L ND N

 Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Boris's New Year Message

People of London, hear my voice. It's been a rip-roaring rollercoaster of a year. Economic grimness, houses in Belgravia plummeting in value, the City in crisis, all sorts of terrible and ghastly things. But also a year of celebration. London elected a new Mayor for a start, and I got to wave a big flag in Beijing. So I'm throwing a big party down by the Thames tonight, and 180000 of you are invited.

New Year fireworks at the EyeLondon's New Year fireworks are the envy of the world. Nowhere else are taxpayers herded prematurely into a waterside enclosure to stand for hours in the freezing cold waiting for ten minutes of flashy pyrotechnics. Nowhere else do annoyingly tall men in bobble hats stand directly in front of you drinking imitation champagne out of plastic cups and blocking your view of the pretty explosions. Nowhere else do citizens turn to one another at ten past midnight and say "Oh, was that it, I suppose we ought stumble home through this enormous crowd and watch it properly on the telly." You really wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

At this point I must interrupt my speech for a message from this year's sponsors.
"New Year's Eve is a moment of optimism - when people forget the troubles of last year and celebrate the next. Now more than ever it is important to focus on the positive things in life. Put simply Life's Good on New Years Eve."
I thought it would be good to have a sponsor this year because big fireworks are terribly expensive. So I asked a fridge manufacturer to give us lots of cash, and in return I'm allowing them to write patronising PR drivel on websites, and plaster their logo across the Embankment, and give out thousands of branded hats in the hope that gullible members of the public will still be wearing them on the train home. Now where's the harm in that? It also saves me having to charge £10 a ticket for spectators (although, hmmm, maybe next year). Oh, and for the first minute of the display all the fireworks will be red and white, because those are the LG colours, but in no way has this compromised the artistic integrity of the event.
"We will be using LG technology to significantly enhance the experience on the night and ensure that London's New Year celebrations become a global talking point. Our sponsorship of the fireworks is aimed at building a greater emotional connection to the LG brand globally as millions of eyes watch the capital celebrate the strike of twelve. It comes hot on the heels of LG's other recent sponsorships in the UK, all of which are helping to move the brand from being purely a product-driven organisation to one that brings memorable experiences to consumer's lives."
alcohol ban, anyone?And there's one other big change this year. I introduced a new byelaw back in June which bans the drinking of alcohol on public transport, and yes, it still applies tonight. We must feel safe in our capital, and that means nanny knows best. I know under Old Ken things were different. I know swilling down cans of lager on Hogmanay tubes used to be commonplace. I know getting blotto on the bus was once an integral part of everybody's New Year's Eve preparations. I know late night trains on December 31st used to resemble pubs on wheels. But cease your beery singing, because it isn't happy hour on public transport tonight.

Now I like a drink as much as the next man, especially if the next man is the great Roman emperor Pistus Fartus. But it's important to be a responsible citizen this New Year's Eve and not to make our tube carriages a den of vice. By all means get blind drunk before you come up to town. By all means leave a trail of vomit from the bus stop to the tube platform. By all means bring a bottle of bubbly to enjoy in Trafalgar Square when you arrive. But whatever you do don't crack open a six pack on the Circle line and proceed to pour the contents down your throat, because that's now very naughty indeed.

Oh, and I'd be much obliged if you lot could police this alcohol ban amongst yourselves tonight. All the police are going to be extremely busy sniffing for knives in town, and our transport workers have more sense than to confront hordes of drunken yobs on New Year's Eve. Let's keep it dry out there, lest LG's firework sponsorship be tarnished by alcoholic impropriety. Together we can make the end of 2008 just that little bit less enjoyable. And let's see in 2009 with a value-for-money bang.

 Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas in Trafalgar Square


 Friday, December 19, 2008

A new bus for London

Seven months after coming to power, Mayor Boris has made good his pledge to find a replacement for the Routemaster. His New Bus For London design competition has been hugely successful, attracting hundreds of entries from top architects and ordinary members of the public. BoJo's inner circle of advisors has scrutinised the suggestions to see which they like best, and today the chosen design can finally be unveiled. And here it is!

the winning Routemaster designMagnificent, isn't it? It embodies everything that was great about the old Routemaster but with a firmly post-retro twist. It looks like it's straight out of a Sixties toy cupboard, which makes it extremely lovable and nostalgic. It has a knobbly roof. It doesn't bend in the middle. And it's red.

It's the "People's Bus", sent in by 8-year-old Rupert de Vries-Hoffman from Bromley. Young Rupert was encouraged to enter the competition by his father, who's a local councillor, and created this stunning design in just half an hour using plastic Lego bricks. A well deserved winner, I'm sure you'll agree. And now this lovely omnibus is going to be manufactured and reproduced hundreds of times over, before being rushed out onto the streets just in time for the next Mayoral Election.

Here are some of the key design features of the new design:

» Rear platform: A must-have. In Boris's new car-friendly capital, it's essential to be able to jump off the back when the bus gets stuck in snarled-up traffic.
» Grab pole: Perfect for tying a wheelchair to. Oh yes, this new bus is fully accessible.
» Conductor: A jovial clippie in a bright blue uniform, whose job it'll be to herd passengers down inside the bus and to tell teenage girls to take their feet off the seats.
» On-board announcements: These will be in Latin. Obviously.
» First class saloon: To increase profitability, customers wishing to use the luxury non-plastic seats on the upper deck will have to pay extra.
» Soundproof cell: Under the stairs, for locking up disrespectful kids who insist on blaring tinny R&B from their mobiles.
» Reserved seats for pensioners: Just inside the door, lovely, with a space for your shopping, nice.
» Special segregated area for pushchairs: Buses serving Dulwich will also include nappy-changing facilities.
» Live screening of security camera footage: "Look at him, he's picking his nose, and she hasn't washed her hair properly, and he's got an iPod worth nicking, let's mug him when he gets off."
» Drinks machine: Swipe with your Oyster for cappucinos, hot chocolates and a liquid resembling tea.
» Sealed-shut windows: Sorry, we know summertime ventilation is important, but we can't risk vandals throwing cappucinos out of the top deck windows onto innocent passers by.
» Drug and knife detector: Every bus will have a fibreglass sniffer dog located near the entrance to deter crime and make Londoners feel safer.
» Inward-facing exhaust pipe: To reduce carbon emissions, this bus belches its fumes inside instead.

Today's winning design will one day become a much-loved icon of London, replacing the evil cyclist-crushing bendy bus, and tourists will flock from all around the world to ride it. Londoners will once again have confidence in their elected officials, safe in the knowledge that their hard earned taxes aren't being wasted on pointless vanity projects. And residents in the Outer London suburbs will be able to say "Look, there goes Boris's new Routemaster, it's great to have this noble beast back on our streets again, now hop into the car darling and let's drive down to the shops."

It's a proud day to be a Londoner and no mistake.

 Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Woolworths in liquidation: 10 Vesey Path, Poplar E14
Three weeks since my last visit, and it's all change at my almost local Woolworths. Last time the shelves were full and the aisles were empty. Now it's the other way round. The store is closing, the merchandise is being liquidated, and the local population has been through the store like a plague of semi-efficient locusts. Buy now while stocks last.

Woolworths, Chrisp Street E14There's no security guard at the entrance any more, which says a lot about the quality of the goods remaining inside. Shelves of sweets, especially of the foamy sugary Haribo kind, are still particularly well represented. Will nobody buy the 20 boxes of mint green Mingles stacked opposite the checkout? And don't worry, because further inside there's still a plastic rack of multi-coloured pic'n'mix. I suspect these scooped candies are a bit like the ravens at the Tower of London - when they've vanished, all is truly lost.

The toy section's looking a little depleted. There's still plenty here to fill Santa's sack, but nothing any self-respecting kid would have written on their Christmas list. One aisle is already empty, taped off to prevent further disturbance. Close by is what's left of children's clothes. This aisle looks like a tornado's swept through it, with blouses and coats and tiny plastic wellingtons scattered haphazardly across the floor, intermingled with discarded cards from a single pack of Doctor Who Top Trumps. Look carefully, there might be something left in your toddler's size.

Homeware, now a far more eclectic mix than usual. Don't come looking for Pyrex or toasters, the decent stuff's long gone. But if it's something of the order of a pair of scissors or a novelty penguin mug you need, then you might still be in luck. Certain colours of paint are available, but not many, and the haberdashery section is not yet fully diminished. In the stationery department a mute store worker busies himself restacking the shelves. It seems there are plenty more notepads in the storeroom out the back, and an awful lot of packs of economy biros, but just the one book of raffle tickets.

Groups of local youths wander in and out, maybe searching for a bargain Wii game (all gone) or perhaps just hoping to shoplift a DVD before the doors close. A weary assistant returns an opened tin of Jelly Babies to the front desk - someone's helped themselves to a handful and the remaining sugar offspring must now be condemned to destruction. Two veiled ladies pick through the assorted remnants on a shelf of entertainment leftovers. Something here will do the kids for Christmas, not that they celebrate it, but you have to buy something don't you?

And on every shelf is a big red percentage mark-down, be it ten or twenty or 30% off. There's a helpful table underneath for those who can't work out what 20% is ("was £1, now 80p" "was £2, now £1.60"). Very little is priced at the maximum half price discount, just greetings cards and school clothes you'd never have dreamed of buying anyway. Signs everywhere warn "No Refunds, Exchanges only". The chain's wholesale buyer misjudged the local population when they purchased umpteen black laptop bags - no amount of downpricing will shift these. But nobody needs to leave empty handed, this is still a store filled with useful bits. For now.

I head to the snaking queue at the checkout, weaving my way through a canyon of under-a-quid sweet packets. I am conspicuously the most well-off person in the queue, and also one of only four white faces in the store. Three mixed-race schoolgirls stand together in front of the till, their hair in frizzy bunches, and with tasseled boots sticking out from beneath off-black leggings. As formulaic R&B plays over the in-store loudspeakers, they jiggle and sway and mime along to the lyrics. The assistant drops their pile of chocolate-based purchases into a bag, and takes their pennies, and eventually they move on.

I hand over my purchase selection to the nearly-redundant bloke at the till. I'm buying 80 large envelopes and some shoelaces and a roll of brown paper, because you never know when you're going to need brown paper and in the future you'll never know where to get it. I offer a twenty pound note from my wallet, and am pleased to be given more than fifteen back. I sigh at the message printed at the bottom of my receipt: "Avoid Jan Sale queues, Xmas returns can be accepted from Monday 29th Dec". Somehow I'm not convinced this store will last that long. But there are still some real bargains to be had here, and I fear that whoever takes over this shell of a building in 2009 won't sell any of them.

I wonder who'll be next?

Woolworths RIP - photos from Stratford and Hackney
Woolworths stores and merchandise - a Flickr pool
Flickr photostream - latest photos of Woolworths demise
Jag goes for a video walk round Woolies, NW9

 Monday, December 15, 2008

Anorak Corner (annual update)

London's ten busiest tube stations (2007)
1) Victoria (76.4m)  2) Waterloo (74.8m) 3) Oxford Circus (72.0m) 4) ↑1 Kings Cross St Pancras (66.4m) 5) Liverpool Street (61.3m) 6) London Bridge (57.0m) 7) ↑2 Bank/Monument (41.9m) 8) Canary Wharf (41.6m) 9) ↑* Leicester Square (38.7m) 10) Piccadilly Circus (38.1m)

London's ten busiest tube stations that aren't also National Rail stations (2007)
1) Oxford Circus (72.0m) 2) ↑1 Bank/Monument (41.9m) 3) Canary Wharf (41.6m) 4) ↑4 Leicester Square (38.7m) 5) Piccadilly Circus (38.1m) 6) Tottenham Court Road (37.3m) 7) Bond Street (36.7m) 8) ↑2 Holborn (31.1m) 9) Green Park (30.0m) 10) Hammersmith (District & Piccadilly) (27.2m)

London's ten busiest tube stations outside Zone 1 (2007)
1) Canary Wharf (41.6m) 2) Hammersmith (District & Piccadilly) (27.2m) 3) ↑1 Stratford (25.6m) 4) Finsbury Park (24.8m) 5) Brixton (20.6m) 6) Camden Town (18.8m) 7) Ealing Broadway (17.5m) 8) ↑* North Greenwich (17.3m) 9) Wimbledon (14.8m) 10) Bethnal Green ↑* (14.1m)

London's ten least busy tube stations (2007)
1) Roding Valley (201000) 2) Chigwell (380000) 3) Grange Hill (395000) 4) Chesham (432000) 5) ↑1 Theydon Bois (641000) 6) Fairlop (697000) 7) ↑1 Croxley (730000) 8) ↑2 Moor Park (735000) 9) Ruislip Gardens (771000) 10) ↑* Upminster Bridge (781000)

London's ten least busy tube stations that aren't on the Central line (2007)
1) Chesham (432000) 2) Croxley (730000) 3) Moor Park (735000) 4) ↑1 Upminster Bridge (781000) 5) South Kenton (806000) 6) ↑1 North Ealing (870000) 7) ↑1 Kensington (Olympia) (952000) 8) Mill Hill East (958000) 9) ↑* Chorleywood (999000) 9) Ickenham (1068000)

London's ten busiest National Rail stations (2006/7)
1) Waterloo (84m) 2) Victoria (67m) 3) Liverpool Street (55m) 4) London Bridge (48m) 5) Charing Cross (35m) 6) ↑1 Paddington (27m) 7) Euston (26m) 8) King's Cross (23m) 9) Cannon Street (21m) 10) ↑* East Croydon (20m)

London's ten busiest National Rail stations that aren't central London termini (2006/7)
1) East Croydon (19.5m) 2) Clapham Junction (18.9m) 3) Wimbledon (15.9m) 4) ↑1 Stratford (13.1m) 5) ↑1 Vauxhall (10.5m) 6) ↑3 Surbiton (9.0m) 7) ↑* Romford (7.4m) 8) ↑* Putney (6.9m) 9) Richmond (6.5m) 10) ↑* Sutton (6.0m)

London's ten least busy National Rail stations (2006/7)
1) ↑2 South Greenford (14200) 2) Sudbury & Harrow Road (14400) 3) ↑2 Angel Road (16400) 4) ↑3 Birkbeck (23200) 5) Sudbury Hill (26600) 6) ↑* Crews Hill (42300) 7) ↑* Emerson Park (46500) 8) ↑* Walthamstow Queens Road (62500) 9) ↑* Morden South (71900) 10) Drayton Green (75400)

The UK's ten busiest National Rail stations that aren't in London (2006/7)
1) Glasgow Central (21.0m) 2) Leeds (17.3m) 3) Edinburgh Waverley (15.2m) 4) Birmingham New Street (14.5m) 5)
Manchester Piccadilly (14.5m) 6) Reading (14.4m) 7) Glasgow Queen Street (14.1m) 8) Brighton (12.9m) 9) Gatwick Airport (11.9m) 10) Cardiff Central (9.1m)

» Tube passenger data here (total annual entry and exit frequencies)
» Rail passenger data here (total annual entry and exit frequencies)

 Thursday, December 11, 2008

Circle lineOn Tuesday evening, while you were travelling home (and I was sitting in the bowels of the London Transport Museum), tube bosses took part in a live online Question Time. Members of the public sent in questions, and top brass answered. Detailed sensible answers in most cases, even when the questions were way off the mark.
"Hello, I wanted to ask why so many tube stations do not have lifts? I dont think its right in this day and age. Every other tube/metro/train station in most countries have them -e.g. in Paris France and in San Francisco, California, USA. It makes it so hard for elderly customers and those who cant manage escalators very well. When can we expect to see lifts or at least more stairs at EVERY station? I hate the escalators -theyre often crowded, and feel dangerous as theyre so steep/big. [Asked by DiVa]
If you've ever wondered when the upgrade at Earl's Court will be finished (#24), or why more trains go to Hainault than Epping (#10), or why the Northern line's filthy (#45), you'll find the answers here.

Casually tossed into the discussion are two potentially important announcements about splitting lines. There's long been talk that the Northern line might be divided in two, with all trains from High Barnet heading along the City branch to Morden and all trains from Edgware heading via Charing Cross to Kennington. This is strongly hinted at in Answer #44, but only during rush hours and only against the flow. And not until at least 2017, apparently, because there isn't the technology or money before that.
Answer: We have developed a service proposal that would operate an even split of services from High Barnet (or Edgware) to both City and Charing Cross branches in the morning peak, but with all northbound (ie contra-flow) services split so that all services from the City would go to High Barnet. This pattern would reverse in the evening.
But the really interesting suggestion is in Answer #69. It's to do with long-standing plans regarding the Circle line, which is undoubtedly the rubbishest underground line of all. It looks so tempting on the map, but in reality the trains are only scheduled to run every eight or nine minutes. The Circle also shares its tracks with too many other sub-surface lines, so services are often late, or slow, or cancelled. Alas there's no easy way to improve things, not without undertaking a radical overhaul of precisely where the Circle line actually runs. Not without splitting the Circle. And, it appears, this might be happening in just 12 months time...
I have a problem with the interaction of the trains at Edgeware Road circle, district, H&C. [Asked by Dan]
We're currently looking at the possibility of introducing a change to the service pattern in December 2009 which would help to address some of the issues that you describe.
The plans, as I understand them, are as follows. Only the Circle line will be tweaked. The trains won't go round in circles, they'll start and finish. One end of the line will be Hammersmith. Trains will shadow the Hammersmith & City line between here and Paddington, doubling the frequency of the service. Then they'll pull into Edgware Road (platform 1) before heading on a big loop all the way round the existing Circle line to Edgware Road (platform 2). And here they'll stop. And then they'll go all the way back round the loop again, via Edgware Road (platform 4) to Hammersmith. That's going to be fun explaining to tourists, isn't it? There's an informative map here, courtesy of London Connections (and a bloody useless map here, courtesy of the thelondonpaper).

The upshot of these changes is that it won't be possible to travel from Baker Street round to Notting Hill Gate without changing trains. At the moment you can take the Circle line, but in the future you'll have to get out at Edgware Road and wait for another train. Travelling through Edgware Road makes me shudder at the best of times, and it can only get worse. Meanwhile, what of those attempting to travel to Paddington? Every train approaching from the south will end up at the main underground station, but every train approaching from King's Cross will end up at the overcrowded H&C station at the wrong end of platform 8. Not fun for a quick exit, especially in the rush hour. And you can just imagine what a mess the tube map might look like around here in 12 months time.

Just to confuse people, the newly-unlooped line will still be called the Circle line. The Yo-Yo line might have been more appropriate, or the Spiral, or (a long established nickname, this) the Teacup. Hell, it could even have been called the Hammersmith & Circle, but no. Meanwhile the existing Hammersmith & City line will also keep its current name, despite the fact that it only runs through three City stations whereas the new line will run through nine. Please, this is not about logic, it's about creating a more regular service.
Answer: There is a long-standing proposal to change the service pattern on the Circle line - this would allow the full capacity and reliability benefits of the new trains that will be introduced from 2011, and the signalling upgrade that will be carried out thereafter, to be realised. While this is still under consideration, please accept my assurance that we are doing our best to improve the service for our customers.
There you go, it'll all be for the best, honest. But be warned, the circular Circle line might not see out the decade.

 Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Last night I trotted along to the London Transport Museum for one of their after-work talks, part of a six month series to accompany the "Art of the poster" exhibition. This one was given by Simon Patterson
You know Simon Patterson, I go on about him too often, he's an artist, he did that "Great Bear" poster, the one where he replaced all the stations on the tube map with famous people's names, back when that was still an original thing to do, made him famous, has done lots of other stuff, the boy I went to school with, we had the same art teacher, you know, that Simon Patterson
and about 40 of us turned up to hear him speak.
There's a theatre hidden underneath the London Transport Museum, you wouldn't know, through a glass gate opposite the entrance, down some stairs, big open space at the bottom, ring of chairs in it, that's where the first people sat down, more people joined them and grabbed the best seats, turned out it was only the foyer, the real theatre's through some big doors, bit embarrassing that.
Simon was introduced by Oliver Green, the Museum's head curator, who said some intelligent effusive things and then dashed off to another engagement. And then the talk proper, in which Simon discussed some of his many and varied works.
It's strange innit, someone you went to school with, standing up in front of you talking about their life, and all that they've done, and they've clearly been very successful, and they're artistically "recognised", projects in so many countries, and they speak about it all eloquently, and you think "I could have done that", except you couldn't, and good luck to him.
Of course the piece that most people were interested in was The Great Bear, and Simon described its evolution.
The Great Bear (detail)The Great Bear was one of those "wouldn't it be a good idea..." ideas, a spark of inspiration, conceived and created in a squat off Tottenham Court Road. Took decision to seek official permission from London Transport, not just rip off their copyright, so took ages to get agreement, turned out to be well worth it, also meant that the fake map was put together by LT's proper lithographers using cutting edge early 90s computer technology, so the finished poster had credibility. The names on each line had a theme, for example footballers on the Jubilee, or Chinese dissidents on the DLR (out east), or saints in alphabetical order on the Piccadilly. As for the interchange stations, there was no deliberate attempt to find a clever name which matched all the lines meeting there, although Gary Lineker is both a footballer and a saint, that was intentional. The map may be static but it continues to evolve, people's perceptions change, for example if famous comedians die, or when Pluto was declassified as a planet. The Great Bear was first exhibited at the Hayward Gallery, nearly didn't make it into the show, the rest is history.
Simon then skipped through many of his other artistic projects, especially those with a transport bent, although the laptop and projector technology didn't always work smoothly.
"Is the there any way to focus this one?" "Can you sort the focus out?" "Have you tried the auto focus?" "Sorry about the focus everyone"
(it's always the same isn't it, you spend ages putting together a presentation, proper multimedia and everything, sweated buckets over it, then the technology let's you down, just fails, or goes fuzzy or malfunctions or something, totally outside your control, have to make the best of a bad thing, it's so annoying)
"Can you turn the slideshow off so I can show a DVD" "I don't want to show both simultaneously, it looks awful" "I said turn off the slides, not the DVD" "Mr Projectionist, hello?"
A lot of Simon's work is graphically based, or three dimensional, or quite possibly both, he's really very hard to pigeonhole.
LandskipA section of stadium seating based on typewriter keys, several tweaked periodic tables, a short film of spinning pocket watches (described as "horological porn"), a fabulous film based on in-flight safety demonstrations but with a magical sado-masochistic twist, McCarthyite closing credits, three yacht sails labelled with author's biographical details, annotated cablecars, exploding camouflage grenades, it's an inventive mind run wild.
One final look at a project he's been asked to do in France, commemorating Wilfred Owen's last resting place, and then off.
Bit of a rush at the end, missed out a few planned slides, overran by nearly half an hour, nobody minded, fascinating stuff, should have paid more attention in art lessons.
Further events to follow at the LT Museum next year if you're interested.

 Tuesday, December 09, 2008

  I SPY LONDON
  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 25: The Museum of the Order of St John

Location: St John's Gate, St John's Lane EC1M 4DA [map]
Open: 10am - 5pm (until 4pm Saturday, closed Sunday)
Guided tours: Tue, Fri & Sat (11am and 2:30pm)
Admission: free (suggested donation for tours, £5)
5-word summary: HQ for hospitable medieval knights
Website: www.sja.org.uk/museum
Time to set aside: two hours

St John's GateYou've no doubt heard of the St John Ambulance, you may even have been put back together by them. But you may not be aware of the Knights of St John, a noble order of medieval crusaders, and the peculiar history that links them to today's armband-wearing first-aiders. A small museum up an arched Clerkenwell sidestreet aims to put that right.

The order dates back to 12th century Jerusalem, established to protect the Holy Land from invaders. Because the St John's crew set up a hospital they became known as the Knights Hospitaller, as opposed to the better known (but less long lived) Knights Templar. After the Crusades were lost the Order of St John retreated to bases on Rhodes and Malta, and in the 1500s set up their English Priory in Clerkenwell. Theirs was the last monastery to be dissolved by Henry VIII, but the gatehouse lingered on in a variety of guises and its arch still spans St John's Lane to this day. The surrounding buildings, mostly Victorian reproductions, are now used by the St John Ambulance as their London HQ. And the eight-pointed Order of St John are going strong too, reinvented by Queen Victoria as a Royal Order of Chivalry with a mission to spread Western medical practice to the empire.

St John AmbulanceAs museums go, this one's woefully overlooked. They claim to get 14000 visitors a year, but I suspect many of these are Dan Brown fans who've got their Knights mixed up. When I turned up I was the only visitor, or at least the only person to stay for more than five minutes. I snooped around the three free ground floor exhibitions while I waited for the afternoon tour to begin. One room uses glass cases full of medals and armour (and other stuff) to attempt to tell the story of the Knights of St John. Another smaller room is devoted, slightly more successfully, to the history of the gatehouse and priory. And a third more modern space forms a museum for the St John Ambulance, focusing on the lives of volunteers worldwide who've devoted so much of their spare time to mopping up and making better.

St John's GatehouseEventually I was led off on my solo tour. Had I'd not turned up my guide could have taken the afternoon off and gone home with a Lemsip, but instead she led me up the fairly ordinary stairs to... woo, an extraordinary wood-panelled Chapter Hall. It had stained glass windows, chandeliers, the lot - all convincingly ancient until I was told it was an expensive Victorian fake. Then across into the small gatehouse room perched above the middle of the road. In its time this has been the room in which Shakespeare's plays were licenced, the editorial base for Britain's first magazine, a coffee shop owned by Hogarth's father, and the upper room of a pub called the Jerusalem Tavern. Standing here was wonderfully atmospheric, at least until the revelation that the space is now used for committee meetings which dulled the feeling somewhat. We exited down a marvellous Tudor wooden spiral staircase in the gatehouse tower opposite, and then out into the street.

Part 2 of the tour was on the other side of the busy Clerkenwell Road, which didn't exist when the original Priory was here. This is where Clerkenwell's first church used to be, and the outline of its circular nave is still etched into the cobbles outside the Modern Pantry restaurant. A not quite-so-old church on the same site was completely destroyed by a direct hit from the Luftwaffe, so the Grand Priory Church here today is an austere post-war cuboid, brightened only by St John's banners hanging from the whitewashed walls. But there's a secret space down below, visible to the public only on tours such as these. It's the original 12th century crypt, perfectly preserved beneath solid foundations, and still used for communions and christenings. It's enchanting down beneath the low ancient arches, a proper step back into the medieval past with an appropriately reverential ambience. And various plaques on the wall of the east transept remind visitors of the site's true meaning, to commemorate the selfless service of millions supporting the weak and needy.
by tube: Farringdon  by bus: 55, 243

 Sunday, December 07, 2008

London in pictures (click thumbnails for full versions)

Olympic Stadium, December 2008
The Olympic stadium continues to take shape. The lower level of the stadium bowl is now pretty much in place, along with about a quarter of the steel raking needed to support the detachable upper tier seating. Still three clear years to go before the world arrives to watch fit athletes, but it's now perfectly possible to imagine where they're going to sit. Meanwhile the pylons that used to run across the edge of the stadium site have all been dismantled, as promised, leaving a skyscape of twizzling tower cranes. It's damned impressive stuff, which might explain why there were so many ramblers and cyclists staring at it from the Greenway bridge yesterday. Me, I was fascinated by the ever increasing number of health and safety signs erected across the muddy building site around the perimeter. And amused to spot a newly-arrived burger van parked up beside a sign saying "Primary Foul Drainage". And quite sad remembering that there used be several trees here, and now there are none anywhere in sight.

Sister Ruth (click to enlarge her glitzy mobile piano)Yesterday was Shop Weekend VIP Day in Oxford Street and Regent Street - an annual excuse to ban all vehicles and thereby cause major tailbacks on all surrounding streets. The perfect event for anyone who wanted to go Christmas shopping in stores considerably more crowded than usual whilst being accosted by face-painting elves and Sally Army trombonists. Which appeared to be hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom actually ended up carrying shopping bags. It was hard to walk far without some minion from sponsors Visa thrusting an advert in your face, and there were rather a lot of Nokia pluggers on the loose too. Most fun, however, was the singing nun scooting up and down the street sat on a mobile piano. This wimpled bloke turned heads wherever she went, singing carols and winsome ditties with a knowing wink, then accelerating off to perturb some unsuspecting audience further down the street. You can hire Sister Ruth for your own "mix and mingle" event should you have £630 to spare. If not, I'm sure she'll be back again warbling on wheels in Oxford Street next year.

patronising sign in Waithman StreetHave you ever seen a more pretentious sign than this? It's affixed to a wall round the back of 100 New Bridge Street in the City of London, and repeated several times in case you don't get the message straight away. The wall in question is blessed by 23 large mottled stoneware tile panels, each with different Escher-like patterns designed by potter Rupert Spira. They're rather pretty geometric designs, and well worth protecting, but not something you'd expect a company to get quite this uppity about. I can only imagine that they've had serious trouble in the past with careless bikers leaving their vehicles in close proximity, and have undergone some sort of humour bypass in the process. This inflated sense of self-worth was confirmed when a security guard exited the building, walked round to the rear and asked me why I was taking photographs of his wall. I told him that I'd found the sign particularly amusing, which didn't seem to amuse him and he asked me the same question three more times. I resisted telling him that he was a miserable tosser, and that his company was clearly full of miserable tossers, because I didn't think that would be helpful. He then told me, quite firmly, that the company don't like people taking photographs of their building, which made me wonder why they don't have a patronising sign about that on their wall too. Eventually he let me go, thankfully without insisting I forfeit my memory card or grovel at his feet or sign a written apology. I walked away rattled and disheartened. The wall's in Waithman Street in case you want to avoid the area completely. Or in case you have a motorbike and ever fancy travelling out of your way to park it somewhere really annoying.

 Saturday, December 06, 2008

Straightening things out

As expected, Boris has announced the demise of articulated vehicles on three of London's bendy routes, namely the 38, 507 and 521. Other bendy bus routes will be reviewed as their contracts expire, so complete de-bendification may take several more years yet.

The 500-and somethings are two special commuter-friendly people-carriers operating out of Waterloo, and they'll be replaced by souped-up single deckers next June. As for the 38, the ultimate Hackney carriage, that'll be getting double-deckered in November. Alas the new 38s won't be Routemasters, not like they used to be, they'll just be ordinary red accessible boxes on wheels. Still, it's gotta be good hasn't it, getting rid of evil killer bendy buses? So long as there's sufficient room inside their replacements for everyone to fit on board, that is. Boris has attempted to be reassuring...
"In order to carry the same number of passengers, the frequency of buses on these routes will be increased. The tables below set out the new service frequencies in buses per hour. TfL is working out detailed timetables to ensure passengers enjoy the best possible service using the new buses."
The press release kindly includes full details of bus frequencies at different times of the week, which is helpful because it'll help me to check TfL's capacity argument.
n.b. For the benefit of working stuff out, I'm assuming the following.
Bendy bus capacity:
49 seated, 100 standing, total 149 (which is what it says above the driver's cab)
Double decker capacity:
65 seated, 20 standing, total 85
Let's see whether the good people of Hackney are going to be able to cram into their 38s in the future, or not. Starting with the morning rush hour.

Route 38, weekday morning rush hour
 Bendy buses
Dec 2008
Double deckers
Nov 2009
Buses per hour20 bendy buses28 double deckers
Gap between buses3 minutes2 min 10s
Seats per hour980 seats1820 seats
Capacity per hour2980 people2380 people
Equivalent service35 double deckers16 bendy buses

So, in the post-bendy morning peak there'll be more buses more often. Currently there's a three minute gap between buses, and in the future that'll be more like two. Which is excellent... so long as the buses aren't full. Looks promising, because there'll also be a lot more seats available. Each double decker has 16 more seats than each bendy, and that means almost twice as many places to sit down in the new Boris future. Hurrah!

But there is a downside. You can cram huge numbers of people onto a bendy, but you can't get many extras onto a double decker before the gangways clog. Standing on a crowded bendy bus may be really unpleasant, but at least you get to work. And it appears that Boris hasn't quite funded sufficient double deckers to match previous bendy capacity. Net result, this time next year 600 fewer people per hour will be able to ride the 38 from Clapton Pond into town. Boris's replacement double decker service is the equivalent of only 16 bendies per hour, not the existing 20. Rather than delivering 28 double deckers an hour, Boris ought to be promising 35.

Route 38, Sunday afternoon
 Bendy buses
Dec 2008
Double deckers
Nov 2009
Buses per hour10 bendy buses12 double deckers
Gap between buses6 minutes5 minutes
Seats per hour490 seats780 seats
Capacity per hour1490 people1020 people
Equivalent service17½ double deckers7 bendy buses

On a Sunday afternoon, things are different. The 38 isn't usually packed, often barely half full, and that means the number of seats is more important than the amount of standing room. Good news, the buses will come more frequently, and you're much more likely to find somewhere to sit down. It's a "win win" on a Sunday afternoon, by the looks of it. At least until Monday morning comes round, when Boris's newly de-bendied 38 will leave hundreds of Hackney residents by the roadside. And all at a cost of £3m extra per year. Hmmm. But that's the price of fulfilling an election promise - for some, a worse service.

More bendy arithmetic at Boris Watch

 Thursday, December 04, 2008

He steps into the middle of the crowded carriage. Other passengers immediately stand aside. "He's not one of us, he's one of them."

He's wearing a blue jacket over a grey fleece, neither of them recently washed. They're functional and warm, no fashion statement here. On his lapel a tiny "White Stripes" badge, the only token nod to commercialism. Below the waist a pair of grubby navy blue leggings, shapeless and slightly baggy. There's a smell, an unmistakable whiff, and it's probably coming from down there. On his feet a pair of black Reeboks, both laceless, tongues flapping, long past their prime. A toe emerges from the tip of the left shoe, poking reluctantly through the plastic. He's out of place. Stand back, leave him be.

The train doors close. He leans heavily on a single metal crutch, cap in hand. Small change jingles somewhere within, and the travelling public trembles. Please no, please don't wave your hat around, please don't start begging. There's no escape, no way out, and the next station's a minute or two away. Thankfully no. He removes a handful of cash from deep within, and places the now-empty baseball cap on his head.

With a wobble he staggers across to the far side of the carriage, requesting that others make way, which they do. And there he stands, oblivious to the materialism displayed all around, counting his wealth oh so oh so carefully. It's all in silver coins, twenties and tens mostly, the odd fifty. And he counts them out in pound-sized piles, before carefully dropping each into what he thinks is a wallet. Looks more like a plastic bag to everyone else, the flimsy sort that supermarkets offer for self-service fruit and veg.

Disaster strikes. A 20p coin tumbles from his grimy fingers and rolls away across the carriage floor. Past feet, past bags, too far to reach, too far to see. Like lightning he rests his crutch to one side and crouches down on his haunches, reflexes like a wild cat. His arm reaches out through a sea of shiny shoes and trousers. Move aside, make way, nothing hard earned must be allowed to escape. And got it. And relax.

Back on his feet, back on his crutch, the counting continues. More coins are pulled from a pocket, chink, and more still from another pocket, chink. There's a fair amount of cash here, more than enough for a cup of tea, probably enough for a kettle. On and on, another five makes another pound, chink chink chink. These coins are his total focus, his entire world, his reason for being. They're the difference between hunger and a next meal, between nothing and something.

Station by station, his wallet fills. And then he's off, shuffling out through the carriage door with the rest of the homebound commuters. They dash up the escalator, heading for home and all its comforts, while he hangs around on the platform, waits, lingers. It's cold out there, no rush. A man can't get far on small change alone.

 Monday, December 01, 2008

The dg Advert calendar
Now that December's here, it's time for a geezer's fancy to turn to gift buying. So over the next three and a half weeks I'll be bringing you a daily selection of the capital's finest luxury produce, carefully chosen to impress. If you're seeking unique festive fare perfect for the extra-special recipient in your life, you've come to the right place. My daily dripfeed will be gushing forth regular marketplace recommendations right up until Christmas Eve. And please rest assured that all of my intimate reviews are totally unbiased, wholly unsponsored and completely unprompted. Let the retail countdown begin.

Countesse De La Mer Chocolatier, Notting Hill 5-star gifts
When credit crunch strikes, a woman's heart turns naturally to chocolate. And where better to indulge than at this elite establishment in fashionable W2? Belinda and her enlightened staff will be delighted to fire up your taste buds with their fiery cocoa passion, each confection hand-flavoured for guaranteed decadence. The limited edition Viennese nougat swirls are to die for, and the Lime Cashew Fondant has no equal this side of heaven. No question, their Black Satin selection boxes are the perfect gift for all your pre-diabetic acquaintances this Christmas.
Top buy: individually wrapped dark chocolate organic lavender jellies, £11.50

Abigail's LuxBazaar, Dulwich Village 4-star gifts
Nothing says "I love you" better than a designer handbag. And where better to indulge than at this bijou fashion emporium in leafy SE21? Browse awhile amongst the stylish accessories and brushed leather, there's sure to be a perfectly-matched bargain here for you. Merchant-in-chief Abigail tells us that the Louis Vuitton Aztec Totebag is flying off the shelves, while she personally recommends the triple-zipped ruby-studded Hollow Alligator clutch. No question, her range of capacious hand-sewn Glitter Pouches will brighten the face of any lady of leisure this Christmas.
Top buy: limited edition zebra tartan handbag in fern green or violet, £89.99

Pilates Cafecino, Primrose Hill 5-star gifts
The perfect gym experience combines aerobic workout with top-notch coffee. And where better to indulge than at this lavish exercise hub in exclusive NW1? Fire up your thigh muscles on the eco-certified powermats, then relax awhile on the leather sofa with a refreshing marshmallow'n'cream latte. "What our customers want," explains instructor-in-chief Suzanne, "is precise body control through flowing movement, followed by an intense percolated caffeine fix." No question, an Espresso Thrust gift package is a sure fire way to keep body and soul in peak form this Christmas.
Top buy: annual double-shot Decaf Calisthenics subscription, £299

Costcutter & Off Licence, Plaistow 1-star gifts
If it's convenience you want, there's none better than the UK's premier corner shop experience. And where better to indulge than at this capacious 24/7 boutique in fashionable E13? Trust Iqbal and his staff to offer bottles of sparkling cider to suit all budgets from £1 downwards, plus a complete range of shrink-wrapped Polish processed meats to delight the palate. Party hosts will adore the range of value mince pies and economy mini-pizzas, while younger visitors always enjoy the additive-packed collection of Haribo by the counter. No question, many of London's ordinary residents will be shopping somewhere remarkably similar this Christmas.
Top buy: possibility of escape via lottery ticket £1


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