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.

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.

Darwin's grave is so plain and obscurely placed I can only believe his rational spirit guided me there and talked me down. Good thing. I'd spoken with Lewis Carroll a few minutes prior, and he'd been of absolutely no help.

By the way, I didn't see Jane Hull in the Abbey. But here she comes now, striding up to the gate with a sour face and a small entourage of younger men I'm guessing are either gigolos or DPS bodyguards. . . .

. . . Damn! I just tried to ambush her with a question, but the ticket agents kept me back until she was inside the jetway. Now they're gesturing frantically for me to get on the plane. I'm the last to board. I have to stop writing. . . .

. . . Okay, we're now airborne, and my ill fortune continues: The governor's in first class, and I'm in coach. They won't let me into her cabin. I tried to pass the governor a note and a business card through a flight attendant, but I'm not sure she received it, as she has yet to reply. It's ironic, Governor Hull and me being on the same plane, since I spent the last four days hoping and trying to find her in London.

For starters, I called every hotel in the city identified to me as four- or five-star, but struck out. Maybe she went my route and stayed on the cheap with friends.

Most nights I crashed in a Victorian house in the upscale district of Chalk Farm, a few doors down from rock star Noel Gallagher, whose home is hard to miss, as it's the only one in the area with a locked gate, and scrawled on the sidewalk in front is "The wanker from Oasis lives here!" with an arrow to his front door. The pillars to either side of Gallagher's gate appear as twin Rosetta stones, carrying hundreds of hastily scribbled messages from fans and critics. "Noel I love you!" "Bugger off, Noel, you suck!" and other such sentiments.

Sadly, I didn't see Jane Hull outside Noel Gallagher's place, either. Nor did I see her outside the McDonald's in Leicester Square, where she might have done some good, as the 86 members of Russia's national orchestra were playing on the street there in shifts for spare change -- "busking," in London speak.

The National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia's first tour of Britain stalled in London because of poor ticket sales. Its members were forced to stay in youth hostels and busk for meal money. Watching Russia's finest classical musicians play Tchaikovsky beneath the Golden Arches, desperately hoping to elicit pocket change from passers-by, I finally and fully understood the extent to which NATO's Cold War triumph was a Pyrrhic victory for humanity.

I didn't find Jane Hull walking the Thames River, and I didn't find her checking out five centuries of colonial plunder in Britain's National Gallery. The Jamaican hashish dealers outside the fish markets in Brixton claimed not to have seen her -- "No mon, no such lady of power been getting irie here" -- but I suspect they knew more than they were telling.

Located on the eastern edge of the city proper, Brixton is one of few neighborhoods in the world where you can hear Jamaican patois, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Spanish, Hindi and English spoken on the same block. Brixton's streets are constantly surveilled via security cameras attached to lampposts and rooftops. I was told the cameras were installed in a largely successful if Orwellian effort to curtail Brixton's thriving crack trade by pushing it farther east, into the city's suburbs, at the sacrifice of the greater public's right to privacy.

There's an odd duplicity at work in London when it comes to public safety and security. You won't find many trash cans on the street, and you won't find any in the underground stations, because the Irish Republican Army made a habit of putting bombs in them. In five days, I drank in three pubs in different parts of the city, all of which had been bombed by terrorists this decade.

On the flip side, in 1996, handguns were used to murder 30 in Great Britain. They were used to kill 9,390 in the United States. Whether that's because of England's strict gun laws, or because fewer violent people live there, or both, I don't know.

I do know, after visiting London for the first time, that popular culture across the pond is just as saturated with gun violence as it is here. The new, British-produced James Bond flick, in which 007 blows away countless enemies, including a woman he shoots in cold blood, then kisses, had as much hype in London as the last Star Warsflick in Phoenix. Prime-time screenings were sold out for a week to come. Yet I guarantee you more people will die by the gun in Phoenix this month than in London, trashing, in my mind, the argument that violent films and music induce people to kill, instead of the pawnshop availability of lethal firepower.

When violence does erupt in London, the weapons used are frequently exotic. I'll give you an example: Last Sunday, a madman walked out of his south London home stark naked, carrying a samurai sword. He entered the nearest church, screamed "God hates me," then began hacking parishioners assembled for morning Mass.

The swordsman wounded several people before Father John Lennon -- no relation -- engaged him in a duel, armed with a crucifix on a pole. This enabled a quick-thinking off-duty cop to rip a stout pipe from the church's organ and take out the attacker with a swing to the back of the head.

When it was over, the church's floor was smeared with blood and littered with severed fingers, but no one was dead. The last time a nutcase bent on murder invaded a church in the U.S. (September, in Fort Worth, Texas), he shot and killed seven people, then ate a bullet himself.

I'd like to ask Governor Hull her take on the comparison, but we're now three hours into the 11-hour route from Gatwick to Sky Harbor, and she has thus far remained incommunicado. Twice now I've tried to bum-rush the first-class cabin, and I doubt I'll have a third go, as the plane's crew captain has apparently assigned a male flight attendant to keep me under close surveillance. He's nervously hovering behind my row, and keeps foisting unordered drinks from the open bar in a transparent ploy to impair my wiles.

I suppose it's only natural for those with more responsibility than authority to act a bit skittish, given the violent anti-World Trade Organization demonstrations that broke out in London yesterday (Monday). I assume the rioting is still under way, as protest organizers planned for a crescendo this evening, just as parallel demonstrations were set to blow in Seattle.

Political demonstrations were a motif during my stay in London. First, Saturday morning there was a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy against the Central Intelligence Agency's alleged involvement in cocaine trafficking in the 1980s, as outlined in Gary Webb's 1996 "Dark Alliance" series in the San Jose Mercury News. Several hundred peaceful protesters threw salt and carried banners that read "C.I.A. -- Cocaine Importation Agency," "Support the C.I.A. -- Smoke Crack!" and "Gary Webb told the truth!" (as you know, Webb's reporting was discredited by other envious major papers, after which the Merc threw him to the wolves, printing a half-baked retraction of his exposé, and exiling him to a suburban news bureau).

That night, I attended a riot preparation camp disguised as a rave, held in a 14th-century dungeon near the Tower of London. The 72-hour event appropriately known as The Warp is a legend of underground culture -- a roving, biweekly happening, which mixes radical politics and live theater into the usual rave blend of free love, techno music and designer drugs. On the eve of the WTO protests, this was especially true.

In one room of the dank catacombs, ravers/rioters were instructed in the making of Molotov cocktails. In another, they learned how to use a soaked bandanna as a tear-gas filter. In one of the larger chambers, a massive, multimedia screen showed home footage of this summer's Shut Down the City! protests, an annual event where protesters disrupt London's financial district by all means. A mass of those in The Warp, clearly under the influence of a variety of psychotropic cocktails, gave a rabid cheer as rioters on the screen tipped over and burned a police car.

I estimate there were 3,000 people in The Warp for most of the eight hours I was there -- 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. Sunday. The party, which began at 9 a.m. Saturday, lasted until 9 a.m. Monday, at which time I am sure a mob of the most hard-core ravers turned activists emerged from the dungeon, jacked up for three days and counting on God knows what, squinting to protect their black-pooled pupils from the morning sun, then made their way to the tube station two blocks away and boarded a southbound train to the financial district.

I am sure of this, even though I was long gone, because I observed a series of skirmishes in the financial district Monday morning, and recognized several grimy faces from The Warp. If Monday's actions were only a warm-up for today, I can only imagine the current chaos. Like a battle scene from Braveheart, clans of wild-haired, shoddily clad protesters charged the ranks of club-wielding police, armored in helmets and shields.

I didn't see Jane Hull at The Warp, either, and I didn't see her at the demonstrations, and I don't know her position on the WTO because every time I so much as shift my weight like I'm going to stand up, this flight attendant is asking me if I want another beer. It's over. I'm admitting defeat. This marks the end of the story of how I didn't get the story.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: david.holthouse@newtimes.com

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