Thursday, July 28, 2005

Flickr's Godfather

The 3,000th photo I uploaded to Flickr is a howler. Well at least I think it is, let's have a look (full size image).


A little context is in order...

I, and countless others, had complained about Flickr's excessive use of Flash. First I had inveighed about rendering and accessibility concerns in Cultural Sensitivity in Technology. Then I used Flickr's Flash buttons as a prominent example in The Unloved HTML Button and other Folktales.

In any case, 2 days after the folktales were told, Flickr finally switched from Flash. They no longer use a wrapper for image display - allowing native browser image rendering, and they changed their button toolbar from Flash to DHTML. I'd like to think my snarky comments were the tipping point but I won't flatter myself. They now only use Flash where it's appropriate, for drag and drop organization of photo albums, the kind of job that Flash or applets are particularly well suited for. Now of course they didn't use unloved html buttons in their toolbar but we'll take what we get. DHTML has greater reach than than Flash and accessibility concerns are more easily addressed on that front. Also there are an evolving set of design patterns for dealing with unobtrusive DOM scripting and forms.

So there I was, pleasantly surprised by their responsiveness, and going about uploading a little comic image to punctuate some later toli essay. You'll notice from the image that there were a bunch of glitches on the first morning of the big switch. The icons for some of buttons of the toolbar weren't showing up. Oh well, we'll ignore that but simply note that if they were standard HTML buttons, there would be no images to download. Moving right along...

Then I noticed a couple of typos, I had tagged the photo as sopronos instead of Sopranos and the image's title mentioned Godfarther which tickled me somewhat.
Flickr's Godfather or Flickr Goes Further?
Well anyway, Flickr implements a Click-to-Edit feature, a little unobtrusive DOM scripting that allows you to edit in place, so I corrected the title and hit the save button that appeared. That's when this error message came up and I took the screen capture

flickr dhtml error on editing title

Taking a step back for a moment, let me just say that I love glitches. They expose the interesting aspects of complex systems and, much as we aim for simplicity, software tends inexorably towards complexity. As users of software we see lots of glitches daily. As an engineer, I am always interested in the first few days of a new deployment. You can test all you want but all bets are off when you get contact with real users and the real world. As an example, Technorati's recent makeover exposed lots of unforeseen glitches and they have had to work hard to address most of them in the past month. I was chatting recently with Dale Schultz, globalization architect at IBM and noted that I have a standard set of user names when I test new pieces of software, I make sure to have hyphens (hence I use my surname), ampersands (Sun & Sun is my canonical company), and, of late, accents (Rokia Traoré) because I've been bitten by various curses in the past in the software I've written. My former team has a José López test user for the same reason. Sam Ruby uses the word Iñtërnâtiônàlizætiøn as his proving ground in the same vein. We got to discussing the tyranny of patents at IBM and I pointed him to the Prior-Art-O-Matic for a laugh. Dale is obviously many steps ahead of me and of course he tried entering a euro symbol and immediately noted that that CGI application was broken and couldn't handle euros. Glitches often tell you a lot about application internals and the things that the developers tried to foresee or, as the case may be, ignored.

But back to Flickr's Godfather, what can we say about the glitch?
  • Flickr is passing xml back and forth in their API calls.
  • They are likely using XMLHttpRequest to do the voodoo of incremental loading without refreshing the page.
  • There's an API key, probably tied to the user's identitiy that is likely passed around in every call. Sensible enough.
  • They have to implement a Javascript layer to catch API errors and display something to the user.

Now I could have determined a lot of this and more by poking around and doing the View Source investigation. At the time, I wondered if I would have done any different and concluded that my implementation would have been much the same.

I have to say that like many others I'm highly impressed with Flickr, they had defensive programming and had appropriate error messages. Most people wouldn't have bothered dealing with these boundary cases. I haven't seen similar glitches since that first day thus the teething pains were temporary and they continue to add nice features to their service.

In any case, the juxtaposition of Silvio growling and in full bloom, the Godfather typos and the error message that popped up under Silvio's hands certainly made for a little amusement then and even today and now has occasioned a short blog entry. It reminded me of an advertisement for Fosters beer I believe that goes "It touches the parts other beers fail to reach". I guess the analogue in this case is "Flickr Goes Further".

As to why I had uploaded that particular Sopranos image, well let's just say that there's a famous quote from that scene and that's for some later toli.

[Update] I tried to cross-post this to my internal IBM blog only to find that the post was chopped off at Ruby's Iñtërnâtiônàlizætiøn magic word. Thus ironically as I was pointing out glitches, I just got bitten by one. I believe BlogCentral is based on Roller software and I suppose that I'll have to figure out whether the problem is in IBM's additions or in the core framework. The interesting thing about bugs with special characters is that sometimes you can't write the issue up because the software can't handle the characters in question. Perhaps BlogCentral needs a Godfather.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Catching Up

Some odds and ends...

I managed to upload the 4 powerpoint presentations of my cousin's Visual Introduction to Ghana to the Internet Archive for posterity. See Koforidua Fever (or Naki does Ghana).

I finally read all the newspapers I had stacked up in my apartment, some going back to April 14th. I've also now caught up on the aggregator reading front, I'm now following 285 feeds in Bloglines. But I'm still behind on email: 1800 unread in Gmail and 500 in Notes and similarly have a stack of 50 magazines to go through. This can't be good. Being a completist is no small endeavour.

It's been interesting reading the various memes of the past few months.

In politics: from Bolton to Schiavo to dissonance about Iraq and Afganistan and now London and Egypt. Throughout it has been silly season in the US media... Oh well.

In economics: stagnant wages, oil at $60 affecting everyone and of course real estate bubbles. When your cab drivers tell you that they're taking real estate courses or offer to sell you mortgages you might think back to 1998-2000 when cab driver discourse was all about the latest dotcom or networking stock. Also China unpegging the yuan from the dollar. A great unravelling in prospect...

In technology: 10 years since the web hit prime time, lots of companies celebrating anniversaries and a lot of reminiscing about what has worked and failed and how easy it is to do lightweight web services.

3 memes stand out and happily enough I'm currently working on all of these fronts:

  • Metadata (i.e. tagging)

    Lots of discussion about the annotation and the social implications of metadata. To me it's all about scribbling in the margins, evolving schemas and returning some of the things lost in the move from the physical to the digital. I was working on a little something on forms and wrote something about "bringing the moral equivalent of the notary public to the world of digital forms". I see much of the discussions of tagging and metadata as analagous, substitute notary public and forms.
  • Rich web applications

    More people are convinced about the value of increased interactivity and working on it. Finally I say.

    Surprisingly lots of people are very sensitive to naming, Peter Paul Koch writes the following
    1. DHTML is old-fashioned and deprecated; anyone who utters this phrase is ripe for some evangelization.
    2. AJAX is a buzzword; perfect for talking to marketing people, bosses, and other persons of limited brain function, but not really fit for serious use within the JavaScript community.
    3. DOM Scripting, finally, is the phrase we'll be using for our own internal communication.
    As you know I don't bleach and have my own buzzword Bleached Unobtrusive Dom Scripting (BUDS). I have hands in that budding community and the XForms world but couldn't care which technology ultimately wins.
  • Feeds, feeds, feeds.

    Atom 1.0 is indeed one of the best specs I've read since XML 1.0 and atompub looks even better. We want feeds everywhere. There was a presentation in Microsoft's past history arguing that Java is our destiny, I think Lotus/IBM is prime for a "Feeds are our Destiny" manifesto and I will write my version if no one else will. I've seen Adam Bosworth's version for Google. I only hope that the idea won't be dismissed in the same way that Bill Gates dismissed Java at Microsoft
    "Go join the Peace Corps"

Faustian pacts and Lights Out

Part of the reason I'm living in Cambridge and the US is that the infrastructure is predictable and eminently First World. Still if Lights Out is going to be a monthly or even weekly occurence, I should reconsider anew why I am not living in more congenial Ghana. Sure manhole explosions are acts of God but the number of electrical outages in the past 4 months is now approaching Ghanaian levels. This has led to a failed hard drive and power supply and, after last week's Lights Out, I've had to put in an order for a new power supply since the new one didn't react too kindly to the power disruption and surge. I suppose I should buy a UPS right? Still flashbacks to Ghana, driving home and seeing a neighbourhood dark, people gathering outside, flashlights etc. Nostalgia perhaps but this wasn't part of the bargain.

Annoying Feeds

Scott Bradner writes a weekly column for Network World which is one of the things I value most. Still sometimes I forget to read it, thus I was happy when I noticed that there was a feed for it. Ostensibly I'll be reminded when a new column is out. It turns out that they update the feed 3 times a day to put new advertisments in it so it constantly appears updated in Bloglines. I'll be unsubscribing if this continues.

Eritrean Mujahedeen

So I wrote the following a while back:
If you shared my symptoms, you would have been sure to notice the 30 seconds of video footage of Eritrean soldiers amongst the cache of videos and cds found in Afghan safehouses, as opposed to the clip from the "exclusive video" that CNN keeps repeating, whenever ratings flag, of Bin Laden's coming-out press conference in 1998. I frankly experienced whiplash when I saw those fleeting glimpses of Eritrean mujahadeen. And no one has commented on it so far as I can tell, not even Peter Bergen who's about as well informed as anyone on these matters. Really? Eritrea has a muslim insurgency? Protesting what exactly? I've heard about Somali, Sudanese, Nigerian and even American Taleban, but Eritrean? No wonder that there were biblical pitched battles in the border wars that were disastrously fought with Ethiopia over the past decade. I mean with that kind of forment and global jihadists in your midst, its no wonder that there is now a large American presence in nearby Djibouti to monitor things even if this last is couched in terms of a "small contingent of military adviser and civilian-affairs coordinators".
Well yes it seems that one of the London bombers was Eritrean. Sigh...

Concert Season

I've been attending lots of concerts and have a stack of reviews to dispense some musical toli on if I ever find the time.

  • Cassandra Wilson, Boney James and Al Jarreau
  • Digable Planets
  • Floetry, Queen Latifah, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu
  • Femi Kuti
  • De La Soul, Common and John Legend
Lots of good stuff here.

For a Laugh

Why I Will Never Have A Girlfriend

Via Random Thots: a mathematical proof... Glad to be an exception to the devastating logic of this piece.

Losing my voice

Another equation:

Feeling sick and feverish + Hot days and no air-conditioning + Construction outside bedroom window starting at 7am = West Nile Blues + Grumpiness + Unable to Sleep

It's never good to be sick when it's nice outside.

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Monday, July 25, 2005

Miles Ahead

So Chris Lydon pinged me yesterday about a show he was putting together on Miles Davis tonight. He obviously knew that Miles is like an old friend to me and a litmus test I use to compare up-and-coming artists.

The original hook was "How to listen to Miles Davis... and Why?", it has since morphed into Miles Davis: Early, Late, Real, Yours. As The Times points out today, A Radio Program Turns to a Blog to Cull Ideas, this is a very interactive way to put a program together and the pre-show comments tell the tale about how it can engage the audience and shape the focus of the show. Participatory radio is the thing these days and the feedback loop that the two-way web allows is refreshing. You should be able to listen to it live on radio, via streaming or download the archived show.

I've been nursing a sore throat and have mostly lost my voice thus I'm not sure that I'll be able to call in and participate what with George Wein, Marcus Miller and George Cole now added to the menu.

Still here are some jumbled thoughts that I sent his way. We are both enthusiasts on this front.

So much to say about Miles and so many ways to look at him...

For some he's just a good introduction to jazz. For most people, Kind of Blue is the first jazz album they'll buy much like Bob Marley's Legend is the normal introduction to reggae.

Thus we have Miles as the Gateway Drug, the Taste of Blue which will lead to Something Else and Someday My Prince Will Come and then to Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal and Wynton Kelly. Maybe we need a Miles Czar or War on Miles to prevent young people from getting hooked?

There's the bandleader who always surrounded himself with great musicians and (mostly) run a tight ship. Think of Monk, Duke, Mingus or Blakey or Horace Silver whose bands were similarly proving grounds.

The list of those who passed through his band is astounding from Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley in the 50s through Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter in the 60s, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Dave Holland, Michael Henderson, George Duke and Marcus Miller etc. He caught them young, stepped back and let them shine playing a kind of zone offense (to mix my metaphors) whatever the style of music was played.

There's the competition of the bop years, the blowing sessions with Bird and Diz. Who blew better, faster, higher? Diz? Clifford Brown? Lee Morgan? Roy Eldridge?

Then there's the First Great Quintet that I alluded to when Cookin with Rokia Traoré - the Rhythm Section indeed.

There's the Taste of Miles: he immediately recognized the artistry of Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and others. Impeccable taste in short.

The various eras of Miles like you suggest. Everybody has their own favourite era and I change every six months. Of late I've been going with the work with Gil Evans and especially Miles Ahead which verges on the orchestral blues.

Style - Nobody does it better than Miles

Competitive - He was always listening to other sounds and wanted to compete. Think of the reaction to James Brown and especially to Sly Stone in the early 70s.

Tradition vrs Modernity - respectful at times but refusing to go with the academy. As an example of the academy at work, a recent (or current?) cover of Jazz Times has a piece on Wes Montgomery in proximity to the phrase Sellout. The nerve of it! Is jazz a living music or did it end with Filles De Kilimanjaro as Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis would have it?

Ego - Miles refused to be ignored and was very sensitive to perceived slights.

Provocative - how else to describe Bitches Brew or say On The Corner?

Hubris - there was that and we must admit it

Race - since race is still very close to the fabric of this society one can talk about the kind of additional scrutiny that falls on prominent blacks from Jack Johnson to Muhammed Ali and how they negotiate it.

Sex - there is much to say about his attitude towards women. e.g. Misogyny at times, exploitative at times (pimp episodes). Is that par for the course?

There's also another aspect of Miles and sex that is worth pointing out. Why is it that when you start playing some laidback Miles (say Bags Groove with Milt Jackson) that members of the opposite sex immediately assume that your intentions, are how to put it, single-minded (e.g. Miles as a Gateway to Seduction). I suppose it's like the notion that Henry Ford could never have assumed that the back of a car would become a cultural signifier in the sexual life of teenagers in America and the rest of the world.

Drugs - must one suffer for one's art like so many jazz musicians did?

Money - well that's also worth a discussion. Did he go commercial?

Miles in twilight - I'm very interested in what he recorded with Prince and Chaka Khan in the late 80s - very little of which has been released. He had become terse, preferring concentrated bursts of trumpet and emotion rather than virtuosity. It is clear though that his influence was crucial in bringing horn-inflected sounds to His Royal Badness (the Minneapolis purple one). If you're one of those afflicted with the purple obsession you'll have somehow acquired the bootleg of the New Year's Eve jam at Paisley Park in 1987.

And it continues with the rappers today, they may not sample him (since the record companies charge so absurdly these days) but they name-check him. Think of Digable Planets or of A Tribe Called Quest in the past decade (The Low End Theory is just a matter of vibing with Ron Carter and hence Miles). The late era of any musician is always interesting, think of the pathos of Lady Day in autumn, the voice ravaged but note also the emotion of The End of the Affair.

Above all there's the music and we are lucky to have so much of it available on record. Still it is the music that happens after the show that I've been interested in, the blowing sessions much venerated in soul jazz, the little moments that stay in one's memory.

Mission: music. Glad you found Inamorata, I love tomorrow.

I subsequently noticed that the comments on the show's entry on the web site also spoke of Kind of Blue as being the Gateway Drug to jazz... Thus this is quite a meme. And it is true...

If you hear Miles play It Never Entered My Mind, you'll indubitably be led to Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins' version and from there you'll branch to Duke Ellington then all bets are off, you'll get to Count Basie, you'll think of Lester Young and then you'll get to Robert Altman's Kansas City and then you come full circle with all those young lions cutting each other, James Carter, Nicolas Payton, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride etc.

There should be a Six Degrees of Miles parlour game.

As I leave you, I'm listening to Blues For Pablo and sipping some ginger tea with honey.

Miles Ahead

Miles Ahead like they said.

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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Bullet From A Gun

I give you the Toli Remix of Derek B's Bullet From a Gun, a hip-hop photo essay in the vein of South London's vibe. Part II of the London's Got Soul Trilogy.

South London Brew

I lived in North London for 5 years in the late 80s and early 90s joining my mother during her 18 year stretch of exile from the insanity of Jerry Rawlings' Ghana. More precisely we lived in the "civilized" part of London, that's the Hampstead, Golders Green, Hendon and Brent Cross Axis of Civility. Throughout that time, I only made occasional forays into South and East London. It all seemed strangely alien to me: all hustle and bustle, poorly served by public transport, schools and local governments in disarray etc. Certain parts seemed more like Accra, Karachi or Lagos, in a word: messy. As an example, in all my time in North London I never walked into an argy-bargy (pub brawl) or got harassed by roving youths at night. Since I've left though, I've come to think of those parts of London as more interesting and certainly more vibrant even if they are indeed more difficult to live in. A lot of the cultural energy of the city comes from these less telegenic parts.

Thus I give you a photo essay on South London, This time however, your narrator will be Derek B who was there at the False Dawn of UK Hip Hop in the 1980s. Derek B truly is a Bad Young Brother with braggadocio and inventiveness to spare as you'll see from his wordplay. As a rapper he had impeccable taste, for example sampling the Oh Yeah bit from Prince's Sign O' the Times recognizing its importance long before others. The music scene in England at that time had a lot of soul (artists like Mica Paris, Omar, Neneh Cherry, Soul II Soul and Loose Ends), jazz funk and rare groove (Paul Laurence, Courtney Pine) from which the Acid Jazz movement emerged, as well as the beginnings the house and rave scene. DJs like Pete Tong and Westwood kept things moving. There was a lot of cross-pollination and the music produced had a multi-faceted sensibility. Other notables on the hip-hop side of things include Monie Love (Monie in the Middle and It's a Shame being the standouts) and the much-overlooked Cookie Crew who really put it on the line with I Got To Keep On, that hyperactive Old School joint.
Give them the proof that
We're down by the South Side
So you can confide
In the Cookie Crew

I got to keep on
I can't sleep on
Gaining respect
With a cool british dialect
Bad Young Brother is Derek B's most popular song, a fiercesome groove as befits the title; it even crossed over to this side of the Atlantic. For me however, Bullet From a Gun, the title track of his debut album, made a greater impression. It is a song firmly in the vein of Kool Moe Dee's Wild Wild West or great posse cuts like The Juice Crew's The Symphony. Its lyrics threw down a witty and theatrical challenge to the rest of the world affirming the existence of a soulful vibe in London. There is a direct line from Derek B to influential groups like Massive Attack or Portishead and latter-day poets like The Streets and Dizzee Rascal. He speaks to a youth culture that continues to make London the most exciting city in Europe. Although he is an East Londoner, we'll relocate him to Catford for the purposes of this post.

[Update May 2020, I've made video version you can find on Youtube]

For the musically inclined, you can sample the song here. I'll leave the mp3 up for a few days before slipping it back into the Long Tail of music and file sharing networks. Allow me then to do what the Cookie Crew suggested and
Grab the mic tightly
Serve the crowd rightly
Cause we were born
To keep it on
South London style.

Bullet From A Gun

Narrator: First There Was A Dream...

Narrator: Now there is reality...
elephant and castle
[Sound Of Footsteps]
Deptford Yoruba Community Center

"My Name Is Q. Easy Q"
"Who is Number One?"
"I Am Number One"

[snippet of James Bond theme, Bullets fire and ominous break beat begins]
James Bond 007
Licensed to kill
Easy Q, Derek B
Licensed to ill
On Her Majesty's Secret Service of rap
America, you're under attack
From the Crown Prince of poetry
The Man With The Golden Mic is me
kew gardens
You thought you'd never hear
Anybody with the gall
But Easy Q and Derek B
Got Thunderballs
I'll Never Say
Never Say Never Again
I'm not Russia With Love
You see I'm from England
london loot collage
I'll Live And Let You Die
Your soul will get cold
Your body paralyzed
As my rhyme unfolds
A billion dollar brain
Ticking inside my head
Like Diamonds are Forever
And I've got street cred
From the East End
Always say it loud
Def B-Boy
Black and proud
catford black beauty
I'm a warrior
Like Attila the Hun
That's why my posse call me
Bullet From A Gun
Derek B Bullet From A Gun
(South London Chorus)
"Who's Number One?"
"Bullet From A Gun"
"My Posse Having Fun?"
"Yeah Bullet From A Gun"
"You're Sure Gonna Get Some"
ebo pose
East London Posse
Raving all over town
Not invited to the party
We break the door down
Here comes trouble
Cooling with my homeboys
To a real lame beat
As the girlies stand around
About to fall asleep
little yuppie eaterie
16 Strong, my posse takes over
D on the decks, Easy Q mic controller
All of the sudden the party starts to rock
To the def beats and sounds of my hip-hop
Jazz Cafe African Jazz Funk
The volume increases
Your ears wanna bleed
B-boys going crazy
Suckers doing speed
Fight breaks out
Place gets wrecked
Don't bother me boy
You'll only get decked
Catford bridge fight police doing their thing
at the speed of light
We came to party
Not to fight
So the fridge gets raided
Brew and Tennent's gone.
Doner Kebab joint owner
The quiet start rocking
The sensi smells strong
Catford Copperfield Pub
Shuffling and shaking
Speakers start to pump
The amps overload
The party's gotta stop
A roar from the posse
With the gold around the neck
Each one against the wall
With the girlie in check
The game's over and won
We're out of here
Like a Bullet From A Gun
South London Chorus (x2)
"Who's Number One?"
"Bullet From A Gun"
"My posse having fun?"
"Yeah Bullet From A Gun"
"You're sure gonna get some"

Catford cricket
Take a trip through a park
To see an mc battle
Hot sunny day
Skeezers like cattle
The E.L. Posse
All over the place
Like government agents
No time to waste
Catford dodgy bricklayers
Standing in the corner
With my arms crossed
Laughing at the rapper
Who just lost
Sucker taken out
And I guess it's kind of funny
'Cos he's rapping for nothing
While I'm making the money
Queen Portia
Now he comes over and asks me what
He has to do to get all the way to the top
I said, "I'm a funky junky of the hip hop sound
I take this shit serious, no messing around"
east london
"My rhyme's like a bull
And oh so strong
I wear the freshest clothes
Like Louis Vuitton"
"I get to jams early,
You get there late.
Then set up cold ambush
On the 808"
big ben
"I'm a Pro, Bro
And when it's time to go,
I make sure I'll let the people
Know who's running the show"
Peckham market
"When out on the mic
I make sure I rock the night"
"Make the girlies go crazy
Throw their panties on stage"
"One more thing
While you're listening son
Make sure the rap's delivered
Like a bullet from a gun"
"Who's Number One?"
"Bullet From A Gun"
"My posse having fun?"
"Yeah Bullet From A Gun"
"You're sure gonna get some".
Jazz Cafe - African Jazz Funk
That's right I am Number One
And I'm here to stay.
I ain't going no place no way

One more time

South London Chorus
"Who's Number One?"
"Bullet From A Gun"
"My posse having fun?"
"Yeah Bullet From A Gun"
"You're sure gonna get some"
That sounds right to me. You like that?
OK let's chill
[bullet fires]

Fade out with breakbeat.

See also: Catford Bridge and London's Got Soul.

Bullet From A Gun - photoset

Derek B - Bullet From A Gun on Youtube

My man Derek B passed away in 2009. I am priviledged to know that he approved of my toli tribute. Rest in peace, soul brother

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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Catford Bridge

Part 1 of the London's Got Soul trilogy. Some action-packed travel journalism. [1]

Catford Bridge

From: Koranteng@toli
To: Family
Date: May 27 2005 5:41 AM
Subject: In Catford

So I managed to make it to Yaa's place in London...

It was quite a journey and will be fully blogged in due course. Let's see..


Landed in terminal 4 at Heathrow, I couldn't sleep on the flight and watched a couple of B-movies without the headsets - much more poetic that way... The Picadilly line no longer serves terminal 4 hence I had to take replacement bus service to Hatton Cross. 15 stops on Piccadilly Line to Green Park. Change at Green Park, head to London Bridge and then take British Rail. South London doesn't get tube service.

The heat. Who would have thought that I would leave Boston in cold freezing rain and start sweating within 5 minutes of stepping out of Heathrow airport. The bus driver was complaining because the air-conditioning wasn't doing much.
"Hottest day of the year... They say it's the hottest day in 40 years."
I had to take my coat off and stuff it in the suitcase.

Getting trapped in an elevator at Green Park station with 5 rather scantily clad 18-19 year olds, the kind that make you feel there is a God somewhere... The words that came to mind were fresh, luscious and nubile. One of them, the slightly bigger girl was the only non-blonde. She was the archetypal best friend: the slightly less attractive friend that all beautiful women like to surround themselves with. She was blindfolded and some tissues bulged out from the sides of her eyes. It was her 18th birthday, her friends explained amidst a torrent of giggles, and they were taking her out to some surprise party/hen night thing.

When we got on the tube, I was reminded again of why the Brits have the greatest sense of humour. A couple of labourers, painters I think, on their way back from work spotted the hen party and started laying into them with charateristic humour
"You let them blindfold you? ..."
The whole car started cracking up and the wisecracks begun as the train got stuck in the tunnel as is typical in the London Underground. I heard more concentrated wit in the 5 minutes we waited than I've heard all year. The girls were good sports and gave as much back as they got from the other passengers. We were dying of laughter long after they stepped off a few stops later.

Running to catch a British Rail train with my 70 pound suitcase, backpack and all...

Only to be told after I made it that the platform had been changed just before I was about to jump onto the waiting train... Ah, British Rail... Running up and down stairs on footbridge to get to the right platform, and barely catching the hourly train.

In Catford

The fight that I stepped into right as I walked out of Catford Bridge station...

As I took my first 3 steps into Catford, this was the scene... On the left: 15 or so drunk black (Jamaican?) youths. To my right: 20 white guys (football yobs?) - Liverpool had won the Champions Cup the day before beating AC Milan. I can't believe I missed that match, but that's what happens when you leave your packing and shopping to the last minute. In the middle: 10 or so policemen trying to calm things down and keep things from spiraling out of control... The dozen or so women standing outside the pub egging the fight on.

As I looked up, I saw the first punch being thrown. Thus I walked straight into a melee of about 30 people yelling at each other and exchanging furious blows...

A bunch of them almost knocked my suitcase off as they fell on me in one of those pub brawl tangled scuffles. Exciting introduction to South London. 6 or so police cars began streaming into the place. Flashing lights, sirens, tangled limbs, dirty streets. Screams of women. The fighters were more methodical and mostly kept quiet as they went about inflicting damage on each other.

Picking myself up and dusting my bags off... Pound-foolish and/or a true son of a journalist, take your pick, yours truly taking out his trusty Olympus 35mm camera and beginning to take photos of the scenes of mayhem (I hope some come out - I haven't gone digital and the camera is a little dodgy, and they've put that wheel in a place where it's easy to make things blurry, plus I have to scan). Would this be my Catford Bridge Rodney King video? Or perhaps a Do The Right Thing Mookie moment?

Asking at the Jamaican barbershop at the Station Approach why the police were only trying to arrest the black teenagers, who were protesting that they hadn't done anything since, as far as I could tell, it was the white guys who were out of control and who threw the first punch... The brothers in the barber chairs were a little inebriated (Jamaican rum) and of no use, or perhaps they were wondering if I was for real. Also
"Na man, no mini-cab around here. The office closed at 9pm."
Fleeting thought: a barbershop open at 9:30pm?


At the first flash of the camera, the bald white guys who in response started snarling at him, the black guys snarling at him, the exasperated police officer snarling at him
"No photos please, sir..."
People behave differently when they know there's a camera. Still, the lip:
"That's the least of your worries, officer. Look what's happening over there!"
The guy in the Liverpool shirt had somehow broken free from the large group and was delivering furious blows to someone who wasn't taking it very well and was literally crumpling.


The little crowd outside the pub enjoying the Thursday 9:30pm excitement... The police trying to usher them in to the pub to stop them adding fuel to the fire.
All right mate.
Catford bridge fight police doing their thing

The teenagers who seemed to be streaming towards the scene with nothing better to do on this hot night...


The little rush down the street to not get further involved and to get away from the madness. All of South London's police vans seemingly arriving on the scene. CID in effect. The noise.
Then of course there was the lack of mini-cab or black cab around - this being South London (I knew I was just 7 minutes from Yaa's place - so near yet so far) - also the mini cab office right outside the station was closed and, in any case, was back where the fun was, where the flashing lights and furious police cars kept heading towards.

So of course there was the decision to pick up a doner kebab at Broadway Kebab and Fish and Chips down the road... He's very local your Koranteng...
"As'salam Alaikum... Let's have a doner. Make sure there's lots of chili on it. I like it spicy."
The Moroccan-looking customer who couldn't figure out what he wanted and asked for a sample.
"If I give you a sample, I'll have to give him too."
"Well why not?"
"I'm trying to run a business here."
"Well, why not?"
"All right then, lamb or chicken?"
"Hmm, let's try the lamb."
Discussion of the fight only a hundred meters away...
"Ahh... It's just the Thursday night crowd. Don't mind them. Plus it's football. Can you believe Liverpool won?"
"I can't believe I missed the match."
"Amazing... Steven Gerard... A comeback.. And I'm not even a Liverpool fan.."
The Lebanese owner who told me not to waste my money calling a mini-cab
"Besides there aren't any around. This is South London"
And gave me directions to Yaa's on the bus:
  • 3 stops on Bus 202
  • Stop at the Tesco store
  • turn back
  • turn left...
He even drew me a map.

The walk down to Catford Center where Yaa had picked me up when I passed by last September - right in front of the Post Office. Still on the lookout for a cab of some sort. No luck. Passing a host of characters wondering who this guy was with suitcase, backpacks and camera.

The call to Yaa confirming the directions to the Tesco (as I thought - my coins run out and the phone cut off in the middle of the conversation - this is when one needs a mobile phone)
"Yes... Tescos, turn back, turn left... Just cross the street to the bus st_"...
The Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi? youths who were fooling around the payphones and who discovered yours truly and had themselves a little anthropological fun with this curious stranger...

[censored harrowing interlude]

Catching the bus eventually... A little puzzled about which street she meant me to cross, the signs said The Catford Gyratory and there were 8 streams of traffic.

Anyway, on the bus, paid my £1.20.


The bus driver was annoyed that I took 2 minutes to find change in one of my bags.

The woman sitting ahead of me was reading Ovation magazine, pictures of some Nigerian society wedding including the obligatory Benzes in the driveway. Getting off at the said Tescos...

Asking a guy walking out of Tescos for Argon Rd... Puzzlement followed... Then
"Ah right, Oregon Rd" [pronounced Our Gang]...
You're in the wrong place mate, this is Perry Hill, you need to head back to Catford, you're looking for Brown Hill Road, innit."...
Innit. Innit? Checking my printed sheet of paper in the 10.30pm street light
"Ah right. Angang not Argon."
"Would help to know where you're going mate."
"Tell me again."
"Are they any minicabs around?"
"Nah man, this is South London, you know."
Not believing my luck or indeed the guy (he looked like a carbon copy of me actually) walking into Tescos... Past the wary, obviously Ghanaian, security guard
"I don't know this area, sir." A Heavy Ga accent...
To the counter: the Indian manager on the left and the African guy - he looked Ghanaian or Nigerian, who manned the register... They both looked warily at me, my suitcase and backpack. I had put the camera away.

Started asking for OurGang road. Deer-in-headlight stares... Brown Hill Road was around here but on the other side of Catford Center. This was Perry Hill and Castford Lane.

Realizing that I was in the wrong place and had gone in the wrong direction, resolved never to listen to owners of Doner Kebab joints...

The Indian guy pointing me to a London A-Z map behind me...
"Oh right, a map."
Meanwhile lots of late night people buying all sorts of things at Tescos (fags - or cigs as the yanks call them, beer: Kroenenborg and Stella Artois). Thursday night traffic.

Buying said London A-Z map, after discussing with manager, realizing that it was rather a Texaco station I had been looking for not a Tesco store... Aha....

Asking for a minicab...
"No man... don't know any numbers... maybe near Lewisham Hospital"
South London.

Dropping all the coins I had found like Inspector Clouseau as I attempted to pay... Like Christmas come early to some of those who helped me pick said coins up... I was about £5 lighter by the time I got the receipt for my map.

Meanwhile there was the black guy (West Indian?) who tried to get change for an obvious counterfeit £50 note... Said security guard, on head nod by Indian manager, threw him out... Late-night convenience stores have their own practiced routines.

Ah, the bus. Running across the street to catch a bus in the opposite direction... The noise my suitcase made on the ground was, how to put it, interesting. The Pakistani bus driver who said to catch a Bus 202 instead since he didn't think Bus 181 would take me near my destination (2 stops past the McDonalds... walk back, turn right and down the street).

My determination, newly armed with London A-Z to ignore advice and get to my destination, and hence to take the Bus 181.

Driving past Catford Center... Police were still processing the scene at the station. Wondering if I shouldn't get out and take the bus 202... but deciding well at least I'll know my way around, I have a map.

The Nigerian guy on the bus having a conversation about Christ, the Path of Righteousness ™ and of course his latest business opportunities. I couldn't figure out his 419 scam but he was such a practiced operator. The way he went from religious matters to the necessity of closing the deal was so smooth I would have given him all my money. I wished I had a voice recorder. And whoever was on the other side has gullible as their middle name. He saw me staring at him and smiled as he continued his conversation and working his scam
"Yes, just send me the company letterhead."

2 stops after the McDonalds was St Andrews Church and nothing else...

Low light... Having forgotten my directions, walking in the wrong direction for 3 blocks. Then remembering said London A-Z. Very difficult to find road in index at back of map. What was the name again? Angang? Oregon? OurGang Road?

Backpack is becoming heavy... Dropped the map...

Almost 5 hours after I landed in London, knocked at Yaa's door. She was in her coat and had just been about to walk out to search for me... Time is 11:45pm, 2 hours since she spoke to me.

Heated up my doner kebab in the microwave.

Talked with Yaa about the good old days and the adventures to come... Wonderful conversation about life, love, wedding planning... Waache weddings in London where everyone's friend cooks a meal (waatche, jollof, barbeque chicken, kenkey, fish etc). The community hall rented for £300 tops, the buffet, the fun with the screaming kids running around... The clowning of said weddings (that I loved by the way) by those in the US. The commercialization of weddings in the US... Those friends of mine who wouldn't blink at spending $25,000 dollars for a wedding... Thoughts of the day after the wedding... modesty, credit cards etc.

Ate my doner kebab, the chili was essential.

Slept with a smile on my face as always.

There's internet here but I need to wipe off all the spyware that is making their computer slow... Unfortunately I didn't bring my adapter so can't use my laptop.

I come back to Boston on Tuesday night.


"Good resolutions are like babies crying in church, they should be carried out immediately." - Modern Ghanaian proverb

Postscript (a photo essay)

koranteng catford luggage

Our Gang Road, a Bermuda triangle.

Our Gang Road

It turns out that Yaa's house is a 7 minute walk from the station.
It took me almost 3 hours to make it home.

The barbershop at the Station Approach is called The Aftermath.

Catford The Aftermath Barber Shop

Broadway Kebab and Fish and Chips is the official name.

Broadway Kebab Catford Bridge

My new favourite Doner Kebab joint.

doner kebab joint

The owner gave me the lowdown about the previous night's affair. Apparently it is a relatively regular occurence. Gangs of youths head into pubs and scope out who might be drunk. As you're leaving the pub, one of them will jostle you, one of his friends would join in and while you're distracted a third will steal something. This time, one of the victim's friends spotted the theft hence the outrage of the football fans who descended on the gang. Thus of course the police were indeed arresting the correct people and my impertinent tourist shtick was an obvious misreading of the situation. Thankfully I had my luggage and looked so otherwordly (a camera?) otherwise I might have beem taken for a combatant and ended up in a police van (or erusticated?).

Doner Kebab joint owner

The Copperfield pub's clientele is a typical South London mix, it's a fun place so long as you keep your guard up as you leave.

Catford Copperfield Pub

The Catford Cat at Catford Center is of course the great landmark.

Catford cat

As is the Broadway Theatre. Unfortunately I didn't have time to catch the Elvis show.

Catford Broadway theatre

Catford is an interesting place, it's a mix of salt of the earth South Londoners like these dodgy bricklyayers.

Catford dodgy bricklayers

He said:
"I hope you're not the Tax Man"
since they obviously hadn't gotten a building permit or paid taxes anytime since that abortive Thatcherite Poll Tax episode in the late 80s and early 90s.

There is a shadow economy at work.

catford mobile phone

At the mobile phone shop near OurGang Road, I bought my £50 LG mobile phone, my first and a second-hand one to boot. It came with a dodgy charger (you need to stand the phone upright otherwise it won't charge). Said phone died in the middle of my first call to Orange's customer service to top it up. Missing from this picture is the owner, a wheeler/dealer who is likely selling goods fallen from the back of a car. Astute and street smart, he run to the right, behind the door when he saw my take my camera out. The Nigerian woman (fiancé in Atlanta) had just started working there. The Jamaican guy changes his phone every month and had stories about life in the US, Brazil (he'd die for the women), Jamaica and Africa (Ghana, Nigeria - those people take your ID and want bribes). My phone was likely one of his castoffs. A lean Chinese guy with a backpack came in selling bootleg dvds of the latest American joints, we looked them over, very up-to-date I must stay. As I was leaving, I overheard the owner ask him
"So what phones do you have for me today?"
Had I just bought a hot phone?

The black influence is obvious and omni-present, both West Indian and African.


On a glorious day, glorious hair products. Women of the darker persuasion spend so much money on their hair and can't leave nappy alone. Hey, I benefit from the results but it's no wonder that the first African-American millionaire was someone who sold hair products. Curtis Mayfield sang of we people who are darker than blue...

Catford Afro beauty

Still Catford is quite a gentrified place with great yuppie eateries amid the doner kebab joints, havens that wouldn't be out of place in Paris. The class and ethnic mix is more of the balanced melting pot.

little eaterie

England was having an unexpected heat wave so this van was about the most popular thing on a Saturday afternoon. The Moroccan doner kebab guy and I got some lollipops for desert. The teenager that you see has a Jamaican boyfriend, I didn't catch his name, he was a Winston type. Her mum runs the ice cream van during the summer. This was their first day out this year.

Catford ice cream

There's also a strong Asian influence, mostly South-East Asian but also Chinese. Chinese herbal medicine is a growth industry everywhere, We're all wary of these drug companies and seek efficacious solace in time-tested remedies. On the food front, in England, the Indians have it over the Chinese. The most popular dish on a Friday night is a curry or vindaloo if people are feeling adventurous.

chinese shops

The backyards of Catford are often more interesting than the front and the same goes for its people. They hustle and bustle and have a lot of fortitude. As Alyson Williams sang
Not on the outside, inside's strong.

Backyard barbecues are the thing, it's all about the joy of small things.


Evidently the children who grow up in this melting pot have a lot of soul.

catford sidewalk painting

I love Catford Bridge.

koranteng catford struggle

London's Got Soul.

Catford Bridge - the photoset

[1] This is the very lightly edited email I sent on the morning after I arrived in London for a weekend trip this past Bank Holiday/Memorial Day. The addition is the preliminaries section and obviously the photos and the postscript photo essay. I also fixed a few typos and changed some names to protect the flavourful. Normally I mull my travel journalism and tweak it to death, this time I thought the immediacy of the moment was worth keeping. Given the kind of start I had to my trip, it was clear that it needed to be blogged and more.

This is the first part of the London's Got Soul trilogy.

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