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Edited Words: 152,263
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February 23, 2006



I love London. I stand in a queue for a taxi at Waterloo. An old sign on the sandstone wall reads, "IMPORTANT NOTICE: No wheeling of barrows in the main hall." The taxi driver asks, "Where to?" I reply, "Savoy Place, next to the Savoy Hotel." He says, "Where exactly are you going?" I reply, "To the IEE headquarters." And he knows what that is and I am amazed.

After spending much of his childhood in a Scottish orphanage, my father's father left school at fifteen. He worked his way up in government service from a hand-copier with The Admiralty to an influential position in the Department of Transport. Sometimes he would sit behind the Prime Minister in the House of Commons during Question Time in case he was needed for consultation. Intelligent, though full of fear, he felt threatened by the new recruits with degrees and he was always working; he was rarely there for my father.

My interview at Savoy Place is the final step in becoming a chartered engineer. Writing CEng after my name will indicate that I not only have an accredited professional qualification (an honour's degree in electronic engineering), but also four years of training and then two years of responsible experience.

I walk along the Strand to Charing Cross. I am pleased to be wearing my only suit again. I bought it for my first job interview ten years ago; my mum paid for it, it still fits, and is like new. I usually dress smart but casual, so this a change.

As I enter St. James's Park, I watch as eight-inch-diameter iron bollards move smoothly down into the tarmac in front of the Old Admiralty Offices. I am surrounded by MI5. London is wired, opulent, and refined. This place makes anywhere in the US seem third-world.

St. James's Park is filled with bulbs shooting through the grass. I can see Buckingham Palace ahead, the steam from a condensing boiler billowing from a tube coming out of the roof; even the queen is efficient and she's proud of it.

London is ancient and annealed unlike any other city. It has settled into itself and is whole and rich. I am enjoying it so much and smiling uncontrollably. I walk on to Sloane Square where I meet a friend at Oriel and we have a great time together while eating lunch.

When I was a teenager, I knew the son of a lord. His dad had a penthouse apartment in Sloane Square. I remember a group of us going clubbing with him in Central London and then staying in the apartment. I was amazed that this young man would one day also become a peer of the realm.

I walk from there to Knightsbridge and Harrods. Harrods has everything; I realize that one could actually shop there and nowhere else. On the stairway is a memorial to Diana and Dodi saying that they were killed in 1997. I keep thinking about the word killed. Were they really killed?

Behind Harrods are some beautiful streets with grand white houses and set below them is a cobbled road with a row of cottages. Several tiers of roofs rise up behind the cottages and tower over them. I learned later that my father, as a young man, lived in one of these cottages, crammed in with too many others.

My father started as a journalist with the Daily Express. On Fleet Street he learned to drink professionally at The Wig & Pen. He then became the deputy science correspondent with the BBC at Broadcasting House, at top of Regent Street; some people remember seeing him on the news. When her TV wasn't working, his grandmother would ask him if he could fix it. Finally, he was a TV producer; for Tomorrows World, QED, and Horizon, at Television Center, at White City. He had several assistant producers and two personal assistants; the BBC was a great place to work.

I walk from Harrods through Hyde Park. It's beginning to get dark and my hands are hurting from the cold, but I am loving London. I am walking and gently singing as I pass the end of The Serpentine and look out along the water.

My mother's father worked his way up from poverty, supporting himself and his single mother while putting himself through college, to become a respected lawyer in St. Louis, Missouri. He was a social climber and married a woman of the St. Louis aristocracy. When Harold Wilson's son, Robin, was at the University of Pennsylvania, my grandfather invited him to stay. Robin indicated that he didn't want any press coverage but my grandfather told the local paper who published pictures of a miffed looking Prime Minister's son.

After my grandmother's death, my grandfather visited my parents in London. He stayed at the Hyde Park Hotel and upon meeting my parents, told them that the Prime Minister knew that he was in town. When asked how Harold Wilson knew this, he said that MI5 was following him. He said that he kept seeing men in bowler hats. Everyone in government and business wore bowler hats in those days, including my other grandfather. He felt that he should drop by; so he went to number ten Downing Street and offered his card and he had tea with Mary Wilson.

I reach Marble Arch and there is no way across the many lanes of traffic except through the subway. I can't believe that I have to go down there; it seems really grotty and dangerous. But I see people in suits walking out and I brave it. I pass some homeless people and find myself very interested in their little homes. There is an empty bed made of cardboard with a dark-blue sleeping bag on it. He has a small library; I see the Bible and The Cider House Rules by John Irving.

That book is about abortion and is set in an orphanage. I remember watching the film of the book, in which Michael Caine, who looks like my dad, playing the loving director of the orphanage, would switch the light out at night and say to the boys in the dormitory, "Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England." I am crying as I write this.

I walk to 27 Welbeck Street in Marylebone. This is where I was born. It is now the London Welbeck Hospital. I go inside and there is no one on reception. I flick through the Patient Information Booklet on the coffee table; it's now a cosmetic surgery hospital. The menu contains phrases like: "Cheek Implant", "Hip Reduction", and "Vaginal Tightening". I leave and walk through the darkness to Regent's Park.

I have a meeting at Regent's College. I like to pretend that I'm a student again, so I don't wear the sticker that they give me. It's all so clean and well maintained. The stairs are freshly varnished and the old brick structure is fitted with aluminum. But in the midst of the calm organization of academia, the men's bathroom is an anomaly. I enter a cubicle where there is no toilet and as I dry my hands, I notice that the top of the mirror is aligned with my solar plexus.

I meet with some very close friends and then we go to Pizza Express opposite Baker Street tube and I am overflowing with love.

This morning I ran through the falling snow in Bushy Park, near my mum's house, and stopped to watch a flock of dozens of parrots gather on a dead tree. It was surreal and it seemed to be a sign of something to come.

"Your week [on the Hoffman Process] must have been rich for you? You are writing so beautifully, deeply, richly." — Rosie

"I enjoyed this one more than any others I've read. I imagine that what you experienced on the Hoffman Process might have something to do with it." — Izzy

"You really write so beautifully, and as I was reading I was able to visualise everything pretty clearly." — Basi


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