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Frustration Pageant

from Friday, January22nd of the year2010.

I have had a very frustrating pageant of inefficiency in London today. I got an English mobile number last night – which, in itself, was a very complicated ordeal despite the fact that I only wanted a Pay-As-Þú-Go phone. (the complexity is beyond description; let me just say that it was only pharmaceuticals that kept me from eating a man’s liver on Oxford St) It worked, and I set up a whole series of interviews and social appointments on it. And then, I woke up this morning to a doomed “no service” message. Restarts, network resets, etc. I eventually called my Cervix Provider, Orange, to discover (after 30 minutes on hold, with actually kind of satisfying hold music), that my account had been suspended for Fraud. The only way, darling Yogesh from Tech Support informed me, to reättain service was to fax (?) my most recent credit card statement (?) to a certain number. Now. Let’s think about Things that Seeme Fraudulent. As far as I’m concerned, faxing my bank statement to some Bengali dude is like, Fraud level 9 out of a possible 10. Me trying to move to London and behave like a normal human being is like, 2 out of a possible 10. Anyway, I endured the Faxing Process (which, let it be said is not easy; it involved PDF’s from Citibank, reformatting from 8.5×11 to A4 sized paper, and an amazing scene of four generous women from the Roundhouse huddled around their fax machine trying to get it to work.) They had no way of confirming that it worked. I don’t know if it worked. My phone still isn’t working.

I am now convinced that England is essentially an enormous logistical game, like that thing where you tilt a surface to get a marble to fall into a specific hole. At a certain point today, after 45 minutes with Yogesh and fielding all the insane emails attendant to my failure to “answer” my “phone,” I seriously entertained the idea of just Going Home, where the streets are paved with pork belly and I can make my phone go. Tickets were investigated; fraudulent medical excuses were fabricated.

After a few hours of really horrifying logistical +44 hours, I decided to just abandon hope of leaving and repair immediately to St John, where I et: Snail, Sausage & Chickpea, and some Parsnipp Soup, with a glass of white wine. All of this set me straight: London is a place obsessed and consumed by inconvenience, with a few fortresses of awesomeness, St John being one of them. The physical space is heaven, the food is heaven, the staff is heaven, the font is heaven, the glasses are heaven.

Later that day, I went to the Roundhouse to rehearse. I adore the Roundhouse. It is one of the most beautiful spaces in the world. The bar? Was great. I sat there for an hour, from 3-4, answered emails, made some arrangements for friends, and then was informed that the bar was closing for “a changeover.” A changeover to what, I axt. “Dinner service,” was the answer. “So, can I sit here while you change over?” “No.” Now we come to a crossroads. Do I get hood with these people? Or do I just leave like how they are very politely asking? I left because I had to make a phone call, but this woman’s attitude stuck in my craw. What am I meant to say to her ass, “I’m playing here Sunday; can you please just let me keep this wee table in the corner during your changeover? can I stand up for 5 minutes while you reärrange the candles and naps-kijn?” Instead I just sort of collected my things and left.

BUT THEN. Leitur. At 6 PM, I wanted to go to the bar, with an administratrix from the orchestra, to get a glass of wine. The barmaid on duty (I reïterate: barmaid on duty) informed us that we could not achieve wine. Why? Because. The fact that there were three half-full bottles of red wine literally within my arm’s reach was immaterial 2 her. I followed the lead of my administratrix hostess and we left. But then fifteen minutes later I said to myself, you know what? Fuck these people. So I marched back up and said, what amount of money can change your mind? The barmaid was horrified. I said, what can I say or do to achieve a glass of the red wine that is half open, slowly fermenting in front of my wery eyes. She said, “oh, well, you can have a plastic glass of it without any problem. It’s just a glass that we can’t do.”

Hello. What are we dealing with here? Was she saving face? Should she have said this bit about the plastic glass 30 minutes before? Am I a crazy New Yorker? Am I petulant? Is she crazy?

I want to use this space as an urge to Londoners to Stop the Madness. Question all the times that people tell you that you cannot do a thing that you clearly should be able to do. It’s wine behind the bar; it’s £4.30 in your pocket; surely we can make something happen. It’s foreign students and workers in your city: give a bitch a cellphone without struggle. It’s people who want to express their dollars in pounds: give a bitch a bank account without all this rigmarole. I’m really over the Eichmannesque behavior of everybody up in here. It’s 10 PM, I’ve been working all day, you have to let me eat! I would love (sort of) for there to be a place besides St John that is an Acceptable Atmosphere in which to exist.

One thing I have to say, though, amidst all of this, is that the Roundhouse is an amazing, amazing place. I did an interview for their in-house radio station and on my slightly curvèd walk to the studio, I walked past what seemed like almost infinite mini-studios with Macs with Logic and ProTools rigs. All these rooms were filled with fresh-faced 21-year old musicians who in some way establish tenure in this fabulous space. What this place amounts to, in New Yorker terms, is the thing that all of us have been dreaming of for years. It’s like Zankel Hall meets Terminal 5 meets a studio meets the American Music Center. I was beyond impressed with it; I was sort of moved by my brief walk past young people using the computer and very moved by one group of two of them: a gay boy and a (?) girl, riveted by the flashings of Logic on the screen of their iMac. I want the iTunes download of whatever it is that they made that day.

So, in summary:

London people: Resist this Bullshit!

London people: Support the Roundhouse!

London people: Eat the Snails & Chickpea!


  • Can I just say that opening up my iGoogle THREE TIMES this week to Nico blogs has made me very happy? Times three. Hooray! I hope you get your phone and beverage service worked out to your satisfaction.

  • You have no idea. After living in Britain for 4 years, I will never complain about American bureaucracy again.

    If you think pay as you go is tricky, just be thankful you didn’t get a mobile contract. As I discovered when I moved back to the states, canceling one requires first calling the phone company to inform them that you wish to cancel and having them ‘process’ this information, at which point they mail you a ‘reference number’. Yes, mail. On paper. You then have to write them a letter with said reference number stating (again) that you wish to cancel — and they’ll only accept it via snail mail. After they deny receiving it three or four times, you re-send the letter by recorded delivery. Then they mail you ANOTHER ‘reference number’, which you have to quote to them on the phone. Then, and only then, will they cancel the contract. Count that: 2 phone calls, 2 reference numbers, and 3 letters sent by post are all required aspects of this process.

    And this is, of course, assuming it all goes according to plan. When I first called, the person from the dreaded O2 refused to give me the mailing address at all, until I told him I was about to cancel my bank account and leave the country forever.

    Speaking of bank accounts: let’s just say that they let me open a checking account, but wouldn’t allow me to deposit the thousand or so pounds in cash I walked in with until my account had been open for two weeks. Just try to make sense of that.

    Alas, good luck.

  • Welcome to Europe! Love your blog post. More power to the people. Anytime you want to experience the service and hospitality of Copenhagen, let us know. I can already envision that blog post now. (But we need, and we deserve it). Break a leg on Sunday 🙂

  • Darling, the move away from the Gothamesque Centre of Narcisism is always a challenge. The move from The Land of the Free to Be I, I, I to any Land of the Imposed to be Bureaucratic, where Communality, Rules and Stiff Upper Lips prevail must be a travail indeed!

  • Pepys and Boswell, move over.

  • You’re kidding, right? Try being a foreigner in the US. It starts at the border; we don’t want you here. You have to pay double for health insurance. If you don’t have that state’s driver’s licence you’re snaffled. It’s called travel – and it is supposed to broaden the mind.

  • Dear Miss Gately,

    Your telephone is working.

  • Amen Rachel, and Dave… amazing… In the six months I have lived in the UK I have become convinced that the reason everyday tasks are so frustrating is actually just conspiracy to support the pub industry… The pubpet masters own you here. I swear it was easier to get a cell phone and bank accounts in the PRC. Hey Nico my wife and I won tickets to this weekends concerts so we will def make it to Roundhouse tonight and tomorrow… hopefully London doesn’t get the best of you before then, stay strong, and good luck tomorrow.

  • […] Muhly is “now convinced that England is essentially an enormous logistical game, like that thing where you tilt a surface to get a marble to fall into a specific hole”; […]

  • Dear Nico,

    Such a salve to my rational soul to hear someone else write of the maddening passive aggressiveness ubiquitious here in London. They cannot just say “I don’t want to give you what you want EVEN IF IT FALLS WITHIN MY JOB so I hide behind or invent excuses to make it seem reasonable”. So they make something up. Banks, phone co’s, bar staff–all the same instinct, so a cultural thing. But meanwhile they cannot hear themselves say incomprehensible things. Like the plastic glass excuse. Good for you and your instinct to challenge it. If that’s how they treat an artist for the venue, imagine the punter. Well, as you imply…no difference. SO this narcissism is weirdly democratizing. (The Z shows I’m American, right? 😉 ).

    Hope to run into you at a bar sometime, if only to tip my imaginary hat.

  • If you think London is aggravating, you’ve never lived in Brussels. The British bend over backwards compared the lazy socialist morons in Belgium.

  • Amazing show at the Roundhouse tonight.
    Many thanks for a fantastic evening.

    Oh and you are so right about St. John.
    I got terribly excited to discover I was standing next to Fergus Henderson at a bar in Soho yesterday afternoon.

  • Nico

    I hear ya! Im a Londoner born and bread – and im telling you, there is a skill with putting up with this here otherwise you will get nothing and have nothing you want! But you can make it into a fun game whereby you bargain and play with people until they give in to what you need. It works with the right attitude – which im sure you have – i promise. I had a similar situation the other day int he Roundhouse cafe too. I would say the staff generally were really amazing there – was doing a performance in the Dorfman Hub so was around for a few days – but I asked one woman for a frothy cappuccino and she looked truly insulted as if i had just stepped on her foot – and it was a it of a shit cappuccino in the end. hmmm.

    Im really sorry to have missed your show tonight – due to unfortunate circumstances – but really wanted to make it. Are you doing any more performances in London soon?

    Good luck with everything – and fight those frustating London vibes – its worth it for the pockets of amazing-ness here.

  • The internet is amazing: sitting in my house in boring Middle America on a Sunday afternoon, I could watch your Roundhouse show live from London via their website. A super concert, mind-stretching and very well-programmed. Also, loved how you vented some of the frustrations you blog about to the audience there. Great NYC subway story!

  • You know our famous ‘Little Britain’ sketch with the oft-repeated catchphrase ‘computer says no’? There really are folk like that.

    Who rebels? Us cyclists in London – I note we’re rulebreakers and certainly don’t obey the pointless signs.

    But then there’s the Round House, and St John – trust you have the lovely book – and…and…

    Pleased, at least, you can point out our foibles without resort to the rampant Anglophobia that bedevils the Parterre opera site, with its rants against ‘fucking Brits’ – ohime, imagine if you replaced that with ‘blacks, Jews, gays’…

  • […] couple of days ago Nico Muhly posted a rant on his blog about how London was a complete logistical nightmare, how Londoners were too accepting […]

  • I stumbled upon your pretty website with delicious fonts and eccentric spelling. I wondered who is this? And then I read your marvelous blog…

    Having recently moved to London a month ago, I cannot begin to relate more to what you’ve said.

    Your tales of woe regarding bank accounts, cell phones, trying to find a place to print out a colour page, adhesives and the obstacles of functioning in a normal existence are spot on. I’m amazed at how I can easily lose an entire day to tick off one thing on my to-do list as the vortex of inefficiency and bad service consumes me whole.

    Great job – wish me luck as I jump through the flaming hoops of fire involved in getting a gym contract next…

  • First rule of England: anything you want to do that you can’t do yourself must be done AT LEAST twice to be completed to satisfaction. They’ll get it eventually.

    (P.S. I used to work at Schirmer but left before you joined their ‘stable’)

  • Oh Nico, you don’t understand the joys your blogs bring to me. And when I heard you were coming to London, my hometown, like, I was thrilled. I booked the concert about a month before you had it. And may I say how wonderful it was. I’m 16, yeah, so I was just about the youngest person in the audience which was kind of embarrassing, and on a school night. You wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to explain to my parents that you are pretty much my idol; so they would let me go. I got there with a friend pretty early at about 6:30. And I think I saw you walking from the main space entrance on the level 1 floor into some doors next to the place where they were selling your CDs (which I already have, duh). And I literally screamed. I don’t think you heard though. And I never imagined you to be so tall. And then at the concert, you walked on stage, and I specifically remember you saying: “Hi. I’m Nico.” – Dude, you rock. You rock. AND YOUR STORY ABOUT THE “NOT TODAY MO FO” HAHAHA made me laugh big time. This morning I woke up laughing about your rant about the train and the bus and the male perverts. Oh Nico you rock. And I have now seen YOU in person. I SAW YOU! IN PERSON!

    Mr Muhly, thank you so much. Seriously. Reich and Glass, your mentors. You lucky, lucky guy. Thanks for an utterly amazing concert 😀

  • OK, I’m still awaiting moderation. But in the meantime, if it’s not too tedious to recall, a funny thing happened on the way to the homestead: dropped in on the big music library, fifteen minutes to closing time.

    They were preparing for a special Burns event. I needed a score. They said, ‘but we’re closing at 6.50 this evening’. I said, ‘but I’ve come here specially and how was I to know that’.

    Persisting, I got one lady to look and see if she had the Photopsis score I needed. She did, but it needed to be got from the store, and they were closing in ten minutes…

    HOWEVER nothing can rival the sheer aggression of New York nocando. At the airport, of course, but also from the security guard to that funny little row of 1930s houses on the Upper West Side. Could I just walk up the steps and look in through the gate? ‘This is as far as you go’. Here, his opposite number would be humo(u)rable.

  • Nico,
    Thanks for the wonderful post. Sorry about the hassle. I’ve done a fair bit of work in England and understand. My advice, go to Germany for a few days, come back and you’ll be amazed at how “flexible” the English have become 🙂

  • Thank you for a very interesting concert on Sunday. It was poorly attended – perhaps the publicity was poor. The transport to the Round House certainly WAS poor because of the usual round of Sunday ‘planned’ closures.
    You complained about the trains before conducting City Life – it was the only false note of the evening. Of course trains are terrible – this is old news. But it was inelegant of you to harangue an audience that had cheerfully braved the weather and the ‘planned’ closures to applaud you about the inefficiency of English trains. We already knew English public transport was shit as we had ducked and weaved and queued and changed buses to get to you. Fine to blog about it I guess, but not as part of a concert. It diminished the concert.
    Moving to another country is always stressful and people always complain. The English distrust efficiency, you’re right – it’s a weird kind of snobbery. But there are cultural dissonances wherever you go. Someone from Oslo living in Zurich complains about the sloppiness of the Swiss. Et cetera. Setting up a new life in America has I am sure its own problems and frustrations.
    I am not English by the way, defending ‘my’ trains. I’m Dutch, where as we all know everything goes like clockwork ….

    [Nico responds: I’m not sure if this is the most depressing comment I have ever received, but it has certainly dampened whatever remained of my high after performing! Perhaps you misunderstood me. I wasn’t haranguing. I was calling for motivation. I’m off tomorrow morning early to Eindhoven. Tell everybody you know to take a bright yellow train to the show and perhaps it will be less ‘poorly attended.’ Jesus. I’m going to listen to Buxtehude and try to remember my experience of Sunday which was many smiling and laughing faces both onstage and in the audience.

  • Okay, it was inelegant on my part to point out the poor attendance. But I was surprised and did wonder if these damned Tube closures had anything to do with it.
    It was worse than inelegant – it was Philistine. You’re not selling bags of lentils. If just one person in that crowd loved and understood your work, that would be enough, right?

  • I for one enjoyed both the music and the “call to arms” on Sunday evening. Having been stuck in blighty for some years now, I’ve gradually been worn down by the relentless inefficiency of the place. It was refreshing to be re-awakened from my complacency, and reminded how frustrating I used to find it all when I first arrived.

    Thank you Nico (& co) for enduring it all, and managing to not only deliver a wonderful performance, but to do so in good cheer.

    P.S. Was also a wonderful surprise to see you and Sam performing again last night with Owen Pallett!

  • I for one enjoyed both the music and the “call to arms” on Sunday evening. Having been stuck in blighty for some years now, I’ve gradually been worn down by the relentless inefficiency of the place. It was refreshing to be re-awakened from my complacency, and reminded how frustrating I used to find it all when I first arrived.

    Thank you Nico (& co) for enduring it all, and managing to not only deliver a wonderful performance, but to do so in good cheer.

    P.S. Was also a wonderful surprise to see you and Sam performing again last night with Owen Pallett!

  • Life in London is indeed frustrating, and you describe it so vividly. It’s difficult even when you live here and are used to it, but it’s alarming to see it through a visitor’s eyes. Many of our difficulties I think stem from the fact that there’s very little job security. People therefore don’t regard their jobs as anything to invest in, either in terms of background knowledge, pride in the company, or compassion for the customer. It’s incredible how often you find yourself pleading for information with an employee who confesses that they haven’t been there very long and have no idea how to answer your question. Somehow the indomitable spirit of London continues to flourish amid the chaos …. I hope!

  • Grow some balls, you sound like a child. If the guy at orange wasn’t Bengali would it still be 9 out of 10 on the fraud scale? You sound pathetic. A call to arms for Londoners? From you? Yeah, the revolution starts here and boy is it middle-class. If Londoners were like you the city would be dead in ten years.

    [Nico responds: Well, I think the nature of this revolution would be specifically designed for people like me and our petty, bourgeois concerns like phones and getting coffee & sandwiches quickly. I can’t pretend to speak for the Subaltern in London, or anywhere for that matter — being born middle-class is so eternal, isn’t it — but it sounds like you ‘n’ Gayatri are ready to really roll up the sleeves and get to work with the capital-R Rev! Onwards! I’ll be on the sidelines with artisanal sandwiches for when you get tired. ]