exhibits included some of the ancient instruments used *ahem* to achieve the castrati effect. Ouch.

In London, Finally

And here I am in London, finally. Well, I did get in over the weekend, but it took me a couple of days to settle in, catching up on sleep, and getting certain errands done, before I had a chance to set this blog up. So what's been happening?

After getting through the Immigration authorities and Heathrow and dishing out an obscene amount for the cab ride into town, I got into the Goodenough College late on Saturday evening. Heading towards my assigned room on the third floor, I soon spotted KH's name on one of the doors. So after dumping my things, I knocked on his door and went in for a chat.

"I'm about to go out and meet this girl; someone I was referred to over the net. Do you want to come along?"

Before I knew it, I was out with him and we then met up with this group of about five Singaporeans working in London. There was a gathering at some club in the East End - the name of which escapes me - with more Singaporeans around. A farewell bash for one of them who was heading back home. I met doctors, lawyers, accountants and bankers. Obviously a very professional crowd. It was well after midnight before we left. The Tube had stopped running. We groped our way back on a night bus, and I collapsed onto my bed, exhausted.

It's not been difficult settling in. There were the usual irritations dealing with assorted service staff, but you get that anywhere. I think knowing the country and knowing the language helps. No torrid tale of tragedy to recount. Things like getting my mobile phone, registering with a local doctor, and making sure my bank account works were all pretty easy to manage. The hostel still owes me my fridge, and for some reason, they've yet to deliver it to my room.

The weather here has been lovely. Sunny skies with temperatures in the mid 20s, and the sun setting after 7pm. I've already had a nice jog up to Regent's Park. But soon, the leaves will turn brown, the clocks will be set back, and temperatues will fall. I'll enjoy what I have right now for as long as I can.

It's good to be living away from home again. A chance once more to see more of the world. London looks the same, after so many years, and it still feels the same. I have mixed feelings about being here, about why I'm here, and what lies ahead, about what London represents to me, what it signifies.... How will the year turn out? Indeed, how will this blog evolve? Well, we'll see...