The company I currently work for - whom I shall call G because I've decided that maintaining some degree of anonymity might be for the best - knew I was interviewing at IBM and the possibility of me actually getting the job was always on the cards (from their point of view, if not mine), so we had made a plan for me to come down to London and do some actual intensive in-office work for a few weeks, regardless of the outcome of the interview.
The G office is probably the nicest one I've worked in. Very large screens, preposterously expensive (if comfortable - but no chair on the face of the Earth is five-hundred-quid-comfortable) chairs and a bright, 90-degree window view of Millwall Outer Dock and Greenwich beyond. And Space Invaders on the walls! (Later in the week I actually found the shop which sells them, but I forget where it is.) Almost everything in the office is orange. Well, not everything. Most of it is actually, black, white or grey. But bright orange is the G colour so everything that could be found in orange is orange. The desk separators are orange, the refrigerator is orange. The patch cables, both in the office and all over the equipment suites themselves, are all orange. It took me a while to notice just how far the scheming and branding went. There's G-branded packing tape, G-branded straps on the security passes. During one of the weeks, a few pairs of G-branded bright orange trainers arrived by post, ordered custom from Nike's trainer-customising service, which made my head spin a little.
I arrived around midday, in time for lunch. I was to be lodging with fellow G employee Matt for the fortnight. Matt turned out to be a smoker, which momentarily alarmed me, but a light one, and an outdoor one at that (which is an admirable quality, and apparently rare compared to the rest of the people living in his apparently non-smoking block of flats, who just lean out the window and flick butts into the gutters below). Location, location, location: he lived about 15 minutes' walk away, something I can get behind. Sun in our eyes reflecting off the dock on the way home. There were a few convenience stores on the route home but my master plan had always been to make a decent shopping run on the first evening so we drove up to ASDA.
I have no idea how to put this delicately: The Isle Of Dogs is much more multicultural than Nottingham. White people are nowhere near so much of a majority. I guess that's true of all of London to some extent. Lots more chadors and niqabs than I was used to. This was just something I noticed. I don't know if noticing this makes me a bad person.
Stocked up on cereal, bread and meat, we drove back. The thing I like about London is how efficiently you can actually get around on foot. Sure, the Tube is a hellhole at the worst of times, but you can actually get to places with it. It's a well-signposted city, as well. But I, for one, have never, in living memory, driven (or been driven) through any part of London inside of the M25. Owning a car would feel to me like an extravagance when you are 15 minutes from work on foot (and, I discovered, 15 minutes from ASDA on foot too). Indeed, living 15 minutes from work (and ASDA) would feel like luxury.
I have lived away from home. I have cooked for myself. I have even cooked for myself while living away from home, but the thing about my particular college was that we only had to do that once per week because Saturday was the night the catering staff had off. They really wanted us to eat in hall. They charged us a flat fee per term for the kitchens anyway, so we were kind of already paying for half of it. In other words I was cooking for myself seven days a week for the first time ever... ever! I discovered just how much electric hobs stink compared to gas hobs. I discovered that an extremely tiny freezer (taking the form of a compartment in the small refrigerator which was only slightly colder than the rest of the refrigerator's interior) can be a terrible thing. I realised the value of a hot water tap which supplies hot water (rather than having to boil the kettle every time I want to wash up). By the end of the fortnight I hadn't tried anything particularly ambitious (heating meat up, heating pasta up and heating vegetables up usually works out to an edible and nourishing meal, so I felt no burning drive to go the extra mile) but I also hadn't given myself food poisoning so I counted that as a win. Other things to look for in an apartment: a washing machine with instructions (rather than just a dial with seemingly random letters on it and no manual; I telephoned the manufacturer and even they couldn't help me; it turned out Matt had found a 40-degree wash just by trial and error); a shower with power; a soft bed (I could feel every single spring! It was like sleeping on the edge of a trampoline.
There were a few convenience stores on the route home, and Matt's modus operandi was to visit them and buy something for dinner on the way. I found the range, the prices and the quality of refrigeration at the stores questionable, however, so I soon started walking home via ASDA instead, buying whatever needed buying on the way. Such as beer.
The secret, as my friend H soon taught me in a phone conversation that week, is to never buy the cheapest thing on offer. For example: ASDA Smartprice stuff is dreadful. I mean, for real. Sweetcorn? Chips? Lager? One day I will take a photo of a can of Smartprice lager just to demonstrate how bad it is (and I can assure you it will taste as bad as it looks like it will taste). It's just a plain white can with "Lager" written on it in green. As if it were manufactured by some omnipotent, faceless corporation. Oh, wait. I never actually bought the lager but I did buy the chips and I did poke them down in the end, but seriously, lesson learned. Buy the second cheapest brand.
1 Canada Square dominates the skyline.
I am very much at a loss without my internet connection. Matt's apartment had a variety of options for internet access. The main option was a 3G USB modem which he plugged into a Macbook and attempted to use as the basis for a wireless network but this proved highly unreliable and very slow. Plugging the modem directly into either of our laptops worked better. Since I was limited to what I could carry with me on the train I hadn't brought my desktop PC with all of its music and video down with me. Instead I'd invested in a 1TB external hard drive to carry along with the G-provided laptop. I had spent the week leading up to the excursion ripping DVDs to this hard drive, and the laptop spent most of the fortnight in turn encoding these to sensible file sizes (e.g. 700MB for a movie, rather than 7GB). And then watching them.
The other good thing about London is that a lot of my friends from college and E2 live down there. On the first Wednesday I tripped up via Canary Wharf Station to a nodermeet where I met some noders I knew, met some I didn't, and made a fool of myself.
(The other thing about the Tube? It's boring. You can't just listen to music and look out the window because there's nothing out the window to look at. Bring a book if you value your sanity.)
Later that week I was introduced to Matt's Xbox 360. Apparently it was his first games console ever - such a deprived childhood! Grand Theft Auto 4 was highly amusing if seemingly lacking in direction... both of us played it pretty much in sandbox mode, landing helicopters on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, pulling out sniper rifles and terrorising random street corners. I don't know if the game becomes more rewarding if you actually go and focus on the missions and story but I, for one, have always found mucking about to be awfully tiresome. I guess that's just me, though. I guess I just won't buy an Xbox 360 and Grand Theft Auto 4. One thing which did prove to be highly amusing was Jeff Minter's Xbox Live Arcade game, Space Giraffe - a game which takes your Jakob Nielsen usability guidelines and section 508 and throws them out of the window, requiring as it does stupendous concentration, absolutely perfect vision and hearing and extreme thumb skills to play. Nobody less than a fully able-bodied peak-of-human-achievement Captain America could follow what is actually going on in this Tempest-like game what with all the distracting, obscuring, insane, neon, flashing explosions going off at the same time. Fun!
On the Friday night I met up with my London-dwelling college friends (and one lunatic PhD who had come down from Cambridge specially, yes, this means you, Chrismo) at the Union, well-known from its place on the Alphabet Crawl route. Expensive lager was drunk and amusing wordplay regarding the names of American states was swapped. The Friday after that most of us (plus a few more who hadn't been able to make it the first Friday) made it to Ye Grapes in Fleet Street for more yakking and then a trip to a Pizza Express like five feet from the front of St. Paul's Cathedral. A table with a display just inside the front door of the restaurant was advertising Christmas bookings. This was on 29th September. A record? We occupied a big table downstairs; having already eaten, some of us such as myself didn't order any food and just drank wine all evening. Plots for a formal dinner at Corpus were spun, and I believe that is going ahead, but I have prior engagements.
The Saturday, me and friend P met at London Bridge station for a traipse along the South Bank. London Bridge station is near the jaw-dropping overpriced London Dungeon and some other horror-based tourist attractions and had people dressed in gruesome costume wandering around handing out flyers. Particularly of note was the guy with the microphone whose job was to coerce passes-by to stick their head in a guillotine and have it chopped off, and the seven-foot-tall man with grey-painted skin who is apparently paid to spend all day scaring passing children.
I liken the South Bank to Everything2 if it was rendered into the form of a city district: sculptures, fountains laid out in grid patterns which switch off and on periodically so you can walk in and get trapped, the Tate Modern (with someone dropping buckets down from the top?), the Globe Theatre, enormous green furniture, buskers, street painting, skaters, and mazelike buildings whose interiors defy the traditional notion of integer-valued floors ("I think we're on a mezzanine between 3 and 4. We're on floor pi") filled with children being taught to play soothing songs on clonging percussion instruments. All human life is here, especially on a sunny day. We passed the London Eye and crossed the bridge north and wandered past shops for a while, searching for something which I am now almost positive simply does not exist in reality: a folding Phillips screwdriver I can put on my keyring. We visited Stanfords' Map Shop, which is a cavern of wonders if you happen to have the right kind of mind, and I got a map of the streets of London for the purposes of pub crawl planning. We plotted the hypothetical Crystal Maze pub crawl over beverages. It will involve maritime Greenwich and the Crystal Millennium Dome.
So overall it was a good experience. Working at G is the greatest thing ever, of course. Good people who know what they're talking about selling a good product they're passionate about? How many other businesses are like that, for serious? London is a cool place to live. At times I kind of felt lost in all the people - but that may be an artifact of me not really feeling like a proper Londoner while I was there. But it's a big exciting expensive system. I could have stuck with it for a long time. I don't know how Winchester is likely to compare. (I'm flat-hunting now.)