London lessons Thursday, Apr 3 2008 

I studied in London for a year but spent much of that time doing, er, studying. I can’t say that I’ve properly experienced the city as a true Londoner. Oh, I’ve done the usual tourist suspects – Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, Hampton Court, &c. But apart from occasional visits to Leicester Square for food/gatherings, I’d never really taken advantage of the unique, simple pleasures that living in London offers. Dropped into a random church just out of curiosity, say; or spent a weekend exploring the British National Museum. It was only great good luck that enabled me to revisit London on two work-related occasions in the past 6 months. And this time, with the help of my York-born but London-living friend, I had a few successes in my quest to stop experiencing London as a tourist and learnt a few things along the way.

interior of the victoria & albert museum

1. Visits to (free) art galleries are like balm for the soul. My fourth trip to the National Gallery reminded me of the beauty of Sassoferrato’s work and the genius of Michelangelo and da Vinci. My maiden one to the Tate Britain confirmed that I can love modern art, key criteria being (a) ‘if it makes sense’ (as my dear friend pithily observed); (b) if it is aesthetically appealing. It also exposed me to the gorgeous works of John Piper and reaffirmed my fondness for the pre-Raphaelites. The Victoria and Albert Museum is also delightful, with its exhibits ranging from cartoons by Raphael to Islamic art, fashion, furniture, and E. H. Shepard’s original Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations.

2. A good classical concert can literally give one chills. I attended a ridiculously affordable concert (my seat with restricted views cost nine quid) by the extremely competent Vasari Singers held at the lovely (undergoing-restoration) St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and the baritone solos in Fauré’s Requiem literally raised goosebumps on my neck. I had no idea quite how famous the Vasari Singers are until I Googled them. This concert triggered a spell of massive re-listening to all my classical favourites, including J S Bach, Mozart and of course Fauré.

interior of st stephen walbrook

3. I’m not a Christian, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable in a church service held in London. (Funny thing is, I can’t say the same for the church services I have attended in Singapore.) It so happened that when I entered the interestingly round church of St Stephen Walbrook – designed by Sir Christopher Wren – there was a service going on. Quite befittingly, the service ended with a quietly beautiful three-part mass by de Victoria, sung a cappella by an alto, tenor and bass. The whole experience was clean and elegant – not unlike the church itself.

hampstead heath

4. It’s lovely to have easily accessible parks to pop into fresh out of a tube station. There’s the Hyde, the Regent’s, and of course, the (Hampstead) Heath. It was winter and the trees were skeletal, but the green alone was pretty and peaceable. In a similar vein, London gardens can be jolly nice – I envy the English their varieties of native plants.

charing cross tube station

5. The London Underground, despite frequent delays, suspensions, surprise closures and tonnes of stairs, is really an excellent way to get around because of the density of the stations, especially in central London. What the Tube doesn’t adequately cover, the buses make up for, which is a great credit to the city’s public transportation system. (Love Ian Bostridge too – where else would you find an advertisement for one of his concerts?)

hampstead village

6. And yet the great thing about London is that you can have a rather fulfilling everyday life without walking further than 20 minutes from your home. The ‘village’ concept is still in force; you can generally find a good array of shops, food places offering varied cuisines, Starbucks, your local bank, the parish church, and even a cinema. I watched the excellent ‘Michael Clayton’ at the Swiss Cottage Odeon on a Saturday evening and it was lovely to be able to walk home discussing it.

Driving in Mumbai Sunday, Mar 30 2008 

The thing about travelling overseas on business trips is that, unless you expressly take time out to properly immerse yourself in the place, you’ll tend to experience it at a distance. Through a glass, as it were. This was literally the case on my January trip to Mumbai in India, where much of what I saw was through the windows of various taxis en-route to meetings. But even one step removed, so much of what I experienced was endearing and fascinating.

I particularly enjoyed the painted entreaties on all goods vehicles’ bumpers requesting overtaking vehicles to (sound the) ‘Horn OK Please’, all of which were lovingly done up with flourishes and bright colours. Of course, in Mumbai, one hardly needs to be told to sound the horn: the horn is the communication instrument of choice on the roads. Most vehicles’ direction signals don’t work (or simply aren’t used). Plump grandmothers unhurriedly cross main roads with no pedestrian crossing in sight, willy nilly, in full confidence (justified) that vehicles will give way. Drivers who miss their turning execute ridiculous manoeuvres and drive against the direction of the traffic to get to the right place. There is the occasional buffalo-drawn cart that makes a too-wide circle while turning.

And yet, despite the chaos, and the constant chorus of horns, not once did I witness a single accident. Mumbai drivers are unbelievably skilled and surprisingly considerate of other road users. Four (small) cars abreast will happily share a three-lane road. If your taxi driver is lost, he will pull up beside a rank of taxis idling by the road and get directions from the waiting drivers, all of whom will take an interest in the problem. In the face of the constant interruptions (plump grandmothers et al), drivers are philosophical and simply give way to those who need it. It is truly a joy to observe.

We had one afternoon for sightseeing and by great good luck got into a hotel taxi driven by Dipen. He had attended university for a few years but had to drop out mid-way (he didn’t say why), and he had an impressive command of English, which he continued to hone by watching the Discovery channel at home. He explained to us a rather cryptic banner we saw outside the Mumbai Stock Exchange that seemed to be advertising a movie being made within the building. It seems that the banner was actually a sarcastic criticism of the Indian Finance Minister’s failure to prevent the dramatic falls in the stock market in the preceding fortnight. He impressed upon us that India was like a state composed of 42 different countries, all with their own culture and language. He brought us to the Dhoby Ghaut, or laundry area – which, unlike the Singapore equivalent, is still functioning. He explained the intricacies of the taxi company system and confessed his ambition to one day own his own taxi company. And despite being as good as a tour guide, driving us to all the main city sights, giving potted histories for us ignoramuses and even helping us to take photos, he did not demand a large fare at the end (hotel taxis are not metered) but humbly suggested that we pay him whatever extra we deemed appropriate.

In spite of the crumbling and discoloured buildings, the evident poverty, the pollution and the littered streets, the overwhelming impressions and memories I have of Mumbai are of the vivid busy-ness and life of the city and its inhabitants. Everyone we saw was dressed in such bright colours, walking, chatting, or laughing with others, staring curiously at our Chinese faces, congregating around the Gateway to India which was erected to welcome Queen Victoria in from the Bay of Bengal. People seemed to derive joy from simple pleasures like enjoying popsicles of dubious sanitary standard bought on the street, or even getting themselves weighed.

I don’t know if traveling in India really broadened my mind all that much (as travel is purported to do). I promptly forgot almost everything Dipen imparted to me, save the fact that Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is named after an Indian historical figure. But if there can be such a thing, I feel like I have a broader idea of the range of human experience.