Hairpin Travel Serial, Part Five: Real City

Episodes 1–5 of The Hairpin’s eight-part Kindle Serial “An Experience Definitely Worth Allegedly Having” are available via Amazon. Excerpts from the first four episodes can be found here, here, here, and here. (And: more info here.)


During the summer of 2003, just after my sophomore year of college, I spent a summer living in London while writing for a budget travel guide. That it meant anything at all to me developmentally is relatively silly; London is one of the cushiest gigs you can get as a budget travel writer. There isn’t a rampant culture of extortion or government corruption (depending on how you feel about the MPs’ expenses scandal or The Sun or Jimmy Savile, naturally), you already speak the language, and the public transit system is sufficiently snazzy that there are hundreds of blogs devoted to its observation and worship. You already know you’re going to be able to drag out Samuel Johnson’s “if a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” in your general introduction. Moreover, in 2003 the Internet was important, but not yet so important that people weren’t buying physically printed budget travel guides. It was also a time in which narcissism demanded I keep an elaborate, showy, expletive-laden diary and send it to my friends and family, but not a time in which that narcissism was so complete as to necessitate that I blog about the experience. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — or such are the literary allusions with which I peppered my unbearable reflections at the time.

I was Canadian, going into it, though attending college in the States, and the possessor of an Anglophilia that verged on the unpleasant. By which I mean to say that an actual English person, were they to grasp the extent of my Anglophilia, would be made uncomfortable by it and feel rather like the Rosetta stone when ringed by a group of pushy German tourists holding everyone else back with their arms. Generally, when one is Canadian it’s easy to downplay your Anglophilic obsessions to Americans with “Oh, you know, this is just what it’s like when you grew up in the Commonwealth,” but should there be another stealth Commonwealther in the room, they know you are lying. Canadians likely think more about the UK than Americans do (i.e., at times other than the Olympics or during royal weddings), but it is not, in fact, common to care anywhere near as much as I do — and certainly not as much as I did then.

The rising popularity of BBC America has made Anglophilia more socially acceptable; you can be noisy about Doctor Who or Sherlock or Parade’s End without looking like a complete weirdo, although it is possible that only a complete weirdo would think that watching and talking about Doctor Who with any regularity makes you less than a complete weirdo. But then, of course — like my father, who shuddered when Ken Burns launched Jazz — a true obsessive does not want too much company. There are ways in which Downton Abbey ruined Anglophilia. If you have Tatler sent to you monthly in a black plastic wrapper at great expense from overseas, you are not going to take fondly to people “discovering” Maggie Smith, as though she emerged fully formed and seventy years old from the head of Julian Fellowes.

I did not do a great job with my travel guide. Which is typical, I think, for things one does with the primary intention of having a Transformative Emotional Experience through them, as well as for most travel guides written by twenty-year-olds. I was reasonably diligent, of course. Unlike some of my contemporaries, who swiftly learned that your daily allowance was not nearly enough to eat at every single one of the restaurants you were supposed to review, I dipped only a handful of times into the “recommend something that looks good on the takeout menu, collar people leaving restaurant to ask if they enjoyed their meal and would mind telling you what they ate, scribble obviously on a pad of paper while eating in hopes the restaurant will correctly assume you are reviewing them and take forty percent off the bill” bag of unprofessional tricks. Nothing undermines your resolve to do a really good job more than arriving to fact-check a location from the previous year’s edition and discovering that it hasn’t been there for six years, or that it’s across the street from what the map says, or that the suicide hotline in your emergency section is actually a takeaway.

The tenor of my experience of London was largely set at the introductory meeting, when I met the two other young women assigned to cover the city that summer and discovered they were both frail, painfully cool Asian women who actually understood what house music was. Since I looked more capable of drinking ale, and probably was, I was given the pubs beat and the museums beat and the old things beat, while they were given the responsibility of discovering what actual young people who lived in the city might enjoy doing. (Not looking at churches, not taking the day trip to Richmond while rereading The Diary of a Nobody, not trying to find 84 Charing Cross Road [it’s not there].) They were lovely women, and I never saw them again. Our paths never crossed. We were never in the same London, and theirs was likely closer to the True London than mine, if there is such a thing.

When reading back over my diaries from the time (saved carefully by my mother, the only person other than me who could possibly care about my callow attempts at explaining London, as though a twenty-year-old kid who lived in a bed-sit in Kensal Green for three months could be said to know anything whatsoever about London), I realized they’re both better than I’d hoped and worse than I’d feared. They’re funny, but the funniness is the funniness of Adrian Mole, or Mr. Pooter (of the aforementioned The Diary of a Nobody). The jokes are on the writer, always. I am the joke. I am not as funny as I think I am. The jokes I’m making right now in this piece will not seem funny to me when I am fifty, probably. I’ll look at them like I look at those diaries: cringing, slightly, but with recognition. They’re full of pop culture references and ALL CAPS and motherfuckers and complaints and poetic flourishes. They are the diaries of a person who, four months later, will read Infinite Jest for the first time and sink to her knees in despair. Someone who is not a virgin, but who has not yet been in love.


May 19, 2003 (Holborn)

Sir John Soane’s Museum was extraordinary — he was an architect, and he stuck an awe-inspiring number of oddities into three combined houses in Lincoln’s Field Rd. In addition to Hogarth’s “A Rake’s Progress,” and a beautiful sarcophagus that he outbid the British Museum itself for in the early 19th century, Sir John collected all number of strange and interesting objects. So interesting is the museum, in fact, that my paces were dogged at all times by a BBC crew currently filming a documentary special on it. The commentator, Roland Something, was intensely posh and extremely nattily dressed and bumped into me three separate times.

I can’t swear to it, but I think I made almost all of that up. In my own diary! I am almost certain it did not happen. It’s a perfect museum — that part is completely true — but I suspect that I was simply asked to wait briefly before entering a room so that a camera crew could get its shot, and then we moved on, our paths uncrossed and undogged. Things could be better than they are, so they must be made to fit. I can almost picture the imagined Roland Something (Why Roland? Why would that sound believable? Did I think I was writing a Martin Amis novel?).

May 20, 2003 (Holborn)

The absolute worst, worst sight in London was next on my list.


If you’d like to read the rest, it’s available via Amazon for $1.99, which also covers all seven other episodes. (A Kindle or computer/tablet with the free Kindle app is required to read.)

More pictures from the series can be found on the collection’s (also free!) companion Tumblr.

Nicole Cliffe is an editor of The Toast.