L ND N

 Monday, January 29, 2007

what might have been...


Mile End, London: Test post, from a westbound tube platform several metres below ground. It'll never work, surely?
Posted at 08:17 from 51°31'32"N 0°1'56"W via my Z470xi mobile


Bethnal Green, London: The Central line is rammed. I'm standing pinned against the doors of the first carriage, my back to the tunnel walls, hurtling beneath the streets of the East End. A man I've never met before is staring into my ear. His gym bag is pressed into my right side, and the tinny rhythms from his headphones are just audible above the roar of the train. The woman a few inches in front of me is trying to read the City pages of her newspaper, and failing. Her scarf is of-the-moment, but the pink enamel ribbon pinned to her lapel is months out of date. Two builders hog the space to my left, our mutual floorspace minimised by the presence of a dirty brown holdall. Beyond them stand a dozen condensed souls, and beyond them several dozen more. We've assembled here as mutual strangers, on our way to a random selection of offices, schools and workplaces. Our hands hang from the overhead bar, swaying, swinging. We stare conspicuously into nothing. The Monday morning commute is underway.
Posted at 08:23 from 51°31'37"N 0°3'42"W via my Z470xi mobile


London EC2: What the hell happened there?!?!

Our train left Bank station as normal, not quite so jam-packed as before after several financiers and City traders disembarked. I nearly managed to open my newspaper, but not quite because there was still 15 stone of overcoat in the way. We rumbled on. And then, after half a minute or so, there was a really loud noise somewhere. Nowhere close, nowhere on the train, but somewhere. It must have been loud because we could all hear it above the usual screeching of the train. The lady to my right removed her headphones to experience more clearly what was going on. Two schoolkids stopped chattering and grabbed hold of the nearest handrail. Nervously we broke the golden rule of commuting and started making eye contact with one another. Only briefly, but long enough to spread a look of fear across the carriage. Did you hear that? Yes, me too. What the hell was it? It's amazing how swiftly the veneer of commuting normality can be wiped away.

The carriage vibrated, maybe more than normal, maybe not. We could feel the brakes being applied as the train decelerated. I bounced against the doors behind me, but there was never any danger of anything or anyone toppling over. Slower now, and reassuringly slower again. Everything was going to be fine, really it was. A disembodied female voice cut the air - The next station is... St Paul's - and we hung on her every word. Then suddenly there was another really loud bang, again impossibly far distant. And then the lights went out. I have a feeling we're going to be stuck here for a while.
Posted at 08:36 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile


London EC2: Something is definitely wrong. Our Central line train hasn't moved for almost half an hour, and we're not happy. It's bad enough travelling face-to-armpit during a normal rush hour, but being stuck underground in cattletruck conditions with no sign of escape is far far worse. There must be well over 500 of us crammed in down here, and only a lucky handful with somewhere to sit. Our lives are on hold, deep beneath the streets of the City.

Something is definitely wrong. The occasional remote thud confirms this, causing the train's windows to rattle gently. We're all imagining the worst. The driver's not been very helpful so far either. First he came over the loudspeakers to say that the train was being held here and would be moving ahead as soon as possible. Ten minutes later he said he'd asked the control room what all the loud bangs were, and they'd promised to get back to him. Then he told us that his radio had gone dead, so we'd have to sit it out until power was restored. And he's just come on to say he's going to nip out of his cab and wander ahead up the tracks to St Paul's station to see what's going on. I hope he finds some answers.
Posted at 08:57 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile


London EC2: That last bang was much louder than any that had preceded it. It echoed along the tunnel from somewhere far ahead of us, reverberating on for several seconds. The emergency lights flickered briefly, and the train rocked slightly from side to side. One man at the far end of the carriage let out a hysterical scream, bracing himself for a wave of destruction that never materialised. All we got instead was a faint whiff of smoke, bonfire-strength, and a sudden uneasy silence.
Posted at 09:04 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile


London EC2: There's an "Emergencies" notice above the rear door of the train carriage which is meant to provide helpful advice and reassurance to members of the travelling public in situations such as this. We've been trapped down here for so long now that I've finally got around to reading it.
Alarms are provided at all doorways and can be operated by passengers in the event of an emergency. Operation of the alarm will enable you to talk directly to the train driver and will automatically stop the train if it is in a station.
We've tried the alarm already, of course. Ages ago, and at regular intervals ever since. But we get no response from the driver, and he's not announced anything over the loudspeakers recently either. Martin says our driver must have walked up to the next station when whatever happened happened. Martin's the accountant stood across the gangway from me, and he's busy expounding his theories on "what happened" to anyone who'll listen (which unfortunately is everyone in the carriage). It's aliens, he says. Definitely aliens, or perhaps Iraq, or maybe meteorites like that DVD he watched with his girlfriend over the weekend. He says Sylvester Stallone will soon be knocking on the window of the carriage, and guiding us all safely to daylight over a heap of burning rubble through a flooded water main. We wish Martin would shut up.
If the train is in a tunnel it will continue to the next station before stopping.
But our train never made it to the next station before stopping. St Paul's must still be several hundred yards ahead - so close and yet tantalisingly out of reach. If the train had been fifteen seconds further ahead in its journey then we'd all have disembarked normally, several hours ago. Instead we're sitting out eternity in a metal box with no obvious means of escape.
In the event of power loss the emergency lights will come on automatically.
The emergency lights are all that's keeping us sane down here. Our subterranean prison would be unbearable in pitch black darkness, but with illumination we can carry on some semblance of normal commuting. A lot of people have turned to the Metro's Sudoku for sustenance, and some have surprised themselves by completing it for the very first time. One important-looking lady has kept herself occupied by composing a stern letter of complaint on her laptop. Men in suits have been pointedly staring at their watches every few minutes or so, as if to say "I have somewhere so important to be, and I'm oh so very late." Bad luck, gents. Some people have attempted to hide behind a screen of headphoned music, at least until their iPod batteries run out. And others have finally broken the habit of a lifetime and are talking to their fellow commuters. "Hi I'm Sheila from Wanstead, and I have three kids and a poodle who I love to bits." "And I'm Sandra from Chelmsford, and my boyfriend works as a fireman, and I wish he was here now." Or maybe not.
To provide emergency ventilation, operate the slide mechanism above the seats or lower the window in the end door.
We're in great need of emergency ventilation right now. There's been an all-pervasive smell of urine inside the carriage since one of the younger passengers couldn't hold himself in any longer, and promptly dribbled embarrassedly down his trousers. Since then we've ganged together and rounded up all the empty coffee cups and Red Bull cans in the carriage, ready for if (or when) another bladder emergency arises.
Do not attempt to leave the train outside a station unless instructed to do so by a member of London Underground staff.
And here's the real problem. There are no London Underground staff to instruct us. The driver's long vanished, and there never was a guard on the train in the first place. The withdrawal of guards may have saved London Underground a lot of money over the years, but on this occasion it's left us lost and leaderless fifty feet down. Nobody's yet plucked up the courage to "attempt to leave the train", just in case the rails are still connected to a live supply of electricity. They probably aren't, but without any official guidance that's not a risk anybody's been willing to take. Except for Martin. He's all for taking a look up the tunnel, because it's better than standing around waiting to be rescued. And who are we to argue, because no rescue is apparent. We don't even know that anybody knows we're here.
Posted at 11:49 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile


London EC2: Martin's been gone for half an hour now. He finally lost patience with the whole situation, strode up to the locked door at the front of the train and yanked on the ringpull labelled "Emergency access. Penalty for improper use". As expected, the driver's cab proved to be as empty as we'd feared. But the side door was hanging open, providing access to the tunnel, and so Martin took his chance. He checked that the power was off by throwing some copper coins down onto the tracks. Then, when they didn't spark, he jumped down onto the tunnel floor himself. It wasn't the most scientific of experiments, but Martin seemed satisfied enough. We cheered him off down the tunnel towards St Paul's, all secretly glad that he was going instead of us. He said he'd be OK. He used to be in the Territorial Army at weekends, apparently. His mobile doubles up as a torch, he assured us, so he'd be able to see where he was going. And he promised he'd break into the chocolate machine on the platform, because we're all starting to get hungry now and we've only got two packets of crisps and a cold panini left between us. It's a lot quieter in the carriage with Martin gone, but we're missing him already.
Posted at 12:35 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile


London EC2: And then Martin came back. He'd survived his trek along the tunnel to St Paul's station (and back) and now he had a tale to tell. We were expecting him to say that he'd met Arnold Schwarzenegger on the platform, or maybe even Professor Quatermass in a pit, but no. He said it was much worse than that.

First there had been the torchlit darkness to contend with. The tunnel had twisted first left and then right, which soon blocked out even the faint light streaming from our train behind. It had been hard to pick out the rails beneath his feet, so he'd stumbled and tripped several times. At one point he'd fallen into an inspection pit between the rails and nearly twisted his ankle (we wondered if this was Martin embellishing his story somewhat, but we let him continue unchallenged). And then, as the tunnel finally opened out into the cavernous westbound platform at St Paul's, he told how his progress had been checked by a pile of earth and masonry slumped across the tracks. It had taken him a long time to pick his way through and clamber up onto the platform, and longer still to push his way through the debris towards the "Way Out" sign. But there was no way out. The entire escalator chamber was full of rubble, presumably tumbled down from an explosion above. Nobody would be reaching the surface via this route, nor sending down a rescue party in the opposite direction.

Martin showed us a few of the photos he'd snapped on his mobile. He even Bluetoothed a few round the carriage, just to show off. You couldn't see much in most of them, just a few jagged grey shapes. But we were glad to receive these images from the "outside world", however grim the reality they depicted. Martin said the far end of the platform, away from the exit, was a lot clearer from obstruction. But there were no alternative exits, not even a way through to the parallel eastbound platform, just another dark and forbidding tunnel mouth. And he didn't fancy the long walk on towards Chancery Lane, not with his torchlight fading fast, so he made his way slowly back to the train. Our carriage is at the "dead end" end of the train, so it seems. Let's hope nobody at the opposite end of the train has a similar story to tell.
Posted at 12:54 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile


London EC2: We've been trapped down here on this train for more than five hours now, and our situation is getting increasingly desperate. It's not natural to cram several hundred people into a confined space like this, and characters are beginning to crack. Several people have been sobbing openly, and panic attacks are becoming increasingly common. There's no food, no water and no sign of any external interest in our predicament. We've kept ourselves busy by swapping newspapers, and we've eased our aching feet by taking it in turns to sit down on the seats. A few flirty relationships seem to have sprung up in this confined atmosphere. A dewy glance here, a brushed hand there, even a swapped mobile number or two... they think the rest of us haven't noticed, but we have. One desperate smoker recently lit up a sneaky cigarette, which only served to aggravate the rank atmosphere in the carriage even more. At least it's not the height of summer, because the heat in these tunnels would surely be unbearable by now.

But at last a glint of hope is in the air. There's an independent move from another group of passengers to evacuate the train from the rear. Rumours to this effect have been travelling up and down the train by word of mouth, reverberating through the connecting doors from each carriage to the next. It's about time. Unfortunately I'm in the front carriage, so it looks like there'll be a lot of queueing and waiting and shuffling through the train before it's finally my turn to disembark. And then something I hoped I'd never have to do - a nightmarish walk along a pitch black tube tunnel. The next stop is Bank station. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.
Posted at 13:41 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile


Bank, London: That. Was. Scary. Edging your way along an unlit tube tunnel is something I hope I never have to experience again. For a start there was the fear of stepping down onto the tracks in the first place. We're programmed from a very young age never to walk on railway lines and it's a hard habit to break, especially when nobody's told you officially that the power's been switched off. Then there's fear of the darkness, which in this case is a genuine fear of the unseen unknown. There could be a hole in the tunnel floor (there almost certainly isn't, but there could be). There could be rats scampering around at your feet (there almost certainly are, so it's best not to think about it). And the power could be switched back on at any time (there's no chance, obviously, but that doesn't stop the worry). The walk up to Bank can't have been more than half a mile in distance, but it felt far longer mentally than physically. I was right at the back of this subterranean human convoy, aware that there was nothing behind me but an ever-lengthening void. I just kept my head down and tried to stay close to those around me, laughing and joking to conceal my trepidation. Our pace slowed as we tried to encourage the infirm and the petrified to keep moving forward, but everyone struggled forward. And eventually, oh so eventually, we emerged into the relative safety of our destination station.

The westbound Central line platform at Bank isn't the best place for 500 lost commuters to assemble. It's narrow, and curved, and a whole rabbit warren of interlocking passages lead off deep into the station along its entire length. Of all the stations on the network we've had the bad luck to end up in the most complicated, and the lights are out. But we're the last of the passengers to arrive, and the advance guard have already explored the various potential avenues of escape. Downwards, along the legendary "escalator link" to Monument, is not an option it seems. A few brave souls investigated the spiral staircase down towards the Northern line platforms and found water lapping halfway up the first set of escalators. Nobody really wants to imagine how it got there, or how fast it might be rising. So our final catch-up group hurried instead along the curving platform (taking care to mind the gap and not fall back onto the tracks) and headed for the atrium at the foot of the main escalator. There's still a bit of a queue waiting to walk up the non-moving staircase to the surface, but at least everything here appears to be intact. Our return to the outside world is, we hope, only a few minutes away.
Posted at 14:38 from 51°30'47"N 0°5'20"W via my Z470xi mobile


Bank, London: Sweet sweet daylight. I'd almost forgotten what it looked like. But there it was, bright and inviting, streaming down into the ticket hall at Bank station. A few final steps through the nearest exit, and escape from the underworld at last, back to normality. Except it wasn't quite normal at all.

This should be one of the busiest road junctions in London. We're right outside the Bank of England, for heaven's sake. There should be buses, taxis, cars, vans and cyclists queued up at the 7-way traffic lights, and pedestrians weaving between. It may be Monday afternoon in the middle of the City of London, but there's nobody here at all. Well, obviously there's 500 of us spilling out of the tube station, but there's nobody else. The streets are somehow completely empty, bar a couple of parked vans and a lot of traffic cones. It's almost like being here on Christmas Day - alone, isolated and forgotten. Whichever direction you look there are just bare roads, and empty pavements, and what looks like blue tape stretched across the street in the far distance. We seem to be in the middle of a human vacuum, an artificial exclusion zone, and it's highly disturbing.

And then there's the sky. Something about the sky is very wrong. There's a swirling fog below the clouds, much lower than normal and much pinker. Or it might be smoke. It's thickest to the west, in the direction of St Paul's Cathedral, but we can't actually see that far to work out what might have happened there. And there's pink in other directions too, and a bit of orange, and some black-specked maroony-red all along the western horizon. And still no people. Where the hell has everybody gone?
Posted at 14:50 from 51°30'49"N 0°5'18"W via my Z470xi mobile


Broadgate, London: And then we met Police Constable Kevin, or rather he found us. He whistled from halfway down Threadneedle Street, waved his arms and jogged down to meet us. At long last, after several hours underground, we'd finally made contact with officialdom in the outside world! Maybe now we'd get some answers. But this policeman was in no mood to tell us what was going on, just to order us around.

"Oi! You lot! You're not supposed to be here! Follow me! Now!"

So follow him we did, and fast. Our imaginations scanned rapidly through a selection of nightmare scenarios (crazed gunmen, dirty bombs, rampant Ebola, alien death rays, the usual), and our feet sped up with each terrifying thought. We headed past the undamaged fortress walls of the Bank of England, then turned left into Old Broad Street. Eventually we reached a limp strip of blue and white tape stretched across the roadway, ducked beneath it and reassembled on the plaza in front of Tower 42.

Acres of fragile glass hung ominously above our heads, but PC Kev seemed unperturbed. Instead he pulled himself up to his full five foot seven (plus helmet) and introduced himself to a bemused sea of weary faces. He told us that the area we'd just left had been sealed off since quarter to nine this morning when a suspect white van had been identified. He said that the whole area had been evacuated, along with large parts of the rest of Central London, and that the last six hours above ground had been "especially manic". He kept mentioning the "ongoing situation" and "national security" but never quite provided details (despite our lengthy pleading). The mobile networks were down, he explained, so we'd be wasting our time trying ring our families. And he apologised for the diminished police presence in the City, because all his colleagues had been called away to "the Westminster incident" several hours ago and now there was only him and a couple of traffic wardens left to mop up any last stragglers.

"What I need to ask you to do now," he said, "is to continue down this street and join the queue of evacuees waiting around the corner. We need to clear the affected area in the centre of London, so you'll all be embarking on special trains at Liverpool Street. A special evacuation service will transport you away from the rail hub and deliver you to an unloading point outside the capital. Here local authorities will provide for your basic needs until normality is restored. It's all part of an official government resilience plan called Operation Sassoon, ladies and gentlemen. There's no need to worry. It's for your own safety, you understand."

We were all shocked and downheartened, but Martin was the only one of us to vocalise his opposition. He explained that he lived in Shoreditch which wasn't far away, and he'd be going straight home thank you. No way was he ending up being dumped in godforsaken Braintree, or Ipswich or somewhere. He had a game of squash booked tonight, and his tropical fish needed feeding before bedtime, and his girlfriend was expecting him. PC Kevin told him he had no choice - the area was being evacuated and that was that. Martin was having none of it, and walked off in the opposite direction, back the way we'd come. He ignored the policeman's loud protestations and strode on, yelling something about not living in a police state. Kevin's bullet caught Martin between the shoulder-blades and he slumped messily to the floor. And the rest of us, once we'd torn our gaze away from the spreading pool of blood, shuffled off meekly to await yet another miserable train journey.
Posted at 15:29 from 51°30'58"N 0°5'0"W via my Z470xi mobile


Broadgate, London: And so we queue to evacuate the capital, lined up on the pavement outside Liverpool Street station waiting for our one-way journeys to Essex and beyond. Hundreds of us who'd escaped from the stalled tube, along with the last of the City workers who'd got caught up in events above ground, and one power-crazed policeman with a gun keeping us all in check.

Naturally we've been pumping everyone else in the queue for more information about what happened earlier this morning, but no consistent picture of events has emerged. The Prime Minister is either dead, kidnapped or running the country from a bunker deep beneath the Pennines, depending on who you believe. All the early media and internet speculation dried up fast once the power failures began, so nobody really seems to be sure of anything any more. All we really know is that several places have exploded, probably, so things are very very bad, somehow. Our new life in the countryside could only be an improvement, surely.

Except that, like Martin, I really don't want to be forcibly dispatched on a random train journey out of the capital. I don't want to end up this evening in an East Anglian church hall being fed tea and sandwiches by eager Women's Institute handmaidens. I don't want to go to bed tonight in a government-issue sleeping bag. I don't want to be stuck in the clothes I'm wearing for the next however-many days. I don't want to spend the foreseeable future marooned in a far-flung village armed only with an empty wallet and my Oyster Card. And (you know, I hadn't considered this before) I don't have any spare disposable contact lenses in my pocket, so I really don't want to wake up tomorrow morning spectacle-less, myopic and visually crippled. No, I want to go home instead. Just so long as I can get there without dying in the process.
Posted at 16:21 from 51°31'2"N 0°4'56"W via my Z470xi mobile


Broadgate, London: Escaping from the evacuation queue turned out to be much easier than I'd expected. PC Kevin and his traffic warden entourage were having real trouble trying to shepherd hundreds of unwilling Londoners towards the platforms - too many civilians and not enough officials. So when a fracas broke out on the station concourse (a mob of angry stock traders refused, point blank, to board a train to Lowestoft), about fifty of us took our chance and scarpered. We legged it out of the station up the eastern stairs, shielded by the lengthening shadows of dusk, and then we scattered. I'm now holed up in a narrow alleyway on the other side of the road, safely tucked out of sight from any passing police officer. Or so I hope (this live geo-blogging is a dead giveaway to the authorities, isn't it? I'd better move on quick). I intend to carry on skulking eastward through Shoreditch and Whitechapel, beneath the cloak of nightfall, because things don't look quite so smoky and grim out in that direction. And that's where my bed for the night lies waiting.
Posted at 16:52 from 51°31'3"N 0°4'44"W via my Z470xi mobile


Spitalfields, London: Brick Lane is not buzzing. Normally at this time on a Monday it'd be heaving, but not today. I've weaved my way through the backstreets of Spitalfields, to get here, and the whole place is unnervingly quiet. And I'm starving, so it's a bit annoying that nowhere selling food seems to be open. The smell of curry is not in the air. I swallowed a few (much needed) gulps of water earlier, from a drinking fountain opposite Spitalfields Market, but that's the best I've managed so far. All the Bangladeshi convenience stores around here seem to be firmly locked, with just a few sacks of onions piled up on the pavement outside. A fat lot of good that is, when what I really need is a takeaway.
Posted at 17:05 from 51°31'7"N 0°4'16"W via my Z470xi mobile


Whitechapel, London: It's starting to get properly dark now, and the streetlamps aren't coming on. I've decided to avoid the main roads on my trek east, just to avoid patrolling officialdom, but I'm starting to wonder if these gloomy back streets are any safer. Piled-high council estates aren't the nicest places to be walking, even in normal daylight, but at least the locals seem wholly disinterested in my passing. They're scurrying around on their own urgent missions, or hurrying home to make sure their families are safe. Or at least I hope they are. A sign on the wall behind me reads "Be aware, CCTV in operation". Somehow I doubt that's true. I think I'd better walk a little faster.
Posted at 17:13 from 51°31'11"N 0°3'45"W via my Z470xi mobile


Whitechapel, London: A mob of desperate Londoners is looting the Sainsbury's superstore behind Whitechapel High Street. The windows are smashed, and the car park is full of previously law-abiding citizens wheeling away trolleys piled high with consumer goodies. I'd have thought that food should be the priority at the moment, but instead the most popular stolen goods seem to be TVs and DVD players. They'll never get them powered up when they get home, surely, and a few tins of soup would be much more useful. But this is no time for rational thought, it seems.
Posted at 17:21 from 51°31'18"N 0°3'32"W via my Z470xi mobile


Stepney, London: I don't think I've ever walked through these particular back roads before, so I'm not 100% certain I'm heading in the right direction. The streets are lined with a random collection of high-density housing, from Victorian terraces to grim 70s tenement blocks, with only a few signs of flickering candlelight suggesting that anyone's at home. Several families are out packing boxes of essential belongings into the back of their cars and are attempting to exit the area by road. Over towards the railway viaduct a yard full of rubber tyres has been set alight. With no fire service to keep the blaze in check, I fear the other residents may have to consider evacuation themselves before the night's out.
Posted at 17:30 from 51°31'27"N 0°2'59"W via my Z470xi mobile


Mile End, London: Bloody canal. There's no way across (bar swimming) between Roman Road and Mile End Road, so I've been forced out of the backstreets onto the main road. The eastbound carriageway is filled with a stream of gridlocked vehicles, honking repeatedly in a futile attempt to try to get the traffic ahead to budge. At least their headlights are working, which finally brings some much-needed illumination to my journey home. On the opposite side of the road a convoy of army vehicles is ploughing steadily towards the City, brushing other road users aside as necessary. They seem more intent on moving forward than taking control here, thankfully, but I'll be glad to cross the canal and retreat back into the shadows.
Posted at 17:46 from 51°31'22"N 0°2'31"W via my Z470xi mobile


Mile End, London: A gang of youths are hurling bricks at the shops and restaurants beneath the Green Bridge, presumably because they fear no recrimination. So I've retreated into Mile End Park to find a safer route around. It's suddenly very dark again. I've climbed up on the mound in the park to get my bearings, and to check there are are no undesirable elements creeping up on me. A not-quite-full moon is shining weak light across the canalside, and visible above is a truly unfamiliar sight - the glimmer of countless stars and constellations. Meanwhile several miles to the west, somewhere beyond the jet black shadow of the Gherkin, the sky is glowing a more disturbing shade of demonic red. London's burning, fetch the engines?
Posted at 17:58 from 51°31'32"N 0°2'14"W via my Z470xi mobile


Bow, London: I'm almost on home turf now, but these back streets are still unexpectedly unfamiliar. I've just stumbled upon a Sikh temple I've never seen before, facing out onto a scrappy square of dogturd-splattered grass. Hundreds of candles have been lit inside, and the worshippers spilling out onto the pavement are in calm contrast to the increasingly uneasy atmosphere on the surrounding estate. I've seen several other things on my walk I might normally go home and blog about (there was a Banksy earlier, and a spookily derelict Jewish cemetery, and an East End tower block called 'Pauline House'), but tonight I'm far more interested in just getting home.
Posted at 18:14 from 51°31'42"N 0°1'44"W via my Z470xi mobile


Bow, London: My flat is now in sight, but getting to my front door's not going to be easy. I'm back on the main road again, and events here have started to get nasty. One or two cars have broken down and then been abandoned by their occupants, blocking progress for everyone else. Some major fisticuffs have broken out, and one Renault has been overturned beside the church making the situation even worse. Up on the Bow Flyover a bendy bus is aflame (so things aren't all bad). My local Costcutter has been gutted, and the cashpoint machine outside the bank nextdoor looks like its been sledgehammered away from the wall. And now there's a major scuffle in progress on the pavement outside my block of flats, the door to which is hanging limply from one upper hinge. I hope to be able to slip inside soon, to relative safety. Maybe I should have taken that train to Essex instead.
Posted at 18:32 from 51°31'43"N 0°1'9"W via my Z470xi mobile


Bow, London: Home, sweet home? I finally made it inside about half an hour ago, after creeping my way tentatively up a pitch black staircase. I was glad to see (or rather feel) that my front door was still intact, and to discover that my front door keys were indeed still in my pocket. The flat may be cold and isolated and dark, but at least it's still home.

First success - I keep a torch beside the front door for use in power cuts or when the fuse blows. At last, illumination is under my control again. First mistake - I dashed into the bathroom and used the toilet, then flushed the chain. Damn, the cistern didn't refill (or even gurgle) so that's my sewage arrangements buggered. Second success - I bought a bag of IKEA tealights several years ago, and it appears I still have more than 80 of them left. I took nearly five minutes to find a box of matches though. Second disaster - there's a pool of ice-cold water spreading across the kitchen floor where the fridge-freezer has started defrosting. At least the milk hasn't gone off yet. Third disaster - the taps are dry, and I don't believe in buying bottled water so I don't have any in the house. Grrr. Fourth disaster - my gas hob isn't working, so I couldn't make a soothing cup of tea even if I wanted to. Come on, it's what we Brits do when disasters outnumber successes, and I feel like I'm missing out.

So, no gas, no electricity and only the water I can salvage from the kettle and the defrosting freezer. Things could be better. But I have fruit, and bread, and tins of baked beans, and a surprisingly large number of Creme Eggs, so I'm not going to starve in the near future. The lack of electricity is probably my biggest problem. Without electricity much of modern life doesn't function. I can't cook, I can't watch television, and I can't find out what the hell's going on out there. The telephone appears to be dead, and even my super-duper new mobile doesn't seem to be able to raise a meaningful signal. All of my radios are mains-powered, bar one (which I don't have sufficiently large batteries for). At least my laptop still has a couple of hours of power left, but without a wireless network to connect to it's not much use.

It looks like I face an evening trying to make my own entertainment. I've got a stack of books here that I've never quite got round to reading, even if flicking through them by candlelight isn't going to be good for my eyesight. I've got a fully functioning mp3 player, even if chirpy upbeat music doesn't sound especially appropriate at the moment. And I've got a vivid imagination, which isn't going to help me one little bit as I sit here cowering in the flickering darkness wondering what the hell might be going on outside.
Posted at 19:09 from 51°31'41"N 0°1'5"W via my Z470xi mobile


Bow, London: I'm packing a rucksack, ready to leave my flat and make my escape first thing tomorrow morning. It's hard to decide what to take and what to leave behind. Food, toothbrush and a change of underwear, obviously, plus those disposable contact lenses I came all this way to fetch. I'm taking my passport and my birth certificate and my full home insurance documentation, because that might save a lot of hassle later. I've packed my Oystercard because you never know, it might come in useful (more useful than any compulsory ID card would have been, that's for sure). I want to take my laptop, but it won't fit in my rucksack and I fear it'll just slow me down. I'll try to back up as many important files as I can onto something more portable before the batteries drain away. I've also been round my flat by candlelight scrutinising all my worldly possessions to determine which are important enough to join these other essentials in my bag. There are so many irreplaceable things here that mean the world to me and that I'd hate to lose, but I can't take more than a handful of them with me. All I can hope is that this flat survives whatever the next few days may bring, and then I can come back and pick up my life again later.

Come first light I'm out of here. I hope I can make it out of the capital on one of those evacuation trains, if they're still running, or maybe I'll just walk. Fingers crossed the rest of my family up in Norfolk are far enough away from this mess to still be safe and well, and hopefully I can reach them with the minimum of further hassle. In the meantime, however, I think an early night is called for. It's almost certainly the best way of forgetting everything that's gone on today, just for a few precious hours.
Posted at 20:17 from 51°31'41"N 0°1'5"W via my Z470xi mobile


Bow, London: Suddenly there's one hell of a racket outside my front door. There's yelling, and whooping, and what sounds like one of the front doors on my landing being kicked in. It's not my door, but it's much too close for comfort. Must be looters, I guess. And there's me having just put all of my cash and valuables into a rucksack - which'll only make the whole lot especially easy to steal. I'm trying to tell myself events won't come to that.

Except now there's banging coming from the flat nextdoor. And (I'm trying to pretend it isn't) screaming (but it is). I really don't want to imagine where those thugs might be heading next, or why, but my elevated heartbeat hints at the probable truth. So now I'm crouched down on the floor between my bed and the wall, hiding beneath a carefully positioned duvet, in the hope that the flickering light from this mobile doesn't give me away. Bloody typical - I journey all that way home through the end of civilisation as we know it, and home turns out to be even more dangerous than outside. My flat's just a dead end - one way in, no way out.

So I'm powering down now, and waiting for the future. I hope yours looks brighter.
Posted at 23:53 from 51°31'41"N 0°1'5"W via my Z470xi mobile <battery low>





No, you're right, it could never happen.
<never never happen>
<never happen>
<never happen>
<never>


 Tuesday, January 23, 2007

2012 days to 2012
(honestly)

2012 days to go
A PR-gift of a milestone passes. The clock outside Stratford station records the moment correctly, second time around. Local businesses make plans to flee the area. Quartermile Road will soon become the first local road to be permanently closed off. Bulging white sacks of Japanese knotweed (labelled "Contaminated Materail") are piled up in a fenced-off compound beside the City Mill River. Some minor preparations are apparent but there's not much work in progress, not yet.

this way to the new Dome?
Beneath the Greenway on Marshgate Lane, East London's cynical artists have been out expressing themselves again. The previous graffiti inviting the International Olympic Committee to eff off has been painted over, replaced by a fresh bank of black and white arrows. They point northward under the sewer pipes, towards the site of the 2012 stadium. This way, they say, to the government's latest misconceived overpriced white elephant. Another ministerial folly with no sustainable future is on its way. In only 2012 days we'll know if they were correct.

 Sunday, January 21, 2007

  I SPY LONDON
  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 16: The Museum of Childhood

Location: Cambridge Heath Road, E2 9PA [map]
Open: 10am - 5:45pm
Admission: free
5-word summary: the toys of grown-up kids
Website: www.vam.ac.uk/moc
Time to set aside: an hour or two

The Museum of Childhood (entrance)Bethnal Green's not somewhere you'd usually think to take children, especially not to a museum. But the V&A owns a showcase here devoted entirely to all things youthful, recently reopened after a £8m refit, so you might well think again. The building housing the Museum of Childhood started out 150 years ago as a temporary exhibition space in South Kensington. The iron-framed structure was no longer required when the V&A's current permanent home was built, so the curators dismantled it and shipped it across the capital to provide a new home for knowledge and culture amongst the slums of the East End. And the museum's still here, its mission since 1974 to concentrate on "objects made for and made by children". Toys R Them.

From the street outside the red-brick shell of the museum looks somewhat reminiscent of a large Victorian railway terminus, albeit with a modern trendy foyer bolted onto the front. Inside it's more a strange mix of meat market and cathedral, with two floors of open-sided galleries running along each side of a cavernous central aisle. At your feet is an extensive marble-tiled floor, painstakingly laid by women prisoners from Woking, upon which today's curators have dropped an information point, shop and café. Ignore those, and head up the steps to the galleries.

The Museum of Childhood (interior)You don't need to have a pair of kids in tow to enjoy the museum. In fact, you may find they get in the way. As an adult, you'll be immediately drawn to the old toys and games displayed in a series of glass cases. They've been arranged thematically rather than by age, so you'll find an 18th century doll in the same cabinet as Play School's Jemima, and a Victorian zoetrope alongside a Chad Valley slide projector. I wandered the floors on a nostalgic journey, my eye drawn by long-forgotten treasures once stacked inside my own toy cupboard. The hand-me-down Meccano of my childhood is now a museum exhibit, as is that tub of Play-doh, that Spirograph box and that Scalextric set. Even items I never realised other kids owned - such as Lott's Bricks, Playplax and Blast Off - are all catalogued here with unexpected importance.

The newly-revamped museum has tried hard to keep its younger visitors amused. They've provided a ball pond by the board games, a dressing up area by the dolls houses, and something to clamber on near the teddy bears. There's even a big Robbie The Robot to meet and greet, and an interactive magnetic game based on a best-selling 60s Beatles toy. But all the best toys are in the glass cases, out of reach. Look, Matchbox cars! Look, Weebles! Look, a Binatone TV Master Mark 6! No child will have the staying power to view the entire collection, not when they have far more exciting games they could be playing at home. So if you decide to visit, I'd recommend packing your kids off to the child minder for a couple of hours. Then meet up with a few mates of a similar age, head over to Bethnal Green and enjoy reliving your mutual childhoods. Yes, those really are Smurfs, and did you have that blue scooter too? Great stuff.
by tube: Bethnal Green

 Sunday, January 14, 2007

Random borough (12): Lambeth

Yesterday I ended up south of the river (yet again) in the randomly selected borough of Lambeth. It's a long thin borough, with enormous contrasts from one end to the other. To the north the South Bank and all things metropolitan, to the south Streatham and suburbia, and inbetween Brixton and other up-and-gentrifying neighbourhoods. Lambeth is also onionbagblogger territory, especially around "sunny Stockwell", so you may well be fully informed about the area already. Just in case you're not, here's my own report.


Somewhere famous: the South Bank
A forced architectural deadline doesn't always produce popular results. 2000 brought us the Dome, and 2012 heralds the new Olympic Park, like it or not. It was a similar story in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. 27 derelict acres of Lambeth's northernmost riverside was chosen as as the focus for this celebration of postwar national renaissance, but not everyone was pleased. Critical voices castigated the government for throwing away public money on a temporary exhibition when there were other far more pressing economic priorities. But they built it anyway. Sounds familiar.

Of all the buildings constructed for the Festival of Britain only the Royal Festival Hall still stands. The surrounding buildings and concrete walkways were built in the late 60s, redeveloping the festival site to create the oppressive South Bank Centre. If you're brave and have a good sense of direction then you might risk venturing up a forbidding stairwell to the Hayward Gallery [photo]. If you can locate the correct pathway(s) from Waterloo to the riverside then there's a chance you might reach your seat at the National Theatre before curtain up. And only if you have floppy hair and a skateboard are the concrete catacombs beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hall the place to hang out [photo]. Like a socially-engineered council estate of the same period, the multi-level thoroughfares proved more popular with architects than the public expected to use them.

Four decades later, wholesale realignment and reconstruction is finally underway. Under the new masterplan there'll be new entrances at ground level and increased open space so that visitors can find their way around more easily. This will still be London's arts hub, but with a slightly softer face. And more coffee. I do sometimes wonder whether modern concert halls and galleries exist primarily to promote art or to peddle cappucinos. Walk into the National Film Theatre and you'll have to negotiate the café first. The riverside frontage of the QEH is given over to a big café, not a performance space. And the new slim glass building they've slid in beside the Royal Festival Hall may have offices on the upper floors, but it's all restaurants and cafés down below. The Radio 3 audience will come anyway, it seems, but everyone else can only be attracted to proper culture by a muffin, a latté and a nice sit down. 40 years on, the South Bank has finally discovered how to be loved.
by train: Waterloo;   by bus: RV1

a Festival of Britain website (including virtual South Bank tour)
official downloadable South Bank walking guides


Somewhere pretty: The Museum of Garden History
Location: Lambeth Palace Road SE1 7LB [map]
Open: 10.30am - 5pm
Admission: £3
5-word summary: digging up our horticultural past
Website: www.museumgardenhistory.org
Time to set aside: about an hour

Given the amount of time that Britons spend tending their gardens, it's only right that there should be a national museum devoted to our horticultural history. What you might not expect is that this museum is housed in a deconsecrated church beside Lambeth Palace [photo], across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament. But there are some very famous people buried in the 900 year-old churchyard of St Mary-at-Lambeth, including two of the country's most famous gardeners, so this really is the perfect plot.

Inside the nave of the old church a small number of quirky garden-related exhibits have been laid out inside tall glass cases. You'd expect to see trugs and wheelbarrows, but maybe not a display devoted to seed packets, a shelf full of gnomes and a bright yellow tin of slug powder. Here I came face to face with the museum's amazing "Vegetable Lamb of Tartary" (it was believed for centuries that this mythical species of mini-sheep grew on a stalk from the ground, honest, until botanists proved it was nothing but an ordinary fern root). Along one wall is a 2000-year history of the British garden, via knot gardens, cottage gardens and big ostentatious stately gardens. Where the font once stood there's now an ambitious audio-visual exhibit detailing local Lambeth history. The foot of the nave is taken up by an extensive (and tasteful) giftshop, which sells packets of seeds grown on site as well as the more usual books and teatowels. And where the side chapel used to be is a small café, plus the big oak door out to the churchyard.

January probably isn't the best month to visit a garden museum's garden. The depleted knot garden was looking more brown than green, but there were still a couple of blue agapanthus in bloom to provide a slight splash of colour. The most striking tomb in the churchyard is that of Captain William Bligh [photo], the unfortunate victim of Fletcher Christian's Mutiny on the Bounty. Bligh's voyage was commissioned to collect various botanic specimens, and it was while harvesting breadfruit on Tahiti that his crew rose up and cast him adrift. He survived this ordeal, just, later retiring to the relative safety of landlocked Lambeth. Beside Bligh - in a tomb adorned with images of skulls, death and destruction - lie the two John Tradescants [photo]. John-the-elder started out as Head Gardener at Hatfield House in 1610, rising to a more royal position under King Charles I. Both John and his son were extremely keen on plant collecting, and travelled around the world to bring new species back to their new botanic garden in Lambeth. They founded a collection of curiosities called "The Ark", which became Britain's first pay-to-enter public museum. The Tradescants' collection ended up forming the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. No doubt the two Johns would be pleased that this new horticultural anthology is housed much closer to home.
by bus: 3, 77, 344, 507, C10


Somewhere historic: the Northern Line deep level shelters
In 1940, at the height of the Blitz, wartime authorities urgently needed somewhere below ground capable of protecting thousands of London's civilians. They decided, in their infinite wisdom, to build several deep level shelters in tunnels alongside existing tube stations. Eight such shelters were completed, four of them on the Northern line between Stockwell and Clapham South. And one of these shelters changed the face of South London forever, in a way which nobody could have anticipated at the time.

Deep level shelter factfile:
» Access was via a spiral staircase or lift from a 'pill-box' structure on the surface.
» Each shelter consisted of two parallel cylindrical chambers, half a kilometre long and 5m in diameter.
» Each tube was subdivided into a top deck and a lower deck so that 8000 bunks could be crammed in.
» The shelters were completed in 1942, but weren't used by civilians until 1944 when V1 and V2 bombs started landing.
» It was originally planned to link the shelters together after the war as part of a parallel 'express' Northern line, but this never came to pass.
» More detailed information about London's deep level shelters here and here.


I went in search of the four Lambeth shelters, attempting to spot the entrance to each on the surface:

Stockwell [photo] [map]: You can't miss the Stockwell shelter. It's slap bang in the middle of a triangular roundabout, at the heart of the neighbourhood, on a grassy patch of land beside a squat clock tower. And it has the most marvellous mural illustrated across it, of the type that local taggers dare not daub over. This was originally painted to commemorate Violette Szabo, a WW2 special agent who met her end in a German concentration camp. The mural also includes several images from local history and a field of 600 red poppies (which, from the wreaths I saw lying beneath it, is now used for Remembrance in preference to the War Memorial alongside). You can read more about the images painted on the shelter here, at onionbagblog. Just across the road, on the pavement outside Stockwell tube station, is another memorial to a foreign national killed by the authorities - Jean Charles de Menezes (1978-2005). His memorial is more of a makeshift shrine, pinned with plaintive messages of anger and despair, and with a candle burning at its sorrowful heart [photo]. Few locations in London are quite so inextricably linked to war and loss as central Stockwell, so maybe its just as well that the giant bomb shelter is hidden away deep out of sight.

Clapham North [photo] [map]: Further down the Clapham Road, fenced off beneath some very ordinary flats, is the entrance to the Clapham North shelter. This shelter was recently offered for let, providing as it does 60000 square feet of underground storage accommodation. Expect it to be full of archived paperwork before the year is out. You can read an extremely detailed account of a recent trip (178 steps down) into the bowels of this most unusual warehouse-to-be here.

Clapham Common [photo] [map]: This station is accessed via a characteristic domed entrance in the middle of Clapham High Street, but that's not the way into the shelter. Instead the access point for the Clapham Common shelter is on a grim street corner opposite, hidden behind tall advertising hoardings. I'm sure that the Sainsbury's superstore nextdoor would have knocked it down had they been allowed, probably to create an extended deli counter or something, but I'm glad they weren't.

Clapham South [photo] [map]: And finally to the shelter that changed history. The entrance to the Clapham South shelter sits at the southern tip of Clapham Common, looking for all the world like a block of lavatories beside the road. But no, this was once the well-ventilated entrance to a place of safety for local residents. After the war the shelter lay empty, that is until 1948 when the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury carrying the first black Commonwealth settlers from Jamaica. As a short-term measure, an anonymous Colonial Office official chose to house 230 of these immigrant workers in the Clapham South deep level shelter. From here the nearest labour exchange was in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, so it was in the Brixton area that they finally settled. When thousands of other West Indians followed over the next few years they naturally gravitated towards the same neighbourhood, and so South London's Caribbean community was created. It could so easily have been seeded in Chelsea or Hampstead or almost anywhere else in the capital instead, but no - thanks to a snap decision and a barely-used underground bunker, Lambeth is where it's at.
by tube: Stockwell, Clapham North, Clapham Common, Clapham South


Somewhere sporty: the Oval
• The Oval is a cricket ground (I'm sorry, but some of my readers need to know that).
The Oval was built in the 1840s on the site of a market garden belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall.
• The cricket ground at the Oval is circular, although the area of land it's built on is indeed an ellipse.
• The Oval is the home ground of Surrey County Cricket Club, even though Kennington hasn't been part of Surrey since 1889.
• The first ever football FA Cup Final was held at The Oval in 1872 (Wanderers beat the Royal Engineers one nil).
• The first ever international test match on English soil was played at The Oval. We beat Australia by five wickets.
• Two years later the Aussies thrashed us at the Oval (by 7 runs) and "The Ashes" were born.
• The Oval website still proudly boasts that this is "WHERE THE ASHES WERE WON" in 2005, despite the fact that we've lost them (miserably) since.
• The Oval is dominated to the north by giant gasholders. In their shadow stands a pink pub called The Cricketers, which is now extremely closed. [photo]
• The old stands at the Vauxhall End were knocked down in 2002 and replaced by a big curvy four-tier grandstand. [photo] This £25m development is screened from the outside by a plant-covered wall.
• The Oval is currently known as The Brit Oval, after a sponsored brand of insurance you'd never have heard of otherwise.
"Brit Insurance's vision is to build on its position as a leading and profitable UK-domiciled international general insurance and reinsurance group that improves the economic well-being and quality of life of all its stakeholders." (No, I can't spot the cricketing connection either)
• The Brit Oval is home not just to a cricket ground but also to the Brit Oval Shop, the Brit Oval Conference Centre and the Brit Oval Health and Fitness Centre.
• You can watch all the cricket that isn't being played at The Oval at the moment on this webcam.
by tube: Oval, Vauxhall;   by bus: 36, 185, 436


Somewhere random: a Brixton walk
For the last part of my day out in Lambeth, I decided to download a 4-page leaflet off the council's website and follow one of their guided walks. I had a choice of the Lambeth Black History Walk or the Brixton to Ruskin Park Walk. I plumped for the latter, because it covered parts of the borough I'd never knowingly visited before. Three-ish miles, two hours, one neighbourhood to explore. The leaflet was quite impressive - both geographically lucid and refreshingly family-friendly. But would reality match the rhetoric?

The scheduled route started in central Brixton, outside the sugar-funded Tate Library. A gospel choir of hand-waving evangelicals had beaten me to it, vanned down from Vauxhall to sing choruses to a Saturday afternoon audience of four [photo]. Inexplicably the route then circled Windrush Square, quite the dullest patch of pigeon-infested grass ever bestowed with a ceremonial title. There was a brief detour to see the Fridge nightclub (yes, it's that sort of tour), then the rather more impressive edifices of Lambeth Town Hall [photo] and the Ritzy Cinema [photo]. And then out of town, past a paved remnant of the very first David Greig grocery store [photo] (readers of a certain age will remember how huge he once was). Railton Road is much changed from the street half-burnt in 1981's Brixton Riots, but subsequent residential streets still retain their unfirebombed Victorian demeanour.

And then into the hilly green expanse of Brockwell Park. I was mortified to discover that Art Deco masterpiece Brockwell Lido is no more [photo]. The new owners promise to rebuild it, although they also plan for added yoga studios, hydrotherapy spa and steam rooms to ensure that the new complex is "a viable and self-sustainable facility". Staring at the current desolate hole in the ground, it's hard to believe that anything so endearing as the 1930s original could be ready by the summer.

The view from the park's slopes is unexpectedly impressive, with central London laid out across the horizon from the Telecom Tower to Canary Wharf. The weekend paths are filled with dog walkers, divorced Dads and an ever-flowing stream of January joggers. Few of them retreat to the peace of the walled garden on the hill [photo], a secluded place of secret solitude (and conveniently located for the public lavatories). Instead many are drawn inside the stately portico of Brockwell Hall [photo] (but only because there's a century-old café selling light refreshments on the ground floor).

If you ever follow this walk yourself I'd suggest that you stop here, close to Herne Hill station. I made the mistake of continuing along the second half of the route, ascending into the suburban avenues of SE24. Don't get me wrong, the area was unexpectedly charming, but nothing special. 'Highlights' of the printed walk included a Sainsbury's Local (because it used to be a fire station), half a mile of "pretty doorways" and the Art Nouveau Carnegie Library (actually very nice, but not worth the extra shoe leather). As for Ruskin Park at the end of the route, I was expecting something slightly more memorable. But at least the walk had led me through the real Lambeth, from its multicultural heart to its more representative backwaters, so I'm glad I completed it.
by train: Brixton, Herne Hill, Loughborough Junction


Somewhere retail: 32 Ambleside Avenue, Streatham
You wouldn't guess from the down-at-heel High Road today, but Streatham used to have real class. The UK's first Waitrose supermarket was opened here in 1955, along what is still reputedly the longest shopping street in Britain. So maybe it's no surprise that something entirely exclusive was once on sale in a detached house around the corner, for luncheon vouchers.

This is 32 Ambleside Avenue, formerly the home of Madam Cynthia Payne [photo]. To this detached villa she invited bank managers, high court judges and other gentlemen of impeccable breeding to indulge themselves at one of her notorious sex parties. This wasn't playtime at the Playboy mansion, it was a pinstripe tea party with prostitutes and plumped up cushions. Middle-aged men had their fantasies indulged, so long as they were nothing too heavy. All of this Home Counties hedonism took a knockback in 1978, however, when police broke into the house during one of Madam Cyn's sexual shindigs. They must have enjoyed themselves because they were back again in 1986, although this time they were unsuccessful at bringing a conviction.

Number 32 is just an ordinary home today. It's large and rambling, with a well-kept front garden and a creamy-white porch. It's the sort of house which might easily have been converted into a doctor's surgery (ooh, nurses) or a dental clinic (mmm, fillings). You can get some idea of the interior and back garden from the website of the bed and breakfast nextdoor (although obviously nothing dodgy goes on there either). The road outside is now a residential offshoot of the town's one-way system, rather busier than it must have been when city gents sidled up to the front door with a guilty grin on their face. And dearest Cynthia has long since moved on (although she is available for after dinner speeches, and I bet she's a scream).
by train: Streatham;   by bus: 133, 249, 315, 319, G1


www.flickr.com: a Lambeth walk
(30 photos, including the real Lambeth Walk)

 Saturday, January 13, 2007

Going live: I've been on Radio London before. Way back in 1974, on my 9th birthday, legendary soul DJ Robbie Vincent played me and my Mum a record request on his Saturday Show. I can't remember what the song was, but I do remember being unexpectedly excited to hear my name read out live on air. There wasn't much radio in those days - no more than seven stations in the London area - so to appear over the airwaves was rather special. It's not so special today, with countless stations battling for decreasing audience share, which leaves a lot more airtime to fill. Yesterday I filled a few minutes.

Robert Elms hosts an eclectic weekday radio show with a "hidden London" bent. He's been doing it for years, carried over from the station's GLR days, but thankfully the capital is both big enough and deep enough to merit such long-term introspection. I mean, where else in the media would anyone devote an entire day's output to the quirks of an obscure London location, or to the sights to be seen along the number 91 bus route? Yeah right. So I got invited onto the show to discuss the last mile of the London 2012 marathon, off the back of a Time Out article which you probably haven't read yet. Blimey.

BBC London is based down Marylebone High Street in a drab but functional building which used to be the corporation's Radio Times warehouse. Your licence fee is not being wasted on cutting-edge interior design here, I can assure you. I sat for 15 minutes in reception, where the reading matter provided was a miserly stack of BBC leaflets (one of these for the "Springwatch Survey 2006"). While I waited I listened to the show on which I was about to appear, and learnt more than enough about buying fish and the travel situation on the Westway. And then it was my turn to be ushered through into the inner sanctum of... oh, OK, just some office space and a couple of very ordinary studios.

Mr Elms and I had a lovely chat about the Lower Lea Valley... halfway through which he suddenly stuck his headphones on and started the interview proper. It wasn't as scary an experience as I might have expected - quite the opposite in fact (thanks Robert). And my "15 minute" interview felt like it passed in a blur. This, as it turned out, was because it had only been 7 minutes long. I still had so much more to say, so much more to tell, but there was never time to get round to it. I even forgot to mention that the marathon will run along the top of North London's largest sewer, and that Olympic demolition starts in as little 25 weeks time (so get down there quick). But hey, nobody listening to my over-prepared talk would have realised. What do you mean you never heard it?

 Friday, January 12, 2007

Olympic stroll

There are now only six months until a big security fence is erected around a large chunk of the Lower Lea Valley. In July the Olympic bulldozers move in, razing the area to replace warehouses with international stadia. So I've been out for another not-quite-final walk along the riverbanks, just to see once more what I'll be missing.

It's getting harder to go for a stroll along the Bow Back Rivers. All the footpaths backing St Thomas's Creek have gone, gobbled up by new multi-storey apartment blocks alongside Stratford High Street. The footpath alongside the Waterworks River was sealed off months ago, although signposts still point bleakly towards firmly-locked gates at each end. Along the Old River Lea, beside Marshgate Lane, the footpath has been churned to mud recently by what look like contractors' tyre tracks. And now the stretch along the City Mill River has been gated, with access denied while British Waterways undertake "essential ground investigation works". It's only for a fortnight, apparently, but it's a telling omen of things to come.

But this wintry wasteland still merits a lonely wander. Red pecked berries droop low above the water's edge. Ducks paddle through the bullrushes in search of meagre sustenance. Thin spindly branches filter out the weak winter sunlight. Hibernating vegetation prepares to bud for one final spring, little knowing it'll be hacked down long before autumn.

Local businesses have just six months of on-site life remaining. No longer do the banners of protest hang from the front railings - they've been taken down in recognition of a battle lost. Over Christmas something new appeared on the railings instead. Lawyers representing the Olympic Delivery Authority came round with a pile of legal documents and served compulsory purchase orders on every property. They hung nine-page laminated summaries from selected railings, listing every road and property involved in the government buy-out. Meanwhile the official legal papers (two inches thick) were bagged up in flimsy brown envelopes and attached with plastic ties or brown tape to doors, railings or lampposts as appropriate. Not very well attached, as it turned out. By New Year - following rain, storm and tempest - most of the brown envelopes had crashed to the pavement, ripped open and exposed their soggy contents to the elements. This may be due legal procedure, but it doesn't exactly smack of appropriate care and attention. Six months to wipeout, and counting.

background stuff
Olympic Park masterplan
My Olympic Park photo gallery
Olympic Stadium site - aerial view
Map of 2007 road closures to allow for Olympic building

 Thursday, January 11, 2007

Hawk roosting

pigeon in flightOnce a day, every day of the year, a hawk goes flying around Trafalgar Square. It's a brown Harris hawk, provided by NBC Bird & Pest Solutions, and its job is to frighten away the pigeons. Ah, those lovable cuddly pigeons who for decades have swooped and soared above the Square to the delight of visiting tourists. Or, if you're the Mayor of London, those evil rats with wings who bring pestilence, disease and nasty white droppings which <plop> stain everything they touch. So, according to Ken, all these pigeons have to die. Or, rather, they all have to fly off and learn to live somewhere else, anywhere else, other than that big public space around Nelson's Column. Hence the hawk.

hawk patrolTime your visit to the square right and you might meet the lady with the hawk [photo]. There she is up on the North Terrace, in front of the National Gallery, strolling around with a great big bird of prey on her arm. This lady's in no hurry. She just wanders around and around in big circles amongst the pigeons while her hawk peers down through mean carnivorous eyes. The pigeons seem unimpressed, as if they've seen the whole act before [photo]. A few take off for a quick flight, but no more and no further than you might expect if a small toddler were approaching instead. At this rate, Trafalgar Square will never be dropping-free.

But HawkLady has one more trick up (or indeed on) her sleeve. She loosens the leather straps on her arm and lets her big bird free. Tourists stare open-mouthed. They'd been warned that London was dangerous, but they weren't expecting an aerial killer on the loose. Not to worry. This is a well-trained hawk, and it has no intention of savaging overseas visitors. Instead it swoops across the piazza and alights gracefully on top of the fourth plinth. Here it perches on the edge, directly behind Alison Lapper's arse, and waits, and watches.

hawk ladyThen, on a predetermined signal, the hawk pounces. The telltale shadow of a marauding raptor passes silently above the heads of the pigeons below. They flap and flutter, momentarily disturbed, as the hawk flies in. And then it comes to rest, not with its talons dug deep into bloodied flesh, but landing gently back onto the handler's gauntlet. The pigeons don't seem surprised by this, and within seconds are back strutting about on the ground in search of invisible crumbs thrown by over-generous passers-by.

And so hawk patrol continues. Another circuit, another plinth-swoop, continued avian disinterest. But HawkLady continues to smile, as well she might. It's not everyone who paid gets to stroll around Trafalgar Square with a bird on their arm for no particularly good reason, at the taxpayer's expense. Same time tomorrow then?

Save the Trafalgar Square pigeons
Brian, Britain's premier blogging pigeon
Mayor Ken's pigeon report


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