Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

Category: WTF England

The Subway vs. The Tube: Which Is Better?

The London Underground system turns 150 years old this month. In honor of this occasion, I’m publishing the results of a five-year independent study of the Tube and its 108-year-old American cousin, the New York City Subway. Below is a comparative analysis of the two systems, based solely on the observations of one person with no social science credentials, no car, and a chronic people-watching habit.

Size: New York’s subway carries 1.6 billion people a year to 468 stations on 660 miles of train track. London shepherds 1.1 billion to 270 stations across 249 track miles. Advantage: New York.

Map aesthetics: The Tube map – designed in 1931 by the civil servant Harry Beck, with few major alterations since – is a modernist masterpiece. It’s bright and clean and beautiful and no one cares that it bears no geographic relation to the London above it. MTA’s map looks like a Body Works cross-section of a dead man’s scrotum. Advantage: London.

Value: A single ride on the subway is $2.25, whether you are going crosstown or from the Bronx to Brooklyn. The shortest Tube journeys start at £2.10 and steadily increase. A single ride from the outer boroughs of Zone 6 into central London – a trip thousands of commuters make daily – is £5 one way for the average rider, or nearly $8. This does not include butler service. Insane. Advantage: New York.

Willingness to move down: In a crowded subway car, the importance of “moving down” – the distribution of standing passengers equally throughout the length of the car – is an article of faith. Failure to move down is grounds for intra-car abuse and ostracization. Tube riders unable to get a seat tend to limit themselves to an invisible vestibule directly in front of the doors. This scrum delays boarding and results in the infuriating spectacle of half-empty trains pulling away from crowded stations. This is why so many people died on the Titanic. Advantage: New York.

Read more . . . 


Courtside at the World Championship of Ping Pong




The consensus in Alexandra Palace, the Victorian-era exhibition hall in north London where the World Championship of Ping Pong is happening, is that ping pong on this island has never seen anything like this.

The center court game is televised on Sky Sports, Britain’s closest home-grown thing to ESPN. There are TV commentators jawboning in a glassed-in booth and colored spotlights shooting across the audience and “Born to Be Wild” blasting on the sound system while lanky men in shorts rally under klieg lights.

Adoni Maropis, one of three U.S. players, is warming up on the center court. All of his matches today have been televised, which has less to do with the fact that he was the 2011 U.S. hardbat national champion and more with his former gig playing terrorist Abu Fayed on “24.” The tournament’s promotional materials refer often to the Hollywood actor among the 64 entrants, but Maropis is hardly the only star. Number-one seed Maxim Shmyrev of Russia has his own trading cards. Gavin Evans, 19, was an auxiliary member of the UK’s Olympic table tennis squad. There are four representatives here of the Orange Army, the traveling fans that accompany Dutch athletes to seemingly every competition in the world, and one is wearing a full-body plush lion suit in support of Marty “Loekie the Lion” Hendriksen.

The Philippine delegation looks a little dejected. Sandpaper table tennis – the kind played here – is a fringe religion in the Philippines, with money trading hands over illicit games in back alleys and basements. The squad had high hopes, but only three of their seven players are advancing to the round of 32. Organizers did not pay expenses, and it’s a long flight back to Manila without a piece of the $100,000 prize pie to show for it.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Reece Mavro, 18, a former competitive player who’s just aged out of England’s under-18 table tennis program, outside of the audience grandstands. “If this was normal table tennis, it’d be sick.”

Let’s get some things straight: Table tennis and ping pong are the same thing, except on specific occasions when they are not. The World Championship of Ping Pong is such an event. Whether that’s a good thing depends on who you ask.

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A Right Royal Cock-Up: Watching the Diamond Jubilee

My family moved to London in April 2011, just weeks before the royal wedding, and the day after that spectacle I was watching an evening news program criticizing the BBC’s coverage of the event. The presenters were unbecomingly star-struck, the pundits grumbled, pointing out celebrity guests like Victoria Beckham instead of former King Constantine of Greece. They were concerned that this pandering, lowest-common-denominator attitude would not be rectified by the Diamond Jubilee.

That was the first I heard of the Diamond Jubilee, the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. Like the commemorative paperweights or coffee mugs awarded at less nepotistic workplaces, Jubilees are doled out to monarchs after 25, 50 and 60 years of service. “Jubilee” refers to both the whole calendar year in which the anniversary takes place, and to the four-day pageant officially commemorating the milestone. It is an unusual word to associate with a woman who only smiles at corgis.

When Jubilee Weekend finally rolled around earlier this month, banks and other businesses shut down for a four-day public holiday. People held street parties all over England, while in central London thousands of flag-waving revelers lined the banks of the Thames and the Mall for a series of parades and concerts honoring Her Majesty. It felt like a repeat of last year’s wedding – Union Jack bunting hung from every vertical surface, a run on Pimm’s at the grocery store, horses, hats, bugles, and my daughter and I watching the festivities from a safe distance on the telly, marveling at the customs and ceremonies of this strange tribe we now live amongst.

In the run-up to the Jubilee I read an online debate analyzing Americans’ fascination for an institution it so bloodily rejected 200 years ago. There were a range of solid theories – we’re subconsciously longing for what we relinquished when we broke away from the Crown; the couplings and machinations of the royal family have the lurid appeal of a living soap opera; we are magpies who love brass buttons and furry hats – but none that quite capture the impression these archaic performances have on an outsider looking in, in the 21st century. It’s like watching Civil War re-enactors, or Darkon – the elaborate costuming, the commitment to staying in character, the sense that carefully choreographed human interactions are the only kind the participants are comfortable with. The difference is that an entire nation has agreed to treat it as real, with tens of millions of pounds of public funds annually shoveled toward the maintenance of a performance that seems of little benefit to anyone but the actors themselves. We let our role players use the parks and turn a benevolently blind eye when they show up at 7-11 in costume. We don’t let them open Congress.

And just like Civil War re-enactors who must endure the illusion-shattering effect of a car horns in the distance and kids on Razor scooters hooting from the sidelines, even Her Majesty’s most ardent supporters must contend with the reality that the monarchy’s power falls short of divine.

The centerpiece of the Jubilee was a boat parade on the Thames. Let your imaginations run wild, the event’s official website suggested in a breathless tone. Square riggers. Wooden launchers. Oyster smacks. If it floated, and was not a dead body, it would be proudly sailing past Her Majesty on the afternoon of June 3. It sounded like a lovely thing to do on a pleasant early summer afternoon, which makes me wonder if the Jubilee events were originally scheduled to take place somewhere other than England.

England has no summer. It has no seasons. For 340 days of the year the island sits beneath a gray, cloudy, drizzly sky that veers wildly between 50 and 63 degrees. There are a few dozen days of glorious weather sprinkled at random between April and October, but you can no more count on a sunny day in June than you can upon a winning lottery ticket coming into your possession. And yet people were shocked – shocked! – to wake up on Sunday morning and find rain dumping upon London (though not on Belfast or Edinburgh, a sign that God might be a Republican.)

As the wind kicked up, boats backed up on the river and the whole thing turned into a soggy, sorry mess, the army of television reporters stationed across the channels clung resolutely to the script that viewers were watching something magical. On CNN Piers Morgan called it an “orgy of excitement,” a baffling statement that only raises questions about the kinds of orgies Piers Morgan attends. The BBC collapsed upon itself, its coverage a pastiche of awkward camera angles, cuts to people clearly unaware that they were live, a minute-long shot of the controls of a ship, and a long debate between two presenters wondering if the trash boat currently on air was part of the parade, or was in fact transporting trash.

Someone noted on Twitter that requiring an 85-year-old to stand outside in the rain for hours is more assassination attempt than party, and in fact the Queen’s 90-year-old husband spent the rest of the weekend in the hospital with an infection. But there she stood, this tiny little white-haired lady, looking and smiling and waving and acting like this didn’t suck when so obviously it did.

I don’t know what monarchs do now that they can’t have rivals beheaded or commission portraits of themselves as virgin fairies. I don’t know how you justify the public expense or how voting taxpayer can conceive of him- or herself as a subject instead of a citizen. But as a woman who finds herself increasingly short on patience, I can respect what might be the Queen’s most singular accomplishment: to endure sixty years of tree plantings, garden parties, ship christenings, wing openings, polite chatter, endless parades and English weather without getting caught complaining.