England riots: watching Basket Case 2 and waiting for Oxford to burn

The night before last, I walked into my local convenience store here in Oxford and the pothead manager told me, “Be glad you don’t have to stay here all night.”

“Expecting trouble?” I asked.

“You haven’t heard the news? It’s all over Twitter. They’re going to gather in five different locations and then attack the city center.”

I considered for a moment. The store, and my house, are on the south end of Iffley Road. It’s a nice neighborhood, but just south of it is Rose Hill, full of yobs and hoodies, just the kind of snaggle-toothed lowlifes who’ve been rioting in London and other English cities. I pictured a mob of them swarming down from Rose Hill, burning the nineteenth-century thatched roof houses in Iffley village (including my son’s school), spray painting the Norman church, and charging up Iffley Road in a lager-fueled fury.

They’d hit the store first, beating up the night manager and stealing his weed along with the liquor behind the counter. Refreshed, they’d head up Iffley Road towards city center. Right by my house.

I finished shopping and hurried home. There had already been incidents in nearby towns. A McDonalds set on fire. Shop windows smashed. When I got home my kid said that when he was coming back from day camp he’d seen a lot of police. Even a five-year-old knew something was up.

His bedroom faces the street. I pictured a brick flying through shattered glass. That happened to a friend of mine in London, and it wasn’t even during the riots. I moved him into the back room with his mother. I took the front room.

They soon went to bed. I texted some friends who live in Rose Hill, hardworking immigrants who work overtime to provide a good education for their kids. They didn’t reply. I constantly checked the Thames Valley Police Twitter feed, which said all was quiet but that there were increased patrols. I saw none from my window.

I needed to take my mind off my worries and nothing does that better than a B-movie. Lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic for New York City. Not today’s Disney New York of tourists and yuppies, but the gritty and vibrant 1980s New York of my teens. Besides Driller Killer, no B-movie captures the essence of the old New York better than Basket Case.This tarnished gem features conjoined twins: a regular teenager who looks a bit like I did at that age, and a shrunken lump sticking out his side. They’re separated with an operation, but of course they have a telepathic bond and the lump likes to kill people. The normal brother keeps the evil football-with-claws in a basket, hence the movie’s name. I’d seen Basket Case, so I put on Basket Case 2, which had to be better than the original, right?

In the sequel our “heroes” takes refuge in a mansion run by a mad psychologist who shelters mutants. The house is filled with them. In the first therapy session, the shrink tells the basket case, “I understand your pain, but ripping the faces off people might not be in your best interest.” Somebody should tell the rioters that.

The movie seemed to be taking an interesting turn. I kind of felt sorry for the monster. It never had a chance. I definitely felt sorry for his normal-looking brother, trapped into a lonely and fugitive life because of his evil other half. I soon lost all sympathy. Any regular people who enter the house of freaks are immediately attacked, and the freaks corrupt the normal teen until he’s as evil as themselves. The injustices of the world weren’t making the mutants do bad things, they just used that as an excuse.

I worry about my friends’ kids up in Rose Hill. Surrounded as they are by lager-swilling dropouts waiting to turn 18 so they can get onto the dole like their parents and grandparents, they’re going to have a huge challenge growing up clean. Decent folk in bad neighborhoods face a stark choice: be a victim, get out, or become one of the monsters.

The night passed quietly. The next morning the paper said several fires had been set across Oxford. None were serious. In one case a would-be arsonist stuck a rag into a car’s fuel tank and set the rag alight but somehow the fire didn’t spread. These guys aren’t exactly rocket scientists. I suppose the cops didn’t report the fires on their Twitter feed for fear of encouraging copycat crimes. Makes sense from a policing point of view, but from a taxpayer’s point of view I wasn’t pleased.

The next night I went to the Albion Beatnik, Oxford’s best independent bookshop. There was a reading sponsored by eight cuts gallery, a local small press, and unlike so many literary readings most of the stuff was actually good. This is the England I love, the England of intellect and wit, of culture and community. The England of the rioters is a different country occupying the same space. Shangra-La and Somalia.

I left early to make it back before dark. The city at dusk was quiet. Several times people moved out of my way. Two girls even crossed the street. A lone man is suspect. Once again I slept in my son’s bed in the front room. No bricks this night either, but at 5:30 in the morning I got woken up a hollow thump thump thump. It continued for at least ten minutes, punctuated by incoherent bellowing.

I peeked out the window. A young drunk guy in a hooded sweatshirt was kicking the plastic recycling bins and calling for his friend to let him in. Eventually he realized he had the wrong house and staggered off down the street. He wasn’t going to make it far. I pictured him curling up on the sidewalk and dozing off, oblivious to the early morning pedestrians stepping around him. You see that a lot in England.

As I got back into bed it started to rain. I thought of him asleep out there and smiled.

London’s surgery museums are frightening and fascinating

Ah, the good old days! Everything was so simple a hundred years ago, so stress free. No television, no Britney Spears, no threat of global warming or nuclear war. Life was better then.


Cities choked on coal smoke, people starved on the streets, terrorists blew up innocent people, and the medicine, well. . .

While London has dozens of museums that can tell you about the past, two museums in particular tell you about the hard facts of life more than any other. The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret and the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons give you eye-popping tours through the “good” old days of surgery and medicine.

The Old Operating Theatre is exactly that, Britain’s only intact 19th century operating theatre. Dating to the days before anesthetic and before surgeon’s thought it might be help to wash their hands, it’s a sobering reminder of what our great-great-grandparents had to endure when they got sick. The theatre was in use from 1821 to 1862 and survived only because it got sealed off and forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1957.

The theatre was where surgeons and medical students watched the best doctors of the day cut off limbs, trepan skulls, and perform other operations. Beside the operating theatre, there is a large space reserved for displays of early medical techniques and instruments. Behold the glorious cervical dilator, a multipronged monstrosity that did just what it promised! Or the bone saw, which in the hands of a skilled surgeon could cut through a leg in less than a minute. Or the leeches, which were actually quite effective at getting rid of bruises by sucking the blood out of you.

%Gallery-128964%But it’s not all horror tales. These were primitive days, to be sure, yet doctors really did try to help their patients and herbal medicine was quite advanced. Also, there were innovative minds like Dr. Joseph Lister, who realized that disinfectant could help reduce fatalities after surgery, and Nurse Florence Nightingale, who made huge advances in hospital cleanliness to make patients healthier and happier.

The museum chronicles the efforts of doctors, nurses, apothecaries, and midwives. It’s literally crammed with artifacts and displays and an interested visitor can easily spend a couple of hours here.

An equally fascinating and full museum is the Hunterian Museum. Located in the Royal College of Surgeons, it houses a huge collection of preserved human and animal specimens. If you’ve ever wanted to know what a hernia looks like from the inside, this is where to find out. You can also see the large intestine of a crocodile, Charles Babbage’s brain, an artificially deformed skull from ancient Egypt, and the bones of the Irish giant Charles Byrne.

The main draw are the medical specimens of almost every imaginable malady. To actually see what so many people get is a revealing experience. Upstairs are displays of the history of surgical techniques. Unlike the Old Operating Theatre, this museum takes you right up to the modern day and there are some graphic films of operations such as the removal of a brain tumor and an enlarged prostate. Much of this museum is not for the faint of heart, but while I was watching the brain surgery in horrified fascination one brave little ten-year-old girl plopped down next to me and sat through the whole thing. I warned her off the stereoscopic views of First World War facial injuries, though.

While the “eewww, gross” element to both of these museums is certainly present, they are both very well presented and worth the time of any visitor who wants to learn more about issues that will, sadly, affect them sooner or later. It’s strange that these two museums aren’t better known. I highly recommend them both.

Creepy and beautiful cemeteries around the world

Cemeteries aren’t the first places most people go to while on vacation, but they can tell a lot about a culture and its history. We all have to die sometime and the way we deal with the dead says a lot about ourselves.

Some cemeteries are overgrown and covered in moss. Others are orderly and well-kept. Some are beautiful, and can inspire wonderful photographs like the one taken here by user Perrimoon over at Flickr. Sometimes graveyards can be downright dangerous, like the cemetery in Haworth, England, famous as the hometown of the Brontë sisters. The dead were literally stacked ten deep in this graveyard and the stream that provided the town’s water flowed right through them!

Some of the best free sights in Paris are cemeteries. The same goes for New York. My pick for the best place to see cemeteries is Rome, the city of the dead, which has splendid Renaissance tombs, ancient Roman gravestones, and mummified monks.

Do you have some good cemetery shots? Join us over at Gadling’s flickr pool and show us your art. You might just get picked for Photo of the Day!


Gadlinks for Friday 10.30.09

I find costumes scary and Halloween night even scarier. I may love to travel, but on this particular evening there’s no better place than the comfort of my living room. For those of you who are a bit more brave and eager to set out into the spooky evening donning a custom costume, have a ghoulish time! But for the others, like myself, who prefer to stay home, I invite you to read these Halloween-themed travel reads.

‘Til Monday, enjoy the last of October!

More Gadlinks HERE.

Marblehead–colonial jewel of New England

In a country dominated by big box stores and strip malls, it can be easy to forget our past, but there are occasional spots that are so well preserved they overwhelm you with a sense of another age. Marblehead, Massachusetts, is one of them.

Founded in 1629, Marblehead soon became a prosperous fishing village. In the 18th century it was home to privateers (a politically correct term for pirates sponsored by the government) who attacked British shipping in the Atlantic. When the American War of Independence started it was Marblehead men who crewed the first ship in the American navy, the Hannah. The town also supplied crews for the boats that ferried Washington over the Delaware river. You don’t get more Yankee than that!

But that promising beginning did not lead to greater things. Marblehead became a sleepy fishing and yachting backwater. This was just what it needed. “Development” generally passed it by, allowing the Colonial houses and winding, cobblestone streets to survive intact. I’ve been all up and down the New England coast and I can think of few places that evoke the 18th century like Marblehead. When antiquarian and horror writer H.P. Lovecraft first saw it in 1922 he was so taken with its beauty he used it as inspiration for his fictional town of Kingsport, the setting of several of his stories. Don’t worry, there are no sinister denizens summoning up unclean gods, just wealthy New Englanders with an appreciation for the past.

The best way to see Marblehead is to simply wander in the old town center, where historic homes cluster around the harbor. You’ll spot buildings that are two or even three centuries old, and while you may be familiar with this sort of architecture, seeing so much of it is what’s truly impressive. It’s a bit like a Yankee Pompeii, where the vistas once admired by periwigged gentlemen can still be seen and entire blocks once inhabited by America’s early merchants are still preserved. The homes of 17th century fishermen and the cemeteries of Revolutionary War heroes are much as they were. Don’t forget to stop by the J.O.J. Frost Folk Art Gallery to see the work of the famous local artist and the Grand Army of the Republic Civil War Museum. These two stops will give you some historic background to the town.

Marblehead is great for history buffs, but it’s a popular fishing and yachting destination too. I’m not much of a sailor (although I did catch a sand shark off Cape Cod once) so I don’t have any first-person experience with this side of the Marblehead experience, but the beautiful harbor and numerous yacht clubs show a lot of promise. Vicarious landlubbers can get a splendid view of the harbor from Fort Sewall, dating back to 1644.

[Photo courtesy Judy Anderson]