London Diary III

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by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

October 21

* I was riding the tube a couple of days ago, when a voice came over the PA and said, “This train is quite crowded. When exiting, please use all available doors.”

I know how to use one door or another to get off a train, but I froze in puzzlement as to how I could use “all available doors.” It was six stops past mine before I just punted and used the one nearest to me.

* And I was looking forward to having tons of yummy English muffins when I got over here, but I haven’t seen one! Have the English sold all of theirs to the States?

October 22

* The other night someone said to Jan Lester, “Jan, how is Escape to Leviathan selling?”

The actual title of Jan’s book is Escape from Leviathan, so the title as spoken suggested quite a different work. However, it also suggested a series of titles Jan might produce: Escape for Leviathan, in which Jan escapes from a prison to rescue the State, Escape Through Leviathan, where Jan uses the labyrinth bureaucracy of the State to elude his ferocious and vicious pursuers, and my favorite, Escape with Leviathan, in which Jan and the State run off to a deserted tropical isle together, leaving the bewildered populace longing for both authority and critical rationalism.

* A headline in The Times read, “Hurricane Ivan Leaves Behind Wreckage Worth Billions of Pounds.”

Perhaps Ivan can drop by my place and leave some of that wreckage there. I’d even be satisfied with wreckage worth a million pounds.

* On the tube yesterday, I saw a sign showing an abandoned piece of luggage on a seat and reading: “Don’t touch, check with other passengers, inform station staff or call 999.”

In other words, if you just ignore the bomb, maybe it will go away. For the want of a semi-colon, the train was lost.

Of course, the US is as full of badly worded signs as is England. At my old office, there was a sign on a door reading, “This door must be kept closed at all times.” Wouldn’t a wall have been a better choice than a door, in that case?

October 23

* I was walking down the main road near my house at night when a police van, containing two cops, came to a halt by the curb next to me.

My mind flashed back to a night in sleepy Redding, CT, when I was walking home from my local around midnight and had a cop pull up alongside me. His window came down.

“Excuse me, sir, are you just out for a walk?”

“Actually,” I responded, “I was down at the Georgetown Saloon, and I’m heading home.”

“Oh, you live near here?”

“Yes, Highland Avenue.”

“How long have you lived there?”

“Four years.”

“And what’s your name?”

“Gene Callahan.”

“And your birthdate?”

Well, I had tried to be patient, but that was about it. Instead of thanking me for not drinking and driving, this nitwit was going to grill me because not many people in Redding walk at night.

“Are you going to send me a birthday card?” I asked.

Nonplussed, he answered, “Something like that.”

“Officer, I haven’t broken any laws. I’m heading home.” I turned and walked away from him.

Was this to be a repeat scenario, here in London? Once again, the window came down. I waited for the question.

The cop nearest to me leaned toward the window of the van and said, “Excuse me, sir, can you tell us how to get to the Colindale Police Station?”

I swear, I’m not making this up.

October 26

* I passed a Woolworth’s in North London the other day, then turned because I realized I was curious: Would a Woolworth’s here smell the same as one in the states?

Yep, it sure did. Just what is that smell? Caldor and Bradley’s always had pretty much the same odor as well.

Famous thinkers gather at LSE – from left to right, me, Lionel Robbins, and Pete Boettke

October 29

Drying one’s clothes outside brings surprises. Two days ago, I put on a shirt and found that a bird had used it for target practice. This morning, as I pulled up my boxers, I felt a small lump on the waistband. I pulled it off, and then looked to see what it was.

I found that I was holding a decent-sized, live wasp in my fingers. Yikes! I have no idea why I wasn’t stung, unless I luckily had employed just the grip Steve Irwin uses to hold a wasp and not be stung by it.

October 31

* Passing through Paddington Station, I saw a sign reading: “Caution: Cycle Thieves About.”

I guess it’s like rotating your tires – you don’t want the thieves getting all worn out on one side or anything.

* I took a trip to Oxford yesterday. It was the first tourist activity I’ve done since I arrived in England. Except, of course, for the tourist activity I like the most: finding out what it’s like to live in some place, especially what the people who live there are like. At the standard tourist spots, that is not what happens: they are filled with other tourists, not the locals. That bothered me when I stayed in old Quebec City: the entire old city area is a giant tourist attraction. After a few days, I realized I wasn’t in a real city at all, but in something equivalent to Colonial Williamsburg on a larger scale.

The countryside the London-Oxford train passes through, once one gets perhaps 25 minutes out of London, is lovely. Autumn is fully setting in here, and the trees lining the bright green fields are muted tones of green and gold and brown, much quieter than a New England fall, but with their own charm. The English rivers are enchanting, full and slow and lazy, their banks studded with trees and shrubs.

Oxford itself is also very nice, filled with majestic old buildings. I walked down New Road, whose name probably means it was built only about five or six centuries ago – New College was built in 1379. Crossing Hythe Street Bridge, I saw a sign that read, “Hump – 75 Yards.” I went there and waited for a while, but nothing happened.

I visited the Ashmolean, a wonderful museum. In the Ancient Egypt exhibit I pondered the explosion in human technical ability that started around 10,000 years ago. Egypt had been occupied by humans for roughly 1,000,000 years, over the first 990,000 of which the exhibit showed small changes in stone tool technology. Then, suddenly, there is pottery, farming, copper needles and fishhooks, and so on.

The night before my trip, I had wound up sleeping on a friend’s couch, from where I went straight to Oxford. I hadn’t planned to do so, and, therefore, I hadn’t brought a change of clothes. By late afternoon my feet were feeling, shall we say, “not so fresh.” I wanted to rinse them off, so I walked along a canal. A life preserver bobbed in the water, caught up in some branches. Someone throw it a human!

There I saw canal boats for the first time – long, thin, low affairs, most of them emitting streams of smoke that smelled like a peat fire, but apparently were the result of burning some material that comes in plastic bags, which the boat owners stacked by the dozen across their roofs.

I finally found a place where I could reach the water with my feet, and I dunked them in. I walked barefoot back along the path toward where I had come from. Two small, black birds – ducks? – with white heads fought the current to stare at me, perhaps hoping for food. As I took out my notebook to jot down their appearance, a couple strolled toward me up the walk. They gave me a very wide berth. Well, I suppose, standing on the asphalt path in dress slacks and a buttondown shirt, but barefooted in 50 degree weather, with my shoes, socks, and a notepad in one hand, scribbling on the pad with a pen held in the other, that I might have looked a wee bit odd.

November 3

* My friend Jim Henley cites the perfect quote to sum up the US election results: “Democracy is the theory that the people know what they want and deserve to get it – good and hard.” – H.L. Mencken

* Well, I’m finally looking the right way when crossing the street.

That means that I probably will be hit by a car within a day or two of arriving back in the States.

* My soul captured by a wild spirit of adventure, I walked several blocks further down the main road through my town (Colindale) then I have during the first month I’ve been here. There I found… Oriental City!

Oriental City is a giant mall devoted to things from eastern Asia. There is a store with a huge supply of Chinese ceramics, several shops selling Oriental bric-a-brac, a Japanese beauty parlor, and a Sega center that is a confusing jumble of lights from giant game screens and the sounds of cars, shots, kicks, and dying.

A little farther in I found an Asian supermarket as large as a Wal-Mart in the US. I wandered the aisles for a few minutes, surveying the unfamiliar items. Some of the prices were astronomical: whelks were selling for 65 pounds a kilo, while “surf clams” went for 68. I saw little fruits from Thailand called “rambutan” that looked like they were covered with tentacles. My favorite item was “dried salted witch.” So that’s what they do with them these days!

Next I went to the food court. It contains about a dozen Asian restaurants – Malaysian, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese. One shop sold sixty different, non-alcoholic drinks, including lychee in syrup, iced horlick, Lo Hon Guo Longan tea, ice sago in coconut milk, and jelly grass in syrup. Another place displayed whole ducks, including the heads, roasted and skewered, as well as whole, bright-red cuttlefish. In one of the Chinese stalls I could have ordered preserved vegetables with pig intestine. I wound up choosing a wonderful Vietnamese beef-noodle soup, flavored with fresh basil and cilantro, scallions, freshly squeezed lime juice, and plenty of bright red chilies.

Yum, yum.

November 5

* I watched a very moving film last night called Amandla: A Struggle in Four-Part Harmony. It was about the role music played in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. (And the music was great as well.)

During the course of the movie I reflected on the parallels between what I was watching and the US invasion of Iraq. One dissident mentioned that the South African prison wardens would strip political prisoners naked to humiliate them. Sound familiar?

The filmmaker interviewed former members of the “riot police,” one of whom said that they “had” to use heavy weapons during protests, or some of the police might have been hurt. Just like how the US and Britain have “had” to employ aerial bombing and heavy artillery in densely populated areas, in order to minimize their own casualties. Because of such tactics, Iraqi civilian deaths are running about 100 to 1 ahead of US military deaths. The soldiers all volunteered for a job that they knew entailed the possibility of going to war. The civilians dying had no such option. But simply because Bush knows Americans will be far more upset by one American soldier dying than 100 Iraqis, the military is using an approach that they know will kill many, many innocent bystanders.

The South African soldiers who fired on peaceful protesters were just doing their “duty” for their “country.” They probably saw themselves as good patriots.

That doesn’t excuse their actions, nor will a similar excuse wash for anyone participating in the immoral fiasco now occurring in Iraq.

I, Jan Lester, and Pete Boettke listen to Larissa Price discussing property rights at a meeting of the LSE Hayek Society

November 6, 2004

Gene Callahan [send him mail], the author of Economics for Real People, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a contributing columnist to

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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