London Calling

My assignment tracking Governor Hull across the pond was a real riot

 To: Voas
From: Holthouse
Re: Severe setbacks with Governor Hull in London story.

Cheers from England, chief, and bad news: I'm afraid rioting in the streets, too many shots of absinthe, a lobster-electrocuting device known as the Crustastun, and other factors too numerous and bizarre to detail here have prevented me from covering Jane Hull's Thanksgiving trade mission in London as planned.

As I write this, the city's financial district lays in a haze of gasoline smoke and tear gas, and Arizona's governor is 20 minutes late for her plane home. I'm told by a British Airways ticket agent that Hull is delayed by rioters who are trying to send a message to the World Trade Organization delegates convening in Seattle. British Airways is holding the plane for Hull. Lucky me. Getting to Gatwick Airport from central London was hell this morning. I barely made it myself.

Mark Poutenis

About the story -- I can explain everything. It all began to unravel last Friday, the day I was supposed to shadow Ms. Hull as she met with representatives of London optics and aerospace firms, and the Royal Air Force, the latter an attempt to convince the RAF's elite Falcons Parachute Display Team to move its training grounds to Yuma.

As I explained in pitching this story, although my spur-of-the-moment decision to go to London for Thanksgiving weekend prevented me from obtaining press credentials through the usual channels, I have a close friend who writes for one of London's four major daily papers, and this friend was able to arrange for me to cover Hull's visit in the guise of his assistant.

Unfortunately, my buddy's editor ordered him on short notice to abandon Hull's visit in favor of a bigger story: the unveiling of the Crustastun.

The Crustastun, as it turned out, is a modified microwave oven, designed to shock lobsters into a painless stupor before they're boiled alive. The Crustastun's inventors, who have spent more than £30,000 (roughly $49,500) on the project, are a married couple of London barristers who stopped eating lobster 20 years ago in protest of cooking methods they deemed needlessly cruel.

The stars of the press conference, though, were Lucy and Larry, a brother and sister pair of sacrificial Maine lobsters (as opposed to the U.K. version, which are little more than discolored crayfish that inhabit the coast of Scotland).

Lucy, a one-crustacean control group, died first, and died the hard way -- straight into the pot. Her executioner was a doctor from Bristol University's division of food animal science, and her demise proved gruesome. She thrashed and squealed for about 30 seconds, then fell still and slowly turned orange. I found myself salivating.

Next, the doctor placed Larry upon a layer of damp foam within the Crustastun, closed the door, and pulled a lever that cinched a now-wet Larry inside a metal mesh net. The doctor then pushed a button that zapped Larry with 110 volts for five seconds, then removed the stunned lobster and dropped him into the same bubbling caldron.

Though his death throes were less dramatic, Larry's limbs still twitched noticeably. The doctor hastily assured us the movements were "merely reflexive."

In a testament to the London media's lust for all that's unintentionally freakish, three papers ran stories on the Crustastun in their A-sections the next morning.

None, it's worth noting, carried coverage of Governor Hull, so at least we didn't get scooped by the limeys.

As you'll see from my expense report, I needed a drink after the Crustastun experience, and kept company with a bottle of absinthe in the Arizona Bar, a pub in Camden Town.

Regarding the Arizona Bar: Picture Southwestern schlock decor grafted onto the stone walls of a tavern built before the battle of Bunker Hill. Cow skulls and cowboy art amid time-worn rugby banners and a noble family's coat of arms.

Regarding absinthe: It's green, though it tastes like black licorice; it's banned in the U.S., but recently became legal and available again throughout Europe; and, like worm-at-the-bottom tequila, it's said to have psychedelic properties.

Throat-scorching and foul-tasting if taken straight, absinthe is typically swirled into water, then sweetened with caramelized sugar the bartender dips into the green broth, then lights aflame.

I grew enamored of the ritual, and repeated it five times in short order. Then, drunk and tripping, I went to Westminster Abbey.

I recommend you never, ever do this.

First of all, I arrived in the purple light and icy winds of the late afternoon, 45 minutes before the Abbey made its nightly transition from tourist attraction to place of worship. As a result, I was followed incessantly by priests in robes, hurrying me along as they lighted thousands of candles. A boy's choir warmed up in the colossal main hall where kings were once crowned. Their hymns reverberated throughout the ancient labyrinth, sounding to me like a soundtrack to a gothic nightmare as I gazed upon the tombs of Queen Elizabeth and Bloody Mary.

Sweating and, I'm quite sure, bug-eyed, I barely maintained a façade of stability. I remain convinced that had I not literally stumbled across the grave of Charles Darwin, I would not have emerged from the Abbey a free man. The saints in stained glass were morphing into demons as ghosts of the mighty whispered to me from the walls.

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