Sunday, April 13, 2003

The London Snickers

One week after the Boat Race, this morning London was once again the setting for another classic sporting fixture. The London Marathon brought more than thirty thousand runners out onto the streets of London, ready to prove themselves against the trials of the 26-mile course. The marathon route snakes its way along the river from Greenwich to Buckingham Palace, passing through most of East London at least twice along the way. I popped down to Canary Wharf to watch the race go by, finding a good vantage point just below Westferry Circus. Here the race doubles back on itself at the start and finish of the Docklands loop, so I was able to catch the runners at Mile 17 on one side of the road and Mile 20 on the other.

Today's race took place in crystal-perfect conditions, with clear skies, light winds and spring temperatures. I arrived at Canary Wharf after 10 o'clock, just before the race arrived. The Great British spectating public were already out in force, doing what they do best on such occasions - eating and taking photos. There was a commotion in the distance as the first competitors approached. "Ah, it's only the wheelchairs," said the lady behind me in the sponsor's shirt. A brass band started up in a nearby square - the spectacle was about to begin.

The three-wheeled athletes sped by, followed a few minutes later by the approach of the leading women. Or, in this case, woman. Paula Radcliffe emerged at the top of the slope, flanked by two pacemakers, nearly three minutes ahead of any other runner. I've written before how I have a personal interest in Paula's progress, so I was pleased that she was already on course to smash her existing world record in some style. Many of the crowd had come especially to see the Sports Personality of the Year come nodding by, a far cry from her anonymous training runs I used to watch on miserable wet winter mornings about six years ago. Fifteen minutes later Paula reappeared back on the other side of the road, heading back towards Central London, fame and glory.

An official marshal in an orange vest was in place to initiate the spontaneous applause every time a wheelchair athlete sailed past. I was flanked by two particularly keen clappers, who applauded everyone and shouted encouragement with the fervour of a school PE teacher. Two ladies from Kelloggs approached us from behind, offering members of the crowd samples of some new cereal-based snack. Like sirens, they lured the unwary away from their position at the crash barrier, only for them to find that their viewing space had been hijacked when they returned. A few female runners dribbled past our position, until at last we thought we saw the first man go by... but no, on closer inspection everyone agreed it was probably just another woman.

Just after 11 o'clock the leading pack of male runners finally appeared. A slow trickle of runners followed behind, building to a stream after 25 minutes, a torrent after 45 minutes and a flood after an hour. The more knowledgeable spectators in the crowd were able to pick out each club runner by the colour of his vest, almost the athletic version of train-spotting. As the numbers passing by increased, so the crowd's enthusiasm to cheer everyone decreased, saving their applause only for those who passed a certain fancy-dress threshold. A number of fairies ran past, along with a snail, a couple of wombles, the odd rhino, a fair few Batmen and at least six Elvii. Many runners had dyed their hair to make themselves more noticeable, but many had failed to realise that red hair really doesn't stand out in a sea of red faces. Anyone with an afro or a comedy mohican was more easily spotted. A even better bet was to emblazon your name or nickname across your chest so that spectators could cheer you on with personal encouragement. "C'mon Billy!" "C'mon Dicko!" "C'mon Flora?"

Many of the crowd had come to support a relative, friend or colleague, press-ganged to attend in much the same way that a school concert gains its audience. The more technologically-literate amongst the crowd utilised the twisting course, mobile phones and public transport to rendezvous across London, cheering their loved ones on at various points along the route. Others stayed in one place, set up camp and waited. The family immediately to my left had come down from Norfolk for the day to support Dad. Mum kept a look-out for someone 'in a white vest' so that Gran could be ready to film his appearance on the camcorder. Meanwhile Son and Daughter sat patiently, ready with some water and a banana for when Dad finally arrived. The family plan worked like clockwork, culminating in a magic thirty seconds those children will never forget. A number of mothers were less fortunate. They lay in wait for their offspring to pass by, only to discover that their own voices weren't quite loud enough to carry far enough across the track. One mother looked visibly disheartened as 'James' limped by without once noticing his concerned supporter gesticulating wildly in the crowd.

As the race wore on a wide variety of different running styles were in evidence, most of which could best be categorised under 'pain'. A fierce-looking St John's Ambulance woman was on standby with a dollop of muscle grease and a rubber glove, but few seemed eager to take her up on her kind offer. Watching the later runners felt more like watching a charity parade than a competitive race. It was sad to be reminded that there are so many good causes out there in need of publicity and fund-raising, but heartening to see how much support each charity was getting. I kept a special eye open for the celebrity runner for Everyman - action against male cancer, but I'm afraid I didn't manage to come away with a photo of Dermot looking tired and sweaty. Thankfully Hazel Irvine and the BBC obliged later.

As I headed for home, the sky was still full of helicopters and lost helium balloons. I had spent longer watching the London Marathon than Paula Radcliffe had taken to run it. I left the fun runners still streaming through Docklands, and into their own personal record books. It's an inspiring day out - long may it continue.

 Friday, April 11, 2003

Let's do lunch

Every day at work, the same problem. Where to go for lunch? There's also the problem of when to go to lunch (early? calm that rumbling stomach? or late? shorten that afternoon?) but I'll leave discussion of that for another day. I work near Green Park tube station, in the heart of Mayfair, where the choice of places to go for lunch isn't as wide as you might expect it to be. There's not a chip shop or a McDonalds in sight, for example (although at least one of those is definitely a good thing). There are sandwich shops, and cafés, and pubs, and coffee shops, and bars, and posh restaurants, and a supermarket, all competing daily for my hard earned cash. And from today there's even more competition as Marks & Spencer are opening one of their Simply Food outlets right above the tube station, seeking their slice of the lunchtime market. I'll be popping along there later to see what they have to offer the weary office worker, assuming I can get near the place for queueing secretaries. Meanwhile, here's a detailed list of my main lunch options:

Sandwich shops: These tiny little eateries hide in the gaps between real shops, dispensing lunchtime bread to passers by. They always look reassuringly amateur, as if the bloke behind the counter popped down to the supermarket first thing this morning, bought some sliced bread and mixed vegetables, sliced them up with five tins of tuna and then shoved the resulting mixture into a row of empty margarine tubs. The shop may only be packed for two hours each day, but charging three quid a time makes for impressive profit margins.

Pret A Manger: Spread across London like a very expensive rash, these shops specialise in mass-produced hand-made sandwiches, available in a variety of slightly exotic flavours, with accompanying small pots of sliced guava, thimbles of soup and cubes of chocolate brownie. Nevertheless they succeed in the marketplace because the chain's founders recognised one very important fact - that nobody ever likes making a packed lunch in the morning. We all know we could assemble a well-balanced nourishing boxful with twice the volume for a tenth of the price in our own kitchens but, somehow, at quarter past seven this never feels like quite such a good idea. More fool us.

Benjy's: The opposite of Pret, these cheap 'n' cheerful sandwich shops have sprung up across London in the last year. You can buy a complete lunch in Benjy's, complete with shrink-wrapped Chelsea bun, for less than the price of a Pret brie, tomato and basil baguette. This is a good thing, not least because it tends to attract a clientele of dirt-cheap local workmen, rather than the usual upmarket crowd. OK, so they could put a bit more filling in their torpedo rolls, and the choice of crisps is a bit limited, but at these prices I'm not complaining. A regular haunt of mine, then.

Cafés: Mayfair may be a bit posh, but there are still boltholes that will serve up a plate of fried breakfast washed down by luke-brown tea. Of course, this being Mayfair they also have to serve up plates of falafel, and bowls of pasta smothered in dilute tomato sauce and grated parsley, but the full bacon and sausage platter wins hands down for me every time.

Sainsburys: It took the big chains a while, but they've finally worked out that small scaled-down supermarkets in the middle of city centres can rake in the money. A small basket five times a week on top of your weekend trolley dash, it all adds up. All they need is a stockpile of pre-packaged sarnies and a salad bar, and all you get are a few reward points you'll never bother to redeem anyway.

The pub: It is theoretically possible to fit a pub lunch into the regulation sixty minutes of the office lunch hour. Minutes 1-5 are spent shepherding everyone out of the office whilst waiting for one straggler to reappear from the toilets. Minutes 6-10 are spent walking to the pub, then minutes 11-15 are spent ordering the first round of drinks, just a half for me please, it's lunchtime. Minutes 16-20 are spent perusing the pub menu, and minutes 21-25 trying to order the chicken in a basket, and you wanted ravioli didn't you, and just a salad for Sandra please, without onion. Minutes 26-35 are spent happily chatting and waiting, but minutes 36-40 are characterised by the growing realisation that the food might not arrive in time before you have to be back in the office. During minutes 41-45 someone wanders reticently up to the bar to ask them when the food's coming, and buys everyone another swift half while they're at it. The meals finally appear towards the end of minutes 46-50, except Sandra's salad, which turns up during minutes 51-55, so she's still picking the onion off while everyone else is nearly halfway through their pile of chips. Finally, in minutes 56-60, everyone is forced to wolf down whatever they can of the mountain still remaining on their plate before staggering back to the office late, but it's ok because the boss is still only halfway through his scampi at the pub down the road and won't be back until three at the earliest.

The Ritz: This bastion of the upper class serves the well-do-to, the old-and-fuddy and the more-money-than-sense with genuine Mayfair fare. Men must wear a jacket and tie, and it would appear that some obscure rule forces all the women to wear a floral twin set and pearls. It's a little on the expensive side for lunch, and even the legendary afternoon tea will set you back nearly thirty quid. Still, if I ever fancy a £28 omelette for lunch, I know where to come.

Marks and Spencer - Simply Food: Rarely has the opening of a new glorified sandwich shop been so eagerly awaited by the local population, and by a company's shareholders. Green Park's new M&S foodstore opened at 7am this morning, and by the time I arrived 75 minutes later there were already queues. I was pleasantly surprised to find an appealing range of well-packaged food at über-Benjy's but sub-Pret prices. The till staff had learnt the script for their cheery greeting well, without ever sounding transatlantically insincere. By lunchtime the shop was even more packed than a prawn, avocado and salad panini, so I was glad I'd stuck my turkey doorstop in the office fridge earlier on. And there were still crowds in there when I left work at 7pm this evening. It's a licence to print money, I tell you. And a tip for any of you thinking of visiting in the future - it's much quieter downstairs, and they do mini double chocolate muffins down there.

 Sunday, April 06, 2003

6) a trip to the Boat Race

The Boat Race is one of the most popular events in the British sporting calendar and attracts a massive crowd of around 250,000 to the banks of the River Thames between Putney and Mortlake. This year it was 250,001.

I come from a very Cambridge-supporting family, so it was a bit of a shock to them 20 years ago when I switched allegiance and got a place at Oxford instead. Not in the rowing team, you understand, but the university. Rowers are a very keen band of people, and so during our first week at Oxford all us freshers were gathered together in an upper room and asked if we wanted to join the college rowing team. Those of us from comprehensive schools had probably never really considered rowing as a participatory sport before, so we were a bit bemused. From what we saw before us, rowing appeared to be about long spindly arms, breathlessness and long periods spent in the college bar after every training session. I wasn't taken in, but the girl in the room next to mine signed up, at which point I discovered the real problem with rowing. Her alarm clock would ring, loudly, at half past five every morning so that she could be up and out for the early-morning practice session on the river. Be it mid-November or mid-May, she was freezing and I was wide awake. All that pain and hardship, and still the college rowing team lost every single race for the rest of the year. No Oxford Blues in our college, just Oxford blues.

It beats me why eight grown men (and one not-quite-so-grown man) would ever want to climb into a small boat and row more than four miles round a bendy river when there's a perfectly good train service that can do the trip direct in six minutes flat. However, that doesn't seem to have stopped Oxford and Cambridge from battling it out on the River Thames almost every year since 1829 (current score Oxford 71, Cambridge 77). This afternoon I went along to see what all the fuss was about. I could have stayed in and watched saturation coverage on the television but no, my dice had spoken (see below) so I was off to experience the whole heady event for real.

I reached Putney Bridge with five minutes to spare before the reserve race began. The whole area was full of tourists looking lost, families looking bored and yuppies looking drunk. I made my way down to the river, pushing past the acres of pushchairs, and tried to see if anything was happening. I was glad I'd remembered to wear the right colour blue. The crowds were one-deep, looking out across the river towards the boathouses in case anything was actually happening. The sensible amongst them had brought radios to find out what was going on, thermos flasks to keep them warm and a football to keep the kids occupied. The less sensible had brought cold meat picnics and grandma. There were a lot of twenty-somethings in the crowd, a lot of courting couples, and a high proportion of students using the race as a social opportunity to meet up with their jolly good mates during the Easter break. The BBC were blocking the towpath, making sure that six million TV viewers could watch the event, even if we couldn't. The reserve race kicked off at 4pm to muted cheers, at which point a number of people left and went home thinking they'd just seen the main event.

I wandered upstream, trying to get to Hammersmith Bridge before the proper race arrived half an hour later. I was forced to make a detour inland around Mr Al Fayed's football ground at Craven Cottage, after which the riverside was noticeably less crowded. The spectators here tended to be families, and very middle class in the same way that nobody in East London is. Some people looked like they'd not been anywhere near London since the Countryside Alliance march last year, and weren't planning on coming back until they needed their Barbour jacket re-tailored. The Boat Race also appeared to signal the beginning of the UK barbecue season, even when the temperature was only ten degrees Celsius, and the smell of burnt sausages drifted across from gardens backing onto the river. The residents of an old people's home were having a Boat Race party, beaming broadly beneath blue-ribboned bonnets. The crowds were thickest within fifty feet of the few riverside pubs. The event's sponsors should consider replacing their logo with a plastic lager glass, as this seems to best represent why most spectators turn up.

not actual size I stopped in sight of Hammersmith Bridge, which the police had helpfully closed just in case anyone might get a decent view. Trees on the opposite bank were bursting into leaf, although the sun was defiantly not shining. Somewhere in the distance came the welcome sight of two tiny boats edging closer upstream, a helicopter buzzing overhead marking their position. We waited for the action to draw nearer. Eventually the two boats swept past, neck and neck, or maybe the yellow boat was just ahead of the yellow boat, it was hard to tell. The two teams were followed by a flotilla of champagne-fuelled launches, spread out across the river, making the most of their eighteen minute chase. I made the mistake of whipping out my digital camera to record the spectacle, so I ended up concentrating more on the camera than the boats at the crucial moment. And then, as fast as they came, the boats disappeared off under the bridge, round the bend and out of sight. The small crowd turned to look at one other, shrugged and headed back to the nearest pub.

It struck me that, by attending the Boat Race in real life, I had completely failed to experience it. From the riverside it was impossible to tell who was winning and, ultimately, which team was the winner. By the time the race ended I was already descending into Hammersmith station to start my journey home, totally oblivious of the result. I eventually got back to watch the whole thing 'properly' on video from earlier in the afternoon. Only then did I discover how exciting the race apparently was, how close it had been all the way through, and how the whole thing came down to a breathtaking photo finish. The two teams differed by just one foot after four and a quarter miles. Outstanding, record-breaking, even epic, apparently. And I missed it because I was there. Next year I shall stay at home and watch the race on television. Or maybe just check the result in the paper on Monday morning.

And who won? Who cares. If I've learnt one thing about the Boat Race today, it's that 'who won?' is the one fact that really doesn't matter.

The Dice Man

I bought two books yesterday. One was Tilting at Windmills by Andy Miller, the tale of a sports atheist who was always picked last for the football team at school. This book speaks to me, even if I have no intention of going one step further like Andy and attempting to cure myself by aspiring to become UK crazy golf champion. And the second book I bought was The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart, the 1971 classic about a bored psychiatrist who lets the throw of a dice govern every decision in his life. I've decided to follow Luke's modus operandi today in order to decide how to fill my day. I'm going to list six different places in London that I could go out and visit today, then I'm going to roll a dice to see which one of them I have to go to.
Remember, one of the great things about being single is that you can do something totally off the wall like this without anyone turning to you at the breakfast table and asking "You want to do what? You must be completely mad!" Plus you don't get to spend your Sundays somewhere dull like B&Q or IKEA instead.

Here's the list of options:
1) a walk along the Greenwich Meridian
2) a walk along the Thames west from Docklands
3) a randomly chosen museum from this list
4) a randomly chosen art gallery from this list
5) a random dice-controlled journey on the Underground
6) a trip to the Boat Race

So, six possible locations, one dice, which location will it be?
I'll roll the dice now, and come back later to tell you all about my day out.

 Thursday, April 03, 2003

Ghost trains

I saw a completely unexpected train this morning.

I'm not talking about the Central Line here, although that did reopen through Central London today after a 68 day break. Emphasis on the break. It was strange to see crowded platforms at Mile End again, unlike the last 10 weeks where the place has been like a brief subterranean halt on a ghost train. That may have been strange, but it wasn't unexpected.

I saw the unexpected train before I got to my station. There used to be three rail stations along Bow Road within a quarter of a mile of each other. Two are still there, one on the District Line and the other on the Docklands Light Railway. The third station has long since closed. There's a rail bridge over Bow Road that used to carry passengers but now just blocks the view. Dirty black steps lead up to a deserted platform, blocked off somewhere behind a car repair yard. Nobody travels from Limehouse to Stratford any more, not in one journey anyway. It's just like the railway bridge in EastEnders - ever present in the local scene but no train is ever seen upon it. Except this morning, when I was amazed to see a passenger train rumbling across, completely out of place, a reminder of the branch lines that used to exist before the savage rail cuts of the 1960s.

It's exactly forty years since Dr Beeching's infamous report lopped the least busy branch lines from the country's rail network. He proposed closing almost a third of the network, around 5000 miles. Over 2000 stations were closed, thousands of passenger carriages were scrapped, and several communities found their rail connections severed. The railway had lost its dominance to the car, a position from which it has never recovered.

Some branch lines have since survived in name only. Denton in South Manchester has one train a week, in one direction only. The 14:56 to Stalybridge never returns, but this useless skeleton service is enough to prevent the rail authority from having to close the line officially. Ten years ago in Croxley Green (where I used to live) the service on the local branch line was suddenly cut to a single train from Watford and back at 6 o'clock on weekday mornings. In 1996 that one daily train was replaced by one daily taxi and the line fell into disrepair. However, by the letter of the law, that taxi means that the overgrown and partly-demolished Croxley branch line (photos here) is officially still open.

Londoners escaped most of Dr Beeching's cuts, with new railway lines opened and more under consideration. We've been lucky. 10 weeks waiting for the Central Line to reopen is nothing compared to 40 years without any train service at all. I shall try to remember that when I collect my thumping great Central Line compensation payment...

 Wednesday, April 02, 2003

The Front Line

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