Monday, September 29, 2003
Famous places within 15 minutes walk of my house
Number 16 - the canals of East London
There are a number of canals in East London, and Bow is completely surrounded by them. To the West the Regents Canal, to the North the Hertford Canal, to the East the Lee Navigation and to the south the Limehouse Cut. All quite pretty in their own way, and a fine six mile circular walk is possible along the various towpaths.
Britain's first canals appeared in the late 18th century, the first successful method of transporting heavy cargo across the country. Four miles an hour may not have been fast, and numerous flights of locks slowed travel down even further, but for a few decades the canal was king. I could tell you more, but I'd rather not because I suffered canal overload while at primary school. My school was located less than half a mile from the Grand Union canal, and so we seemed to do a 'topic' on canals every single year. Duke of Bridgewater, coal, narrowboats, James Brindley, locks, bargemen, the coming of the railways... been there, done that, far too often.
In 1812 work began on the Regents Canal through North London, providing a link from Paddington Basin on the Grand Union direct to the Thames at Limehouse. This 8½ mile waterway became a landscape feature of the new Regents Park, designed by John Nash, who was one of the canal's major shareholders. The Regents Canal passes beside London Zoo, starts to drop 86 feet at Camden Locks, then dives underneath Islington through a towpath-less tunnel. Pickfords the removals company was originally based here at the City Road basin, complete with 120 barges and stables for 120 horses, able to deliver freight to Birmingham in 2½ days flat. The canal runs on through Hackney and through Victoria and Mile End Parks before finally reaching the old Regents Canal Docks, now the posh housing development of Limehouse Basin.
The River Lea has been an important navigable waterway into London for over 500 years, and during the 18th century the navigation was much improved with new cuts and locks. Barges travelling between the Lea and the Regents Canal were forced to negotiate the great loop of the River Thames round the Isle of Dogs, so two short canals were built later to link the two together and reduce journey times. The Hertford Canal runs along the bottom of Victoria Park and has one of the most picturesque flights of locks in the capital, but was never a commercial success. The Limehouse Cut is an arrow-straight channel direct from Bow Locks to Limehouse, less picturesque and eerily quiet. British Waterways installed the UK's first floating towpath here under the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road earlier this summer, complete with kingfisher styling and green lights in the footpath.
One less well-documented feature of the canals of East London is their miraculous healing power. It's possible to fall into the water complete with fatal gunshot wound and bunch of daffodils, and then to reappear 14 years later seemingly none the worse for wear. The BBC are screening a documentary tonight (BBC1, 8pm) recounting the story of a middle-aged EastEnd publican whose gangland exploits saw him supposedly assassinated beside a local canal back in 1989. Despite the discovery of a headless body and a full family funeral, this lucky man apparently survived his underwater ordeal and has been recuperating in Spain ever since. The BBC filmed Mr Watts' miraculous return beside the Grand Union Canal in Alperton in West London, and alas not here in E3. However, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see sick pilgrims now queueing to visit the restorative canals in the Bow area to take the waters and heal themselves. We might even become the Lourdes of the EastEnd. After all, everyone's talking about it.
Saturday, September 27, 2003
London fashion weak
During the week in which London's top fashion designers have been showing off their latest collections on the capital's catwalks, the great British public have been slipping seamlessly into their autumn wardrobes. As usual the ordinary man or woman in the street has completely ignored the advice of Conran, Hamnett and Farhi, preferring a combination I can only describe as sportswear, street market and Matalan. A glance down any busy London high street this week reveals that this autumn's preferred colours are definitely blues - that's denim blue, navy blue, faded blue, bluey-black, bluey-white, bluey-grey, sportskit-blue, inflammable-nylon-blue, tacky-blue and generally-nondescript-blue. Every splash of bright colour has gone back into a drawer not to be glimpsed again until next spring.
However, there's one design that has made it into the general fashion consciousness all of a sudden, and that's the Burberry look. That sort of light brown tartan with a black and white grid and narrow red stripes, Burberry's now every-bloody-where. This brand was once an upmarket symbol of poshness and breeding, at least until the Burberry cap became part of the uniform of the modern sports-casual football supporter/hooligan. Now it appears that everyone wants to be seen in Burberry style - Burberry caps, Burberry wallets, Burberry handbags, Burberry scarves, Burberry jackets, Burberry umbrellas, even probably (pah!) Burberry wheelie suitcases. The counterfeiters haven't been far behind either, with not-quite-copyrighted tartans gracing t-shirts, Muslim-style hijab headscarves and even pensioners' shopping bags, all for under a fiver off your local market stall. In just a few short months Britain has become a land full of Burberry sheep. Alas, you've been fleeced, the lot of you.
Friday, September 26, 2003
The diamond geezer textmap of central London
Monday, September 22, 2003
It's exactly two years today since I moved out of Suffolk, to
Life, lifestyle, living, lots of stuff to do;
Oxford Street, Old Father Thames;
Nine centuries of history, now, new;
Diversity, design, discovery, delight;
Oyster cards, Open House; Olympics;
Nightlife, no tractors, no going back.
Sunday, September 21, 2003
London Open House Weekend
Every year, for a couple of days in the middle of September, the doors of about 500 of London's public and private buildings are thrown open to the public. This is London Open House weekend, a time to enjoy and celebrate the capital's varied architecture and history. From the 11th century Westminster Hall to the 21st century City Hall, you can take a peek inside buildings you'd normally only see from the outside, or maybe never even knew existed in the first place. Thanks to all the volunteers who make it all possible, and here's a list of some of the places I managed to visit this year...
Lloyd's of London: It's that dramatic futuristic building in the middle of the City, the one with twelve lifts on the outside, designed by Richard Rogers and opened in 1986. Us lucky visitors got to see their collection of old Lord Nelson ephemera, the enormous underwriting room full of hundreds of tiny desks where all the trading happens, the eleven-storey glass-windowed atrium, and the Lutine Bell that rings to bring news of lost ships (one ring bad, two rings good). Nice escalators too. Favourite fact: Edward Lloyd was never an underwriter, he merely owned Lloyd's coffee shop where the first maritime underwriters used to meet. Starbucks clearly still have a long way to go.
Tour: well-structured and impressive, 8/10. Guide: knowledgeable, friendly, 8/10.
Banqueting House: Not just another non-descript building down Whitehall, but an ornate Jacobean dining hall with huge painted ceiling. Many sumptuous banquests for nobles and heads of state have been held in this magnificent room. However, this weekend they'd set up a trestle table in one corner selling tea, Kit Kats, slices of swiss roll and Mr Kipling's cherry bakewells. A far cry from the building's glorious past. Favourite fact: The hall was built for King James I in 1622, but became the site of his execution in 1649.
Tour: brief and touristy, 5/10. Guide: just a video, 3/10.
Channel 4 Television: It's always a lottery on Open House weekend which tour guide you get. Some know their stuff inside out, while others have clearly never set foot in the property before. Here at Channel 4's HQ I got to the front of the queue just in time to miss the really well-informed guide, ending up instead with the token volunteer merely present to make up the numbers. She took us up in the scenic lift, which had nice views over, er, part of London. She told us that the C4 building had two sort of arms. She took us along the curvy walkway on the third floor behind the glass front bit, held up by the joint things. And we went out onto the terrace at the back, made of some kind of wood I think. Favourite fact: there's an ironing board in the Channel 4 boardroom, complete with iron, inbetween the flipchart and the widescreen TV.
Tour: not quite worthwhile, 4/10. Guide: wet blanket, 1/10.
26 Whitehall: This morning you'd have found me queuing for an hour trying to gain entry to a tall posh building down Whitehall, otherwise known as the Ripley Building, otherwise known as the offices of the Deputy Prime Minister. This impressive Georgian building has been home to the Admiralty for nearly 300 years, and top navy men still meet to make important decisions in the wood-panelled Board Room on the first floor. John Prescott's ministerial team are now based in the building, although we were assured that the solitary Jaguar parked in the courtyard this morning wasn't his. Security was high (we're currently on 'Black Special', if you're interested) and we had to surrender our mobile phones and cameras on the way in. Favourite fact: Lord Nelson's body rested here on the night before his funeral, having been stored in a barrel of alcohol during the long voyage home from the battle of Trafalgar.
Tour: bit short given the long wait, 5/10. Three guides: one very good, one ok, one dire, average 5/10.
Limehouse Accumulator Tower: If you've ever travelled on the DLR from Limehouse to Westferry, you may have seen a fifty-foot octagonal brick tower right beside the railway tracks. It's not an old signal box, it's actually pioneering Victorian technology - a tower that once provided hydraulic power for raising heavy cargo at Regent's Canal dock. The tower has recently been restored as a viewing platform, although recent housing developments at Limehouse Basin have reduced the view somewhat. Sadly the tower is only open very occasionally which is a great shame because, on a sunny day like today, the view from the top is great. Favourite fact: To reach the top requires climbing two spiral staircases, the first inside the tower and the second inside the chimney.
Tour: classic industrial archaeology, 9/10. Guide: keen engineer, 8/10.
• Talkback Productions: award-winning big comedy, award-winning small offices.
• St Pancras Midland Hotel: except there were queues round the block, so I was glad I saw it last year instead.
• West India Quay Impounding Station: pumps the Thames into the Docklands docks, using original 1929 technology.
• House Mill, Bow: this is one of those famous places within 15 minutes walk of my house, so I've already written about it. Surprisingly big, impressively restored.
Saturday, September 20, 2003
The life of Riley
More than 30 years ago my Dad took me to see an exhibition of Bridget Riley's paintings at a top London art gallery. Today, sandwiched inbetween our Open House visits, he took me again.
It was way back in 1971 that I was dragged along to the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank for my first look at Riley's op-art paintings. Her black and white geometrical designs appealed to a young child in short trousers, looking much more like optical illusions than traditional paintings. Her work was full of black stripes on a white background, or was it white stripes on a black background, it was hard to tell. This being pre-adolescence, I also rather liked the canvases smothered in greasy black spots. After a quick shuffle round the gallery I went back to my childhood and Bridget evolved into colour.
And then this weekend, with me now older than my dad was back then, we returned to view her work again. The Tate (Britain) is holding a Bridget Riley retrospective, starting off with the black and white paintings I'd seen before, and then bringing the portfolio up to date. Bridget's next works featured coloured stripes, repeated like barcodes but on a much larger scale. Some were all straight like a deckchair pattern, others were subtly curved and waved. She clearly had a thing for stripes because there were rooms of the things, eventually losing the black and white altogether. After about 20 years of doing lines, Ms Riley developed into multi-coloured overlapping parallelograms, and from there into her current obsession with curvy-section things. And circles.
Bridget never paints anything herself any more, she just gives precise instructions to her assistants telling them where all the geometrical shapes are going to go (and if you look carefully you can still see the pencil marks). One room of the exhibition was given over to her sketches and preparatory work, all scrupulously carefully drawn, with numerous colour-changes and notes scribbled in the margin. The whole show was precise and mathematical, but full of subtle light, warmth and feeling. Where else can you stand in a large room, stare at the wall and feel woozy for under a tenner (except in most pubs, of course). Me and my Dad, we'd both recommend a visit, but the exhibition closes next weekend so you'd better hurry. Who knows, your next chance might be in 2035.
Thursday, September 18, 2003
London Flash Mob ##3 - A novel experience (Click on photo to enlarge)
London has a new local library. It may only have opened for fifteen minutes, earlier this evening, but more books exchanged hands in that time that would normally be exchanged at your local library in a week. Welcome to Soho Square.
About four hundred expectant bibliophiles trooped down to Soho this evening, each of us clutching an unwanted book. All we'd been told was where to be and when, and that we might want to register our book at bookcrossing.com because we'd probably end up giving it away. We were grouped in six pubs by starsign, and I wonder how the Cancerians and Scorpios felt to find themselves in a rather pricey gay bar on the north edge of Soho Square. Me, I headed to the Dog and Duck in Frith Street along with the other Pisceans and tried to buy a drink at the tiny bar. This being London's third flash mob, I recognised and chatted to a few people who'd been before. Getting sad, isn't it?
Round came the small slips of paper listing our instructions and it was evident that, on their third attempt, our organisers were to be congratulated. A simple concept this time, one that could be summarised in just four words - swap books and applaud. Nothing complicated about mobile phones and letters of the alphabet, just go and stand in Soho Square from 6:30 and swap a book with a stranger. Every time you swap a book, smile for 3 seconds. And every time you see someone else swapping a book, applaud. At 6:45 leave. Simple. effective. So off we went.
We were invited to stand in a different corner of the square according to the type of book we'd brought with us - one corner for fiction, one for non-fiction, another for science fiction, the fourth for romance, and Harry Potter in the middle by the Tudor-style groundsman's cottage. I'd brought along a newish novel that I really couldn't get into and would be glad to get rid of, and so headed for the jam-packed fiction corner. Here was a sight to delight any jaded librarian, a huge crowd of people intent on literary betterment. And so the bartering began, to rapturous applause.
[take along Dead Air by Iain Banks] So, who was going to get my brand spanking new book? I hunted around for a decent replacement. [swap Dead Air for Dracula by Bram Stoker - applause] Bit of a classic, but probably not something I still wanted to be left with at the end of the evening. [swap Dracula for Nature of Australia - weak applause] Mistake. The cover looked nice, but this natural history book was no literary classic. It had to go. [swap Nature of Australia for a Japanese cartoon novel - wild applause] Result! This one looked brand new, with a cover like a bright washing powder packet. But... [swap Japanese cartoon novel for Women's Tennis Association handbook 2001 - gasps of disbelief] Why did I do that? My new book was clearly a booby prize, the literary equivalent of 3-2-1's Dusty Bin. Quick, only a few minutes left! [swap Women's Tennis Association handbook 2001 for a children's book called Look! - mocking applause] Not much better really, Twenty pages, mostly pictures. [swap Look! for Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton - applause - applause] Phew.
And so I came home with a book worth reading. Even better, it had a bookcrossing label in the front so I was able to find out who had brought it along in the first place. Cheers deano! I'm still waiting to see if anybody logs in to say they ended up with my book. All in all, a great success. An original idea held in a public space, with added sound effects and enough bemused passers-by to look over and wonder what the hell was going on. And everyone left smiling (except, presumably, whoever was unfortunate to walk away with the Women's Tennis Association handbook 2001). The next mob's planned for October. I wonder if I'll have finished my new book by then. I'm 30 pages in, and it's already much better than the film...
Sunday, September 14, 2003
London for the first time
I can't remember the first time I visited London. I grew up at the end of the Metropolitan line, so being taken into the capital was almost second nature from an early age. Certainly when I was four I took my mum on the Underground on a journey to Putney Bridge because I was more sure of the route than she was (thank goodness they hadn't invented blogs when I was four - I'd have been unsufferably precocious). Big Ben and St Paul's Cathedral have always been real places to me, not just visions seen in a book or on TV. For many children (and adults) around the rest of the country, London is merely a figment of their imagination, perhaps a town of opportunity where the streets are paved with gold, or maybe a scary rat-infested hotbed of crime.
Yesterday my nephews and niece (combined age 20) came down to central London from Norfolk for the first time. They were taken on a ten hour whistlestop tour of the capital, trying to experience as much as possible without overdoing it. From Docklands to the Eye and from David Blaine to Buckingham Palace, they saw the lot. Couldn't have picked a better day for it either. First impressions?
Lots of people for the first time: There are seven million people in London, ten times as many as in Norfolk crammed into an area a quarter of the size. And there are people everywhere here, squashed next to you on the bus, walking in front of you in the park, crowding around you down Oxford Street or barging into the same tube carriage that you're trying to get out of. It's a far more cosmopolitan mix of people than you'd ever find in Norfolk either, both the tourists and the residents. I thought the children coped well in what to them was a very alien environment.
London Transport for the first time: At Liverpool Street station more buses passed by in five minutes than they'd normally see in a month. In Docklands the concept of a driverless train proved hard to explain. At Green Park the escalator was ten times longer than any you might find in a Norwich department store. At Oxford Circus the experience of a jam-packed rush hour tube was completely alien, especially on a Saturday. And the whole day was spent travelling around without once getting into a car, most unnatural.
Looking up/down for the first time: Norwich may boast the second tallest cathedral spire in the country, but otherwise Norfolk is a county notorious for being flat and horizontal. The tallest tower at Canary Wharf (237m) is more than twice as tall as the highest hill in Norfolk (104m), and it's surrounded by scores of other contour-beating towers. For my visitors, London was looking up. Later we journeyed to the top of the London Eye (135m). Looking down revealed a capital city that appeared to spread as far as the horizon in all directions. London is all people with specks of green, whereas Norfolk is all green with specks of people. And yes, they do all look like ants.
Landmarks for the first time: It was hard to explain to a four year-old that this is Trafalgar Square and it's famous, when all it looks like is a big space with lions, pigeons and a welcoming fountain. Similarly the seven year-old was more interested in pulling the label off a bottle of water as we sailed down the Thames than in watching 1000 years of history pass by. As for the nine year-old, the house where the Queen lives lost out big time in the popularity stakes to the big toyshop down Regent Street. But hopefully, once back in Norfolk (where sorry, there are no world-famous landmarks) it should one day register that "I've seen that Tower Bridge" or "I've heard that Big Ben strike twelve".
Reality TV for the first time: "And, on your right, David Blaine in a box." The highlight of our sightseeing trip down the Thames was the opportunity to see a man suspended from a crane, previously glimpsed only on satellite TV back home. The Tower of London slipped by unnoticed as everyone gawped at the scene on the opposite bank. Beneath the bearded hermit stood an ocean of onlookers, a biblical crowd gathered to watch their Messiah, although somehow more 'Life of Brian' than 'Jesus of Nazareth". Our captain sounded the boat's horn and we all waved. David waved back. "He must be so sick of this boat," remarked our tour guide. Just so long as we were contributing to the charlatan's mental torture, I was pleased.
London for the first time: So, now my nephews and niece have seen where their uncle lives and works, and they have a mental picture of what London looks and feels like. Possibly quite mind-expanding, and I suspect they'll be back again soon. But I expect that back in school on Monday morning their answer to the question 'What was the best thing you did at the weekend?' will still be "David Blaine waved at me".
Monday, September 08, 2003
Londoners have fallen in love with a new pet. These special travelling companions go everywhere with their mistresses and masters, always following very close behind. They come in all shapes and sizes, they stand alert by one's side when not required and they have to be carried on escalators. Some haven't been trained as well as others and so get under the feet of passers by. They're distinctly territorial, and some owners couldn't imagine life without them. I am of course talking about wheelie suitcases.
These instruments of the devil are everywhere across the capital, usually directly in front of you. I'm sure they weren't around in any great numbers a year ago, but now all of a sudden it appears that everybody has to have one. Stand in any tube station or on any street corner, particularly on a Friday or a Monday, and one of these beasts will come lumbering into view within seconds. I blame the new Argos catalogue, or whatever posh department store it is that travelling people visit in order to buy trendy new luggage. Many of those people manoeuvring wheelie suitcases around town have clearly never passed a driving test in their lives. They cut you up, they decelerate without warning, they fail to signal before swerving out in front of you, they block the path of oncoming traffic and they collide with your nearside without ever stopping to give you the address of their insurance company. I suppose we should be grateful that a wheelie suitcase over the toes is better than a rucksack in the teeth, but in my view this invasion must be stopped, and stopped soon.
London is full of people trying to get somewhere else. Locals love to escape the capital for a weekend break, having seemingly packed the entire contents of their house in their suitcase. Tourists stumble out of airports laden with heavy baggage, then head off on an epic cross-country expedition to find their hotel. Everybody then struggles onto public transport, heaving bags across the entire width of an escalator, dumping a pile of suitcases just inside the door of a train, or forming a wall of canvas across a busy street. London was not designed with oversized baggage in mind.
On first glance the wheelie suitcase appears the perfect solution to a difficult problem. Heavy weights can be transported with ease, so it is possible to pack the kitchen sink after all. Unfortunately some people appear to have decided to do exactly that, carrying twice as much as they might otherwise have done, purely because they now have wheels. At the other end of the spectrum a disturbing number of people seem to have bought what I can only describe as mobile-handbags, tiny containers on long handles which quite frankly could and should be carried instead. Wimps, the lot of you.
And there's worse. Imagine if you will a typical traveller carrying a suitcase. The traditional suitcase is carried by the side, adding only width. The new wheelie suitcase trails behind, adding depth instead. The surface area of ground covered is therefore noticeably greater with a wheelie suitcase than it is with the traditional handheld model. Even worse, this surface area increases the shorter the traveller pulling the suitcase along. If you're six-foot-something then the handle of the wheelie suitcase points pretty much straight up, which isn't too bad. However if you're four-foot-nothing then the handle is much closer to the ground, so the wheels lag a lot further behind. It's a simple matter of trigonometry. Put bluntly, a group of tiny tourists can clog up a tube station in seconds. And often do.
I fear that the battle against the advance of the wheelie suitcase may already be lost. There's certainly no sign yet of the government organising a special terror attack simulation to rid the Underground of these weapons of mass discourtesy. It appears that many people just want their own travelling to be easy, and they don't give a damn that their actions might have negative implications for others. The wheelie suitcase is just a physical manifestation of an inner malaise, obviously. So look, if you really have to have one, please just hold it upright won't you? Or get a taxi.
Sunday, September 07, 2003
Night Bus (with apologies to W H Auden)
This is the Night Bus crossing the city,
Thirty minute gaps between, more's the pity.
Taxis for the rich, buses for the poor,
Queueing in a mob, then a rush for the door,
Stumbling upstairs, an unsteady climb:
The traffic lights against her, a snail's pace time.
The stench of kebab and half-cooked burger,
Shovelling chips as the bus crawls further,
Arguments blaze and mobiles bleep,
Drunken passengers fast asleep.
Friday, September 05, 2003
There's tons going on in the capital this month, including...
• David Blaine in a suspended tube (Sept 5 - Oct 19): Starts today, the dullest stunt in the world. Expect regular reports from nearby. Although I can't see what's so special here. Thousands of Londoners spent 44 minutes in a suspended tube last week...
• The Great River Race (Sept 6): 150 boats attempt to get from Richmond to Greenwich without having to pay the Congestion Charge.
• Brick Lane Festival (Sept 7): Who says curry, bagels and pie and mash don't mix?
• Chemical attack on Bank station (Sept 7): Don't worry, it's only an exercise, and the City is pretty much dead on a Sunday anyway. This exercise is to make sure the City is never pretty much dead in the future.
• Totally Covent Garden Festival (Sept 7-14): This'll be the usual bunch of street entertainers spray-painted silver standing around not doing very much and hoping you'll throw them money, I expect.
• Uncle Ken's Thames Festival (Sept 13-14): What would happen if those nice local government people were allowed to devise a weekend of riverside entertainment? Face-painting, folk music, fireworks and a few old boats, of course.
• Greenwich and Canary Wharf Festival (Sept 20-21): Looks like an excuse to promote the opening of the new Jubilee Place shopping centre underneath Heron Quays station to me. How many more of these <insert placename here> festivals can London cope with this month?
• London Open House Weekend (Sept 20-21): Is this fabulous or is this fabulous? Lots of top historic buildings open their doors to the public, just for one weekend a year, and all for free. Last year I was thrilled by Westminster Hall, Portcullis House, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Cabinet Office, the Midland Hotel (St Pancras), the brand new City Hall and the view from the 18th floor of New Zealand House. This year, not sure yet. Any suggestions? (Oh, and the website's crap, I'm afraid, totally unskimmable. You want to go down to your local library and pick up the full 500-building catalogue instead. My local librarian nearly wet herself with excitement yesterday when I asked for a copy.)