Friday, November 29, 2002

Skating on thin ice

My parents came down from Norfolk for the day, and we spent most of our time failing to buy any Christmas presents. Not that there weren't lots of shops selling things, because there were, but there weren't any shops selling anything worth buying. Or, perhaps more importantly, there weren't any shops selling anything worth opening on Christmas morning and pretending to be excited about.

So, instead, we headed down to Somerset House to look at the ice rink in the courtyard there. It opened for the winter yesterday, and it's already busy throughout the day with people willing to make complete fools of themselves. Every hour a new group of about a hundred budding skaters is sent out onto the ice. They emerge sheepishly, clutching onto the handrail and shuffling slowly round the edge of the rink. Most look as if they've never been skating before, which of course they haven't. Our intrepid on-the-spot reporter took this picture. Eventually the punters risk their first short skate across the ice, at which point half of them fall over, look up in an embarrassed way and attempt to pick themselves up without getting too cold. After a few falls or near misses most people slowly gain in skill and confidence, and 45 minutes later they're skating round the rink with ease. Unfortunately this is the signal for the ice marshals to announce 'time up', and usher everyone back to the changing rooms. At this point a huge ice-vacuum-cleaner comes out to pick up any severed limbs, or maybe just to smooth over the surface of the ice, and then the whole cycle starts again with a new group of ice virgins. See you down there?

 Thursday, November 28, 2002

tall and greenIf you've looked upwards in London recently, you'll have have noticed one striking new building taking a dominant position on the City skyline. One minute there was just Tower 42, the old Nat West Tower, and then suddenly there was this 40-storey cigar-shaped skyscraper with green-lit windows.

It's the Swiss RE Tower, otherwise known as 30 St Mary Axe, already better known to Londoners as the Gherkin. Architect Sir Norman Foster was previously responsible for nearby City Hall, also known as the 'glass testicle'. I'm sure it won't be long before this new tower gains a ruder, matching nickname.

Tonight they topped off the Gherkin. To celebrate the final steel beam being lifted to the top of the building they set off a 15-minute light and laser show, visible across London. Very impressive it all looked too, even from my 7th floor office a couple of miles away. I already have a stunning view over London as a backdrop to my daily grind, but a gherkin has just improved it.

 Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Underneath the Arches

Just down the road from here is the Bow Flyover, a less-than glamorous concrete wasteland where the A11 and A12 meet. There's an overpass, an underpass, a roundabout, a lot of traffic lights, and usually four snarling queues of very angry traffic.

A couple of months ago, workmen came to clear away some derelict land on one corner of the roundabout. They took their time removing the debris, removed some high metal fences that blocked the view and slowly levelled the site. Last weekend the only evidence of any construction taking place were a few basic foundations and a couple of workmen drinking tea. Then this evening I walked past and, all of a sudden, a whole new building has sprung up complete with roof. It's by no means an enormous building, and only a single storey high, but it already has doors, furniture and windows. There are a lot of windows at one end, none at all at the other end and, on the side nearest the main road, just the one single window. On closer inspection there's the beginnings of a paved roadway all round the building, with that window on the driver's side, and a number of cling-wrapped plastic tables sat inside. And just visible on one small black pipe sticking up out of the ground is that oh-so-familiar golden arches logo. Ronald McDonald is giving birth.

I read in the paper last week that McDonalds is finally suffering from the global downturn in the economy, or maybe it's just that people don't fancy eating reprocessed cow in a sesame seed bun any more. The corporation are closing 175 restaurants in 10 countries, including six under threat in London. They used to open over 2000 sites worldwide every year but, in this brave new era of cholesterol-inflicted lawsuits, they only plan to open 600 this year. One of that total of new so-called-restaurants will soon be just a couple of minutes walk from my house. I promise not to visit too often, because I prefer real food. Honest.

 Sunday, November 24, 2002

Emma Clarke is the woman who provides the voice for the recorded announcements on the Victoria, Bakerloo, and Central lines. This train terminates at Hainault, via Newbury Park. She also does a lot of voiceovers for adverts, websites, and may even be that voice you get on the phone asking you to press the star button and then hold. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform. It's a pity Emma doesn't do the Hammersmith and City line as well because, unlike the current voice, I bet she could pronounce Bow Road and Plaistow properly. The next station is Green Park. Change at Green Park for Piccadilly and Jubilee lines. Emma was recently interviewed by the folks at b3ta, and comes across as considerably more human than her inanimate underground voice might suggest. Waterloo, how does it feel to have won the war? I shall be smiling more often on the tube now that I know a little more about the personality behind the voice.

 Saturday, November 23, 2002

The BB House

I live very near to the BB House. That's the Channel 4 BB House. In fact, that's both of the Channel 4 BB Houses. Or rather, sadly, both of the former Channel 4 BB houses.

I moved to this part of London last year, just after the end of Big Brother 2. The BB House where Craig and Brian reigned supreme was just down the road at Three Mills, and all the housemates' weekly shopping came from my local Tesco nextdoor. I was looking forward to being within walking distance of Big Brother 3, but alas the Channel 4 bosses had failed to get long-term planning permission and the BB House had to be demolished. Now, on the site where Helen and Paul almost snogged each other and Nasty Nick was unmasked, there's just a grassy wasteland. No plaques, no tourists with cameras, just a nature trail for local schools and a great view of the local gasworks. Channel 4 have decamped to Borehamwood, only a few hundred yards away from that other legendary East End location - the set of Albert Square.

That still left one more major Channel 4 location round here, the lock-keeper's cottages used by the Big Breakfast. Home to Chris and Gaby, and Johnny and Denise, this garishly-painted building by the Bow River hosted a breakfast TV revolution for almost ten years. Had I ever been awake enough I could have wandered up to Old Ford Lock and hung over the fence to gawp at C-list celebrities giving D-list interviews and playing Z-list games. Alas, Channel 4 bosses decided that the Big Breakfast's days were numbered and the show was to be terminated. Never mind that the show's replacement, RI:SE, was to be vacant drivel watched by nobody, it was time to consign Zig and Zag to the scrap heap. After an emotional final show last Easter the vacant house was mothballed, ready to be put up for sale for an estimated £1million. And then, earlier this month, the cottage mysteriously burnt to the ground, undoubtedly in an arson attack and definitely not as part of any Channel 4 insurance scam.

I used to live very near to the BB House. Alas, I now live within walking distance of nothing more than memories.

 Friday, November 22, 2002

lakeside: I've bin aht up Essex Cafedral, uvverwise known az Laikeside shoppin centa. the ole place wuz fulla locals aht buyin chrissy prezzies n lookin ard. i wuz opin ta buy sum prezzies of me own but there wernt nuffink worf gettin, just a lot of overpriced tat. looked ta me like all der geezers in sarf essex av no hair wile all der birds av far too much. all da girlz wer angin round Claires Accesries buyin scrunchies n ringin their matez on their moby, meanwile all the ladz fort they wuz dressed like gangstas in the 'hood, xcept they all just looked like fat bastardz in hoodies. ok, so i admit i did liv in sarf essex meself fa a few monfs, but i saw da error of me ways and i ope i got aht just in time. dya reckon?

 Monday, November 18, 2002

State of Emergency?

It was just another normal morning, at least to begin with. Over London the first fog of autumn hung heavily in the air, which should have been an omen for what was to come, but it went right over our heads. We all filed into the tube stations across the capital, heading for work. Sure we'd read the warnings in the paper, either our own or from the headlines held by the woman across the carriage, but we thought nothing of it. Normality had to go on, at least for a few more minutes.

And then the train entered the station. The station, the one whose name will be infamous for decades. We were expecting a slow, silent killer, but we weren't expecting that noise. It was a sudden, unexpected sound, out there beyond the platform, echoing through the narrow tunnels like a bullet down the barrel of a gun. A look of dawning terror spread across the carriage as the blast rumbled on, louder than the train. A cloud of thick smoke came billowing onto the platform, drowning the waiting passengers in choking smoke. And our train sped up, drove on, the lifeboat that never stopped, carrying its human cargo to safety at the next station up the line.

Except it wasn't safe. There was something else in the air, not just the smoke. It was something you couldn't see, at least not yet, but it was there all the same. The rush of trains through tunnels had carried it far from its fiery source, across the system, deep into the lives of tens of thousands. And this time there was no escape.

They say maybe the Underground will run again one day. Not in my lifetime.


No, surely it could never happen. The people of London have lived with the threat of terrorism, war and destruction for tens, hundreds, even thousands of years. And, no matter what has been thrown at it, London has always soldiered on, unyielding to attack. Anyone stupid enough to plot to shut down the capital through fear and panic has picked the wrong location.

The 30-year IRA bombing campaign never in fact killed huge numbers here, although the threat felt ever present and they did manage to get every litter bin removed within a two mile radius of St Paul's Cathedral. The Great Fire of London only killed six people, and no Vikings have been seen invading up the Thames for at least a millennium.

World War Two was another matter altogether. Nearly 30,000 Londoners were killed in the Blitz and over 50,000 injured. Bombs rained down on London, particularly across the East End, but the locals were more likely to complain about the weather than the destruction. Large areas of the capital were reduced to rubble, with thousands forced to take refuge in air raid shelters and Underground stations. A direct hit on Bank station in 1941 killed 56 taking shelter there, while 172 people died in a stampede at Bethnal Green station after the air raid siren sounded one night in 1943.

The latest scare stories about terrorist attacks on the Underground should be therefore be taken in perspective. The spirit of the Blitz lives on, and London life must and will go on. However, I bet I get a seat on the tube tomorrow...

 Sunday, November 17, 2002

A terrorist plot to target the London Underground? I take back everything I said about taxis...

 Saturday, November 16, 2002

Disbelief: Some people don't believe in God, some people don't believe in democracy, some people don't believe in extra-terrestrial life, and some people don't believe in covering their mouths before they sneeze. Personally I don't believe in taxis. More to the point, I don't believe in taxis when there's a perfectly good public transport alternative at a fraction of the cost. I turned down two taxi rides on Friday but accepted one, which sped me home a whole seven minutes quicker than the tube would have done but at ten times the cost. In fact, given that I have a travelcard already, that would be at infinitely greater cost. For my money I got to career through the streets of late-night London along a route that could not in any way be described as a straight line, stopping at a high proportion of the 50 traffic lights between Tottenham Court Road and home, being driven by a geographical incompetent in a manner not dissimilar to that of a fairground ride, veering randomly from one blocked bus lane to another, and all without the added excitement of the post-pub drunken kebab-munching passengers you normally get to watch on public transport. Same time tomorrow night then?

 Sunday, November 10, 2002

Strike a light

Things to do during another 4-hour power cut on a wet Sunday afternoon: surf the internet, write blog, watch video, watch television, listen to music, have hot bath, cook lunch, talk to neighbours for the first time this year, go shopping, give up.

I live within sight of the old Bryant and May match factory, site of the great matchgirl strike of 1888. The factory employed some 1,400 workers, mainly young women under the age of 15. They worked in appalling conditions for up to 13 hours a day and many suffered through handling the poisonous phosphorous used in match production. When journalist Annie Besant exposed the conditions in the factory, the management sacked three women simply for talking to her. The matchgirls then all walked out on strike, launching a golden age of Victorian trade union unrest.

That old match factory is now Bow Quarter, a rather posh development of titchy flats complete with sauna, gym, swimming pool and very high security fence. The inhabitants now all earn consideably more than a shilling a week, although I doubt if even half of them are members of trade unions.

I've spent much of this afternoon stumbling around my flat in the dark with a box of Bryant and May matches, lighting candles and igniting the gas on the cooker to brew a cup of tea. I could see the old match factory gently twinkling in the distance, a reminder that the Victorian conditions I was experiencing were nothing compared to the real thing, just a few hundred yards away.

 Wednesday, November 06, 2002


I was looking forward to a visit to the cinema in the West End tonight.

Leicester Square is usually pretty quiet on a Wednesday evening, although tonight the whole place appeared to have been turned into a rather upmarket car park. Dodging the limousines, we made our way to the one Odeon cinema that wasn't hosting the opening of the 46th London Film Festival. We wanted three tickets, but we confused the girl at the till by buying them singly so that she had to keep asking us which seats it was she'd already issued to us. The auditorium could have seated about 800 people, although only about 25 of the seats were taken. We only just outnumbered the usherettes, but they still insisted on showing us to our correct three allocated seats in the centre of the main stalls. With 775 seats remaining to choose from, a Korean couple were then dumped into the seats immediately next to us. They talked too much and insisted on eating their giant one-hour-forty-minute box of popcorn all the way through the film, especially during the really quiet parts. It soon became apparent that we had accidentally stumbled upon the weekly screening of the film with subtitles for the hard of hearing, so we were forced to watch the whole film with words everywhere and each sound effect laboriously explained. Finally, with 773 seats still remaining, a 6-foot-plus gentleman chose to sit directly in front of me, blocking out the middle of the subtitles so that only the start and finish of each sentence remained.

As for the film, well, it wasn't bad, but I refuse to believe that an alien invasion of earth could be stopped by a glass of water.

 Friday, November 01, 2002

Stratford - urban metropolis of the future

England is well known the world over for historic Stratford-on-Avon, home of Shakespeare and ye olde genuine tea shoppes. However, I live just down the road from the other Stratford, home of cheap market stalls and a gridlocked ring-road. Stratford straddles the Greenwich Meridian, with the newly renovated station in the Western hemisphere and the cavernous shopping centre just a pedestrian crossing away in the Eastern hemisphere. Stratford could not under any circumstances be described as a cultural centre, a decent retail centre or even a place worth visiting. However, plans are afoot to change all that...

The one thing that Stratford does have is excellent rail connections. Trains run from here to Liverpool Street, Docklands, East Anglia, Neasden, Ruislip and, when the Channel Tunnel Rail Link arrives in 2007, Paris. It may not be the greatest place to live, but it is definitely a great place to travel away from. Property prices round have risen so quickly that, had I bought a flat in Stratford last year, I could probably sell it today at a profit exceeding the gross national product of a small African country.

Stratford's new Eurostar station is planned to be at the heart of a billion pound regeneration scheme, bringing new homes and a huge metropolitan, business and retail centre to the area. It's got to be a huge improvement on one Woolworths, one Argos and a Pizza Hut, which is as good as it gets at the moment.

Today a report has suggested that Stratford should be at the centre of a UK bid for the Olympics in 2012. In ten years time the whole international world of sport and athletics could be arriving on my doorstep, although quite frankly we have a big enough drug problem round here as it is.

Sydney, Athens, Beijing... Stratford? I'm really looking forward to living somewhere potentially bigger than Shakespeare.

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