Football and Brent(ford)

Let’s talk about the Championship!

Brentford Community Stadium nearing completion in early August 2020.

If you’re not familiar with the Championship, it’s the second tier of professional football in England, and each season the top two teams are automatically promoted to the Premier League, the next four go into a playoff for a promotion place, and the bottom three teams are relegated to League One. The Championship tends to have a vast range of quality in both teams and individual players, as well as a vast range in budgets for the teams competing. The money is nowhere near as good as the Premier League, so teams are often desperate for promotion for the giant windfall of TV money that the top flight brings. 

Cue 2020, and the pandemic restart. 

Brentford FC are the closest professional team to me, and the first team I saw in person after moving to England. The fact that they are named after me certainly endeared them to me, and I have followed them with interest for the last two years. 

After a massive winning streak during the restart, Brentford had promotion in their hands coming into the final games. They’ve only been in the top flight for five seasons in their history, stretching back to 1889 and most recently in 1947. With two matches to play, West Brom had dropped points and Brentford needed a win to move into second place and the automatic promotion slot. Heavily favored against a Stoke side that was in the Premier League just a few years ago, Brentford managed to lose 0-1 away at Stoke. There’s an old joke in football about the prima donna continental teams: they might look good on Saturday afternoon, but can they win a match on a rainy Tuesday night in Stoke? Turns out, Brentford could not. Sigh. 

Going into the final day, Brentford no longer had their own fate in their hands. They needed a win and for West Brom to drop points. West Brom had played well all season, but their form was patchy during the restart. All the matches on the final day of the season were played simultaneously, and West Brom struggled to a 2-2 draw against Brentford’s local rivals QPR, and Brentford were at 1-1 against Barnsley, who were fighting for survival. With only minutes remaining, it was less a football match and more a basketball game. The ball and the players were moving from end to end of the pitch as both clubs were desperate for another goal. Brentford, at the last, had a defensive breakdown and Barnsley scored at 90+1 minutes. The celebrations from the Barnsley players were rapturous and hard to begrudge. After spending most of the season in the relegation places, they survived on the final day. 

Brentford’s season was not done, however. Enter the playoffs. Brentford, 3rd in the league, traveled to Wales to face Swansea, 6th in the league, who managed a small miracle to sneak into 6th place and the playoffs on the final day. The Swans were all over the Bees, continuing Brentford’s run of poor form. At halftime the match was goalless, but around 60 minutes the Brentford left back, Rico Henry, made a (stupid) lunging challenge on a Swansea winger. Henry got the ball, but he also clattered the player. It looked worse in real time given that he started his slide about two meters from the Swansea player. Henry was shown a straight red, and Swansea made good on their advantage to score a goal and take a narrow lead back to Brentford.

The second leg was last week in Brentford at the side’s historic home ground. Griffin Park is a proper, old stadium in the middle of a block of houses. It famously has a pub on each corner and includes the only standing terrace in the Championship. The standing area was a special dispensation from the Football League given Brentford’s recent promotion up from League One and their plans to move to a new stadium. Next season (mere weeks away at the time of writing), the Bees move to their shiny, new Brentford Community Stadium (17,250 all-seater) about a mile from Griffin Park. 

Brentford’s attack this season has been a poor man’s Liverpool, powered by a front three of Ollie Watkins, Said Benrahma, and Brian Mbeumo, who scored 57 goals between them. Unlike Liverpool’s front three, Benrahma, Watkins, and Mbeumo have a snazzy nickname: BMW. Behind the BMW Brentford have a midfield core of Josh DaSilva, formerly of the Arsenal academy, who has been outstanding, as has Danish international midfielder (the poor man’s Cristian Eriksen) Mathias Jensen. 2019 signing Pontus Jansson from league-winning Leeds has been a rock in the defense, helping Brentford to the second best goals against record, behind only Leeds.

Fifteen minutes into the second leg Swansea had a corner. David Raya, the Brentford keeper, caught the ball cleanly, threw a laser beam pass to the right flank where Jensen waited. Jensen took three touches and played another laser beam 60 yards on the grass to a sprinting Ollie Watkins, who finished his 26th goal of the season coolly. Four minutes later, a lovely little chip from Benrahma found previously unmentioned Emiliano Marcondes wide open for a glancing header to make the match 2-0. Swansea picked up the pace and played well going into halftime, but were still down the two goals.

Four touches and a goal

Prior to the match, Brentford appealed the Rico Henry red card. I was watching it in real-time, and when it happened, I turned to my wife and said, “That’s a yellow.” It was a bad tackle, but the ridiculous slide made it look worse than it was. The club were convinced it would be overturned, and with nothing to lose, lodged the appeal.

Seconds after the kickoff, Brentford worked an overlap down the left wing. Rico Henry, having successfully dodged a ban for his red card, ran onto a great pass and hit a great one time cross to the edge of the six yard box. Brian Mbeumo, a man with a damned good left foot and absolutely no right foot, connected with his left foot to a ball about waist high and put it in the net. Brentford 3 – 0 Swansea.

With promotion to the Premier League on the line, Swansea weren’t done. Chelsea loanee Rhian Brewster capitalized on a wretched mistake by Pontus Janssen and chipped the ball over David Raya to make it 3-1. At about this point I pulled out my phone to lookup the Championship Playoff rules in the event of a tie. It turns out, there’s no away goals rule. Any tie results in extra time being played, and if the match is still tied, it goes to penalties. (The away goals rule applies in European competition, and it means that in a two-legged tie the team with more goals scored at the opponent’s stadium wins a tie. If that number is equal, the match proceeds to extra time and penalties.)

Swansea pushed hard and had a couple of chances, but Brentford held strong to win 3-1 on the night and 3-2 aggregate. They now face local rivals Fulham.

The final is next Tuesday, August 4th at 19:45 local time, 2:45 PM EST. Brentford have beaten Fulham twice this season, and go into the match as favorites, but no Brentford supporter will forget the three match losing streak that nearly undid a season of superlative football.

If you can spare a couple hours of your afternoon next Tuesday, tune in!

Griffin Park, home Brentford FC.

On Taxes & Healthcare

Cat with its head pressed against a wall

Accident & Emergency 

Recently I had to see a doctor. There are several local surgeries (American translation: doctor’s offices) within a mile of me, so I registered at one, waited a day for the paperwork to process, and called in for an appointment. With the pandemic still very much a concern, the office offered me an in-person appointment, but also suggested they could have a doctor call me back within two hours for a phone appointment. I took the phone appointment. The doctor called about an hour and a half later, I explained the symptoms, and she suggested I go to the hospital to be examined where they have more diagnostic capability. 

I took the train to Kingston A&E (Accident & Emergency; American translation: Emergency Room), where I was triaged within ten minutes of arrival. Twenty minutes after triage, I was having blood drawn, and ten minutes after that I was speaking to a doctor. The doctor did an exam and sent me to radiology, where I waited about five minutes for an x-ray. Results came back negative within a half hour, so the doctor treated me with medication on the spot, had me wait around another 45 minutes for observation, and sent me off with a prescription. I was there about three hours in total, including getting the prescription filled. 

Total cost for all this was £9.15 to fill the prescription. (American translation: about $11.60.)

That on its own doesn’t seem too unusual, compared to America. Ten, fifteen dollars for a prescription is pretty normal, in my experience. But here’s the thing: that was the only cost. The hospital won’t send a separate bill. Neither will the doctor. Or the radiologist. I spent under $12 to go to the emergency room, be seen in a timely manner, and be treated. That is, in three paragraphs, why the British love the National Health Service so much. You get sick, you get treated, and you don’t worry about the bill.

But they’re so slow, you’re thinking. I was in and out of the ER in under three hours, and a fair chunk of that was observation time after I had seen the doctor. But you pay so much more in taxes, you’re thinking. So I decided to compare. 

Let’s talk about taxes

I’ve tried to make this comparison as apples to apples as I can, so I used my 2017 US tax numbers (the last full year I lived in the US) and my 2019 UK tax numbers (the first full year I lived in the UK). 

Income tax is the most obvious tax, but in the US we also pay Social Security, Medicaid, property tax (on real estate), personal property tax (on cars, boats, etc). But don’t forget the hidden tax: healthcare. It’s easy to ignore, but every dollar you spend on premiums, copays, deductibles, and scripts is effectively a tax. Look, I can’t go without health insurance. I’m a cancer survivor, my wife is a cancer survivor, and I have two kids. We get sick, we get treated, and we continue contributing to society. My opinion is that everyone should be so fortunate. 

I totaled up what I paid in the US, including my employer’s contribution to my insurance. We had no major healthcare expenditures in 2017, so I’ve used what I put into my flex spending account (which was used only for health-related expenses). 

I then did the same exercise for the UK. This included Payroll tax, National Insurance (which funds the healthcare system), council tax (like property tax, but also include my trash service), and TV tax (yep, I pay £13 a month to fund the BBC). 

The result

UK effective tax rate: 37.2%

US effective tax rate: 38.7%

The US is slightly higher, but honestly, it’s mostly a wash. I had two cars in the US, but none here. I lived in a low cost of living part of the US in Southwest Missouri, and I’m in a high cost of living area in southwest London. 

I basically pay the same amount of taxes in the UK as the US, when you consider the cost of healthcare. If I have a cancer recurrence while I’m in the UK, not only is it not going to bankrupt me, I don’t even need to worry about the deductible. I chose my primary care physician in the UK, just as I would in the US, and I was assigned the rotation doctor at A&E, just like I would in the US. I was treated professionally and quickly. The only real difference is that my £9.15 bill would have been a $500 or $1000 deductible in the US, plus a percentage of the total hospital charge. 

I’m going to leave you with a parting thought: If I made less money in the UK, I would pay less in taxes while receiving the same care. If I made less money in the US, my insurance premiums, deductibles, and general healthcare expenses would not go down, and might in fact go up if I had worse insurance.

We can do better, America. 

London Update, Pandemic Edition

I’ve been meaning to write a “what we’ve been up to in London” post for a while, but it’s been hard to find the motivation when there’s a raging pandemic, America is on fire, and the UK has the worst covid numbers in Europe. I’m sure you can all relate, at least to two out of three. 

Watermelon sharbat from the (wonderful) Dishoom cookbook

We have largely been at home for the last three months. Exceptions have been trips to the grocery store, to the post office, and one trip to A&E (the emergency room for my American audience) in Kingston. For the most part I’ve seen people doing their best to maintain social distance, though that tends to break down in the grocery store. Maybe 25% of people are wearing masks. The UK government has now mandated that masks should be worn on public transit from June 15th, so I expect to see a general uptick. 

Professionally, Ye Olde Day Jobbe has continued with little interruption. I feel fortunate to not just continue my employment, but to continue to grow and learn. It’s been nearly two years in the UK now, and I’ve been forced to stretch and grow on a monthly basis. It’s been good for me. 

Two boules made from the King Arthur Rustic Sourdough recipe

Personally, I’ve been up to my usual things. Lots of reading, writing, cooking, and video games. On the reading front, I thoroughly enjoyed Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth and Martha Wells’s Network Effect (definitely read the prior four novellas before diving into Network Effect). I have written a few short stories in the last three months, and I have made my second story sale of the year. It should be out late this year; I’ll post about it when it’s published. I also wrote a novella in the vein of The Witcher and The Black Company. It’s a secondary world fantasy set in an analog of the middle east during the late bronze age collapse. The initial feedback is that it has some pacing problems, but that’s fine. I was planning to expand it into a novel, anyway.

Homemade, soft pretzels. Alas, the lack of sea salt

I don’t tend to buy newly-released games, but Steam (and lately Epic Game Store) sales usually see a few of my shillings. Recent favorites are XCOM 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. AC Odyssey is the first Assassin’s Creed game I’ve played, and my understanding is that longtime fans of the series give it mixed reviews. It works well for me because I wanted an open world RPG with bronze age technology. (See the novella I wrote earlier in the year.) 

For the cooking, well, see all the pictures littering this post. My coworkers are talking about all the running and cycling they’re doing, and how they’re losing weight. I have found the weight they’ve lost. I need to find a better routine than work all day, cook a high-calorie dinner, and read/write/game all evening. 

Almost eggs benedict, but we were out of bacon. The crumpet is the King Arthur sourdough crumpet. The Hollandaise is Kenji’s recipe.

The girls are all doing well. Carissa is eager to get back to gymnastics, but her gym hasn’t reopened yet. She is dragging me on plenty of walks and spending a good bit of time in the garden. 

The eldest child has been playing Animal Crossing New Horizons non-stop. I’m starting to worry about her relationship with Tom Nook. Her school took a few weeks to adapt to online learning, but has been moving along reasonably well for a while now.

A closeup of the roses in our garden

The youngest child has been playing everything under the sun other than Animal Crossing, including the Sims 4. I gotta say, though, she’s an enabler. I wouldn’t be doing nearly as much baking if she weren’t encouraging me by eating everything I put in front of her. Growth spurts will do that. I think the child has grown six inches this school year. 

Piper continues wandering in and out of the house, pretending that he’s starving if he hasn’t been fed in the last two hours, and getting into scuffles with the neighbor cats. He is definitely London’s second-least-favorite orange American. 

Oatmeal chocolate chip and oatmeal cranberry cookies from Bravetart

All this talk of food, and you all are thinking “how you gonna do this to me and not link some recipes, Brent?” I got you, fam. Some recipes:

Tomatoes, peppers, onion, and garlic, ready for fresh salsa

Brent’s Easy Salsa

  • 3 heirloom tomatoes, diced (don’t bother with standard grocery store tomatoes)
  • 2 jalapeno or red peppers, diced
  • 2 to 3 anaheim and/or other mild peppers, diced
  • 1 medium white or yellow onion, minced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1/2 bunch of coriander (cilantro, my Americanos), chopped
  • Big pinch of salt 
  • A few grinds of a pepper mill
  • Optional: a birdseye or Thai chili, for extra heat
  • Instructions: Combine in a bowl and eat with tortilla chips! 

Consuming Media in an Age of Bullsh!t

The opinion section is the chocolate cake of journalism; it tastes good, but you can’t eat it by itself for long and stay healthy. 

I spend too much time on social media. Because of that, I’ve developed what I feel is a reasonable set of filters to tell the difference between plausible news and bullshit. 

I start with what the insurance industry calls “knock out questions.” These are questions an insurer asks upfront to see if the potential risk is so high that they can skip the more-detailed assessment, saving everyone time. These are things I can assess in a few seconds to decide whether I’m even going to click the link.

  1. Is this a link to Youtube? If it is, it’s out. While I tolerate Youtube for entertainment, I don’t for news. The site’s goal is not to help you find facts; it’s to keep your eyeballs on the screen and feed you advertisements. I feel the same way about cable news, though I’ll at least entertain the idea that cable news might sometimes show actual news.
  2. Does the website name contain any of the following words: patriot, tea party, liberty? If so, I ignore it. Let’s be honest with each other: the tea party movement was a reactionary backlash against a black president. America is now paying with the lives of doctors and nurses for having a government full of incurious science deniers. 

With the knock out questions out of the way, I look at a few general things to help me understand the potential slant of what I’m reading.

The first thing I do is look at the publication. Is it a known news organization? I’m going to give national newspapers with actual news departments far more credence than an entertainment outlet. Does this organization have a known bias? My skepticism is going to be much higher for organizations with naked political agendas, and I’ll look for corroborating stories at other outlets. 

Is the article an opinion piece? I immediately slide opinion pieces further toward the bullshit side of my internal scale. The opinion section is the chocolate cake of journalism; it tastes good, but you can’t eat it by itself for long and stay healthy. 

Then I look at the author. Is it someone I recognize? If not, what else have they published? Is this article trying to appear neutral when they have a history of writing things that otherwise have a clear bias? That’s a sign this is bullshit in disguise. Do they have a publishing history? If not, I’m immediately skeptical unless they are experts in their field and are speaking to their expertise. 

If it’s an article about verifiable science, I like to see the sources the authors are citing. Does the article even have citations? Are those citations coming from reputable journals? Is this a contrarian view of a hot topic, and if so, what new evidence is on offer to support this view? I don’t need to understand the science, but something that is based on peer-reviewed journals is more believable than something that is plausible but untested. A contrarian opinion is just that: an opinion, not science.

Similar to the verifiable science, I like to know if this is a press release in disguise. Are the people being cited the public relations arm of some company? If so, I maintain a healthy skepticism about whatever is being claimed. If there are sources in the article, are they named? If they aren’t, I’m skeptical. How many sources are in the article? If there’s only one, this isn’t news, it’s gossip. If there are none, it’s an opinion piece. 

Is this method perfect? No. Are there things I’m forgetting? Probably! Does this enormously cut down the level of bullshit I consume? For sure. 

Better In Every Way

When you decide to have a go at being a professional writer you either learn to embrace rejection or you quit. The writing business beats you down far more often than it lifts you up, and if you aren’t ready to hear a hundred “nos” for every every “yes,” then this isn’t the career for you.

But sometimes, an editor says “yes.” And when that happens, you get to walk on clouds for a few days.

Another thing about the writing business that you don’t realize at the beginning is that it’s a waiting game. Short story submission sometimes take months to return a response. Novel submissions take a year or more. Even when you sell a story, the publication can take months, and you have to keep quiet while the gears of the publishing machine grind away.

But sometimes you submit a story and the editors says “yes.” And even more rarely, they want to publish the story next week.

Well, friends, lightning struck. Flame Tree Press had a submission call, I had a story, and we hit it off like a lightning strike in a stand of ponderosa pines.

My short story “Better In Every Way” was accepted last Friday, and it came out yesterday. You can read the handy user’s guide to your new clone on the Flame Tree Press website and learn how it will improve your finances, your relationships, and generally make you better in every way.

Fair warning: it gets real dark, real fast.

Enjoy! And remember: be good to yourself.

The Tourist’s Guide to London Sports

London is a darned good sports town. Not so much for baseball or hoops, but if you’re into the sporting vestiges of a colonial empire, I have some good news. London has all kinds of weird sports for you.

  • Football (soccer)
  • Rugby (football plus soccer minus pads)
  • Cricket (baseball if it were as long as a golf tournament)
  • Netball (basketball without dribbling or backboards)
  • Tennis (tennis)

As a colonial myself, I grew up playing soccer football. I’ve tried to blend in with the locals, so I’ve been to see rugby a few times, and I’ve done some research on how many unicorns have to be sacrificed to get tickets to Wimbledon.

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – club talisman Harry Kane about to score a penalty

Football

The average Englishperson loves their local football team as fiercely as an American college football fan loves their alma mater’s team. The crowds can be large, the fans can be intense, and the tickets can be a challenge to find. There are 20 teams in the top league in England, the Premier League. There are 24 in the second tier, the Championship, and there are “who’s really counting, anyway” in the two professional leagues below the Championship. If you’re a football tourist, you know who you want to see, and it’s probably one of the top six teams in the country. 

“Cut to the bloody chase, mate. How do I get football tickets?”

The Premier League

For the Premier League, it can be tricky, expensive, or both. Many clubs require you to be a member to purchase tickets, and there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to get a ticket for a given match. If you want to avoid dodgy resellers, you have a few options:

  • Pay a few hundred pounds and get a “hospitality” ticket. This gets you a good seat in a box overlooking the field, a meal, and whatever extras the club includes (drinks, tour, etc). Available from the club website or by calling. In football, money solves most problems. 
  • Join the club as a member and buy a ticket through the club website. Membership is 25 to 35 pounds for the Premier League clubs I’ve checked, and if you’re not trying to go to a local rivalry or a match against a top 6 side, tickets are usually available. They range from 55 to 350, depending on where you sit. 
  • Go to a League Cup or FA Cup match against a lesser opponent. This is variable depending on who the team are playing, but Carissa and I saw a League Cup match at one of the top 6 sides for 10 pounds per ticket with seats on the second row

Can you buy a ticket from a reseller and have a nice time out? Probably! Can you buy one from someone you know or a friend-of-a-friend? Probably! In fact, if this is an option for you, it might be the least expensive, safest way to go, but I recognize that this isn’t going to work for the average tourist. 

If you don’t know what club you want to see, here are the options:

  • Tottenham Hotspur – a good-but-not-terribly-successful team in a working class neighborhood that also happens to have the best sports stadium in the world. The captain of the English national team is a product of the Spurs youth academy and is the Spurs starting striker
  • Arsenal – Tottenham’s biggest rival. A once proud club fallen on mediocrity that play football in a soulless concrete bowl that’s honestly easier to reach than Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, but ride two more tube stops and walk the extra 3/4 of a mile and just go see Tottenham
  • Chelsea – Another Tottenham rival. Historically the club favored by England’s fascists, then purchased by a Russian oligarch who proved that with enough blood money, you can buy trophies. The stadium itself is old, but enjoyable to take in a match, and it’s easily reached by tube. The best American player in the world, Christian Pulisic, plays for Chelsea. 
  • West Ham – A mid-size club that plays in the former Olympic stadium in east London. You could watch a football match here, but unless you grew up a supporter, why would you? Easy to reach, at least
  • Crystal Palace – See above, but in south London and harder to reach

I am not biased, at all.

The Championship

So you couldn’t get tickets to the Premier League. Don’t panic! You can always go to the next tier down in football and see a team from the Championship. You’ll go to a smaller, more intimate ground, the tickets will be less expensive, and the drunk guys in front of you will be even more passionate about the club than the drunk tourists at a Premier League match. Honestly, if you’re into football, and you’re going to be in London with time to spare, go to both a Premier League and a Championship match. 

Tickets for Championship matches are generally available from the club website. They may ask you to register, but they probably won’t ask you to pay to join as an official member. Good tickets can be had for 20 to 30 pounds. 
Local options are: 

  • Brentford – they are named after me, I’ve been a few times, and it’s a great day out in West London. Do recommend, and if you go before June 2020, you’ll be at Griffin Park, notable for having a pub on every corner. I took my family to a match last season, and they had a great time. Good atmosphere, and the family section is truly family friendly
  • Fulham – Recently relegated from the Premier League, former home of several American players, including Clint Dempsey. Great location on the Thames. 
  • Queen’s Park Rangers – West London. I haven’t been yet, but intend to go
  • Millwall – Southeast London. Have a reputation as the roughest fans in football. I’ll go at some point, but I probably won’t take my family.
  • Charlton Athletic – I honestly didn’t realize this club was in London, and I don’t have a single (other) snarky thing to say about them

The easy answer here is “go see Fulham.” It’s pretty easy to get there, the ground is fairly large, and tickets will very likely be available. I also have to throw in Brentford as a brilliant ground with a new stadium to be finished in the summer of 2020 that will probably also be worth seeing. No offense to the other three clubs, but I haven’t personally been yet. (Dear club directors, I will come watch if you send me a ticket)

If you want to go to a lower league match, power to you. Tickets won’t be a problem.

Rugby

Rugby is what would (did) happen if the rules of American football diverged, no one ever thought to wear pads, and the players were all basically linebackers, safeties, and running backs that can also kick.

The Southwestern London village of Twickenham hosts both the national rugby stadium and the Twickenham Stoop, home of Harlequins, the local Premiership Rugby club.

If you want to see rugby, probably go see Quins? Tickets are fairly easy to buy from the team website and cheaper than the Premier League. Plus, you can drink your beer at your seat at rugby, which you cannot do at football. 

My major complaint about rugby is that it prospers on the destruction of human bodies. A friend explained that those are mostly the bodies of posh boys, so I shouldn’t feel too bad about their destruction. I’m not entirely convinced, but that did help.

Tennis

It’s literally a lottery. If it’s September when you read this, congrats! Enter the lottery. Otherwise, how much do you feel like camping? Because the option for walk-up tickets is to join a queue at 4am early in the tournament or camp for literally a couple days later in the tournament.

I entered the lottery for the first time in 2019, and I should know in the spring if I am able to get tickets. I’m not holding my breath. 

Everything Else

Beats me, but probably less of a pain than getting tickets to the Premier League or Wimbledon. I plan to see a cricket match in 2020, so I’ll have a better idea then.

London eats

London Road
Borough of Twickenham – London Rd

We’ve been in London for a year-and-a-half, and we’ve tried enough restaurants that I feel like I can offer an informed opinion. Before going any further, you should understand my biases. My favorite meal is my next meal. I like good food, and I don’t care where it comes from or how “authentic” it is. There is no particular style of cuisine I prefer, and there are few things that I dislike. (Mushy peas are one of those things.) I have settled on four different places as my “favorite,” all for different reasons.

Dishoom

If you really, truly wanted me to name my absolute favorite place in town, Dishoom might win it. I even bought their cookbook. The food is Bombay-style street food with an Iranian influence. It’s basically a little slice of heaven on a dinner plate. My favorite items on the menu are the chili chicken and the cheese naan, but don’t sleep on the chicken ruby or the lamb biryani. Dishoom works best if you treat it as a family-style restaurant, order a couple dishes per person, and share around the table. Which is fortunate, because that’s my favorite way to enjoy dinner.

There are multiple locations in London, and they almost always have a queue. Definitely do reservations, and if you’re making them on short notice and struggling to find a table, check the South Kensington location. It tends to be the easiest to get into, in my experience. The restaurant is a short walk from the South Kensington tube station.

Din Tai Fung

There are plenty of excellent Chinese restaurants in London, and if you know me, you’ll know that I avoid chains whenever I can. I’ve made an exception for Din Tai Fung. It’s a chain with limited locations, and their London location is one of their most recent. They’ve been in Covent Garden since the autumn of 2018. I wandered in with my girls one day when we were out in the city, and we were blown away at the quality of the food, the quality of the service, and the quality of the atmosphere. Typically you get to choose two out of three at a Chinese place in London (and in China, in my experience), but Din Tai Fung delivers across the board. Great food, professional service, and a spacious interior. They are best known for their xiao long bao, and I can confirm that they are excellent. I also enjoyed the shrimp and pork shaomei and the hot and sour noodle soup. This is another place where family-style dining works well, though it can be harder to share the bowls of soup. 

Shrimp and pork shumai
The shrimp and pork shumai at Din Tai Fung

Steins

I understand that there are two locations for Steins, but I’ve only been to the one in Richmond. The food is excellent, the beer is excellent, and the location is superlative. The bratwurst and pretzels are both worth trying, but the weinerschnitzel is my personal favorite. The enormous cutlet would be enough on its own, but it’s served atop a mountain of German-style potato salad that is :chefkiss: I’ve long been a fan of German beer, and there’s something to be said about getting a full liter stein the size of your head that’s full to the brim with hefeweizen. And then the location. Stein’s in Richmond is right on the Thames path, a quarter mile from Richmond bridge. The seating is all outdoors, so if you’re there on a warm, dry day (and there are plenty of those, contrary to London cliches), it’s one of the best places in the city to sit out and eat and drink until you’re stuffed fuller than my cat. It is not family-style, but it is family-friendly.

Wolkite

This is a small, family-run Ethiopian place near the Emirates Stadium in North London. I’m not sure if there’s any Ethiopian food in the state of Missouri, but there certainly wasn’t any in Springfield when we made the move. Which is a shame, because it’s amazing. We’ve tried a few Ethiopian places in London, and we’ve settled on Wolkite as our favorite. This is 100% a family-style place, and if you aren’t accustomed to Ethiopian food, get ready for a (pleasant) shock. I suggest asking your server about the sampler. It will come with a huge platter of injera (bread) and vegetables on top. Then add some doro wot (chicken), godin tibs (lamb ribs), and whatever else catches your fancy. If you want something wild on the beverage front, try a berele of tej, the Ethiopian honey beer.

Platter of Ethiopian food
The sampler at Wolkite

Bonus recommendations

I travel a good bit for work, so I’ve found some go-to places in various other cities. If you’re in Dublin, check out Klaw for amazing seafood (oysters and Jamaican Rundown) and The Pig’s Ear for equally amazing farm-to-table food (pork belly). If you’re in Lisbon, I’m a fan of Butcher’s for phenomenal steak and Da Prata 52 for Portuguese-style tapas. If you’re in Leeds, don’t miss Iberico for Spanish-style tapas that hold up extremely well to the tapas I’ve had in Barcelona. 

A plate of oysters
The oyster sampler at Klaw

Fix Democracy in America with this One Weird Trick

Photo by Ian Baldwin on Unsplash

Turn off cable news.

That’s it. Cable news has no redeeming qualities. They stretch a 5 minute sound bite into 4 hours. They parade opinions as if they are facts. They try to gin up outrage in order to keep you on your sofa and watching advertisements. 

If you want to save democracy in America, turn off Fox News. Turn off CNN. Turn off MSNBC. 

But Brent, you’re saying, how will I learn what’s happening in the world? How will I know who the bad guys are? 

The bad guys are:

  • Accumulating most of the wealth in the country while your wages stagnate and your health insurance and college tuition keep sky rocketing
  • Telling you that brown people / gay people / Muslim people are your enemies
  • Engaging in voter suppresssion

Okay, fine, you’re thinking. Maybe Scooby Doo villains aren’t really the political and religious leaders we need. But I still want to know what’s happening in the world. 

Great! Me, too!

I have two easy suggestions. 

  1. Subscribe to your local newspaper 
  2. Subscribe to a large national newspaper

Do the digital subscriptions and read on your phone. You get to save trees and it’s cheaper.

Subscribe to your local paper because you want to know what’s happening in your community and because baby reporters need jobs. A strong, independent media is the guardian of democracy, and it starts with the gal down the street going to city hall and school board meetings and letting you know what’s happening. 

Subscribe to a national paper because good investigative reporting is what keeps your representatives and the companies that govern all our lives accountable. The largest papers in the country do much of the investigative reporting. But Brent, you’re saying, the New York Times is a trash fire. It’s Fake News. Well, yes and no. It is, indeed, a trash fire in its opinion pages. But this is the beauty of reading a paper–you can just turn the page or scroll down. Read the news parts and skip the op-eds!

2016 called and wants its meme back

And also, that Fake News thing? Fake news is junk Facebook pages feeding you political propaganda from Eastern Europe. Fake news is a talking head peddling opinion pieces as facts. Fake news is anything originating with a state-sponsored propaganda organization. But NPR, the BBC? I love Nina Totenberg and Gary Lineker, too. Both organizations have their faults, but they are at least trying to be news orgs, most of the time. Xinhua? Be dubious. Russia Today? Be dubious. The key, in my book, is the motive. Are they trying to peddle advertisements without any investigative reporting component? Probably crap. Are they sponsored by a totalitarian state? Probably crap. Are they paying reporters to read financial records, ask politicians and businessmen hard questions, and generally hold power to account? Probably decent.

Well, fine. But I still don’t want to give Jeff Bezos any more of my money. You need to take baby steps; I get it. It pains me to say this, but consider the Wall Street Journal. It has plenty of warm, snuggly conservative bias, but at least it tries to present plenty of actual news from actual reporters, which is more than can be said for the Murdoch empire and the cable channels. (Maybe avoid the op-eds.)

Please join me in turning the page on trash fire media outlets. Now that you’re saving all this time not listening to some overpaid schmuck spout nonsense, you can spend it reading my books!  

Autumn Has Arrived

You can rely on two things in England: delayed trains and punctual weather. Both come to a head in the summer as the heat creeps toward 30 (mid-80s for you colonials) and the industrial actions (strikes for you colonials) commence every fortnight. You can rely on a third thing here in the summer, though it’s not English–my American pals trolling me on July 4. Nothing like having your phone blow up in the middle of a meeting with a dozen memes about the king. Love you all! 

After the non-holiday, we had a family trip to The Globe Theatre and saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Globe in London does some amazing work with sets, and when Titania rolled in on a golf cart that looked like a Mardi Gras float, my jaw dropped. It was a heck of a spectacle. The Globe continues to be one of my favorite days out in the city. You may have to book a few months in advance, but it’s sooo worth it. One of my favorite outings in the city.

Titiania on Stage

July also marked The Great Packing. We packed our entire house (all 1050 square feet of it) over a couple weekends just before we flew back to the US on holiday. On the final Sunday of packing, English television was airing both the Wimbledon men’s final and the Cricket World Cup final. I had the cricket on most of the day, but for about an hour I had to abandon the packing and flip back and forth between tennis and cricket. The tennis was compelling (Federer should have won, but Father Time catches up to everyone), but the cricket was phenomenal. Now, you have to understand, I didn’t know *anything* about cricket a week before the final. I barely know much now. 

https://www.cricketworldcup.com/video/1279178

Click through for cricket highlights

England were down 248 runs, and after a few outs, they didn’t have a hope of catching up. Through a sequence of events that would not have been believable in any work of fiction, they managed to get even 248-248, which took the final to a “super over.” At the end of the super over, both sides had scored 15 runs. England won on a tiebreaker because they had scored more boundaries through the match. It’s basically like getting to the end of the World Series with a tie game in the bottom of the 10th, but instead of continuing on, the team with the most home runs wins. I started the match mostly in ignorance, and now I’m looking for a T20 (aka 20 overs, aka 3 hours) match to attend sometime. Carissa can call me a traitor all she wants.

And then there was the trip to America for two weeks. 

Moment: clearing Customs in Dallas, the kids asking for Chik Fil A as their first meal in America, and DFW having a Chik Fil A 50 yards from us. 

Moment: driving a carload of teenage girls to Silver Dollar City while they played BitLife in the back seat and made some extremely dubious life decisions

Moment: Ollie (the family poodle that remained in the US) running to the girls after a year of not seeing them

Moment: The first bit of sugary-sweet General Tsos chicken on a rainy Friday night 

Moment: Sending my first-ever agent query for the completed and revised novel

Sub-moment: Receiving my first-ever agent rejection for said novel

Moment: Walking down a country road with no cars and no people in sight

Many Moments: seeing all the friends and family I hadn’t seen in a year or more

While we certainly missed seeing everyone in America, we were all ready to get back to our home in London. 

Empty Missouri road

Speaking of our home in London, we arrived back on a Friday, accepted keys to our new house that afternoon, and moved the next day. It was intense. But the new place is wonderful. It’s further from work (though paradoxically a shorter commute) and more space. We love it, especially the kitchen with an America-sized refrigerator. The granite countertops with plenty of working space are amazing. I’m thinking about homemade pizza again, which was impossible in the last house due to lack of space and unfinished wood counters. 

Our new garden, complete with escaping cat

After the move, it was right back to work for me, though I did get to spend the weekend at Worldcon. I was able to hang out with some of my classmates from Viable Paradise plus meeting a bunch of other VP alumns and Codex (writing forum) members. 

After what amounted to basically a month of travel, it’s been good to be back home and have some lazy weekends. We’re now mostly-settled into the new house. Still a few boxes that need unpacking, and we probably need another bookshelf in the living room since we don’t have the built-ins the old house had, but it feels like a home.

The weather, punctual as ever, has turned from summer to autumn as the calendar has turned from August to September. The kids are mentally preparing themselves to go back to school later this week, and we’re all looking forward to seeing Nonna and Papa in late October at mid-term break. 

It’s Been a Year

Barnes in the Spring

Carissa and I arrived at Heathrow one year ago today. So far, so good. It’s not so much England vs America as it is London vs Springfield. All due respect to the Queen City of the Ozarks, but it has as much in common with London or New York as it does with the moon.

I walk more now than I ever have. Any given day I go to the office is 6000 to 8000 steps. A day out in the city is anywhere from 8000 to 20,000, depending on our schedule and how everyone’s feet hold up.

Not having a car–or at least not needing a car to get everywhere–is amazing. Looking for parking isn’t that much of a pain in Springfield, true, but it’s nice to not even have the worry when going out on the town. Also nice to not have to worry about who’s going to drive us home if we want to have an extra drink or two with the meal.

Springfield has musuems. They are twee and lovely. London has museums that people travel from across the world to visit. They are vast and amazing, and some are also twee and lovely.

I love that Springfield gets an off-Broadway touring show through town every season. I appreciate that Springfield has a lively local theater scene. The West End is phenomenal. The Globe is amazing. I feel like I’ve hardly sampled what London has to offer in the theater department, and I’ve been to more shows in the last 12 months than the previous 12 years. We’re off to the Globe again in two weeks to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

There was a lockdown drill at the local primary (elementary) school a few weeks ago. They do one a year, just in case. The school sent a notice to parents:

We just wanted to let you know that we have practised our lock down procedure at school today. The children were told that this was a practice drill and there was no real danger. Their class teachers have explained to the children that just as we have to practise getting out of school quickly and safely during a fire drill, we also need to practise what we should do if we needed to stay inside to keep safe. We have given an example of needing to hide because zookeepers might be trying to recapture an animal and that by keeping quiet and out of sight we would not upset the animal and the zookeepers would therefore be able to catch it easily.

It absolutely breaks my heart that America is still suffering a shot-up school multiple times a year and mass shootings practically daily. It’s just not a thing here. It’s amazing to send my kids to school every day and not worry “what if this is the day a shooter comes to my school?”

The barbeque is suprisingly good.

The Mexican food is unsurprisingly bad.

I still miss General Tso’s Chicken. And Andy’s.

It annoys me that vendors at football matches don’t go around selling snacks and beers like they do at games in the States. It especially annoys me that I can’t even have a beer at my seat. Drunk assholes ruining it for everyone else.

Rugby is weird. I can almost understand it through a lens of American Football and soccer. The atmosphere is lovely. The fans are polite. The food is great. You can even drink beer at your seat. But I hate, hate, hate how destructive the sport is for the people playing it. It’s hard for me to get behind something that profits a few people via the destruction of other people’s bodies. America isn’t exactly on a moral high ground here, either, with the NFL.

Driving here is bananas. Roundabouts everywhere. Cars on the wrong side of the road. Steering wheels on the wrong side of the car. We’re thinking about getting a car this winter so Carissa can get around the borough to teach gymnastics again. I’m told to expect to spend about 15 hours in paid lessons just to get a license. I’m sure she’s going to love that.

The first year has been great. We’ve all enjoyed it, and we’re looking forward to more to come. We’re not looking forward to the inevitable hard Brexist on Halloween, but we’ll deal with that when it happens. The oldest is planning to stock up on peanut butter when we’re in the States in a few weeks, so she’ll be ready. The rest of us will just have to do without rioja and camembert for a while.