Thursday, August 21, 2003

London Flash Mob ##2 - Singing in the rain (click on picture to enlarge)

singin' in the rain

The sky above Aldwych may have been almost cloudless, but there were a suspicious number of people carrying umbrellas walking the streets in the area earlier this evening. This was the second (official) London flash mob, or at least it was one of them. The organisers had been careful to split us up into at least two different mobs according to starsign and dispersed us around the Embankment. I was in the smaller group, instructed to turn up with an umbrella at one of four pubs off Aldwych by 6:10pm, precisely.

The bar staff in the George IV pub were overwhelmed by brolly-carrying punters. Us potential mobsters stood around waiting to get served, gulped down our drinks and waited for further instructions. At 6:10pm precisely one of the organisers entered the pub and handed out the tiny flyers to everyone carrying an umbrella. On one side, the words to Gene Kelly's classic Singing in the Rain. On the other side was our mission statement. We were to take our umbrellas to the public courtyard of Somerset House by 6:25pm precisely, text someone asking them to ring us at 6:30pm precisely, and click our fingers every (click) time anyone (click) used the letter Y (click).

If you've ever been to Somerset House before (and I have) you'll know that the centre of the courtyard contains 55 water jets which spring from the flagstones. On a hot summer's day it's a damp four year-old's paradise. It's also a lot of fun for a bunch of over 100 twenty-and thirty-somethings armed with umbrellas. At 6:25pm the mobsters from each of the four Aldwych pubs arrived right on time and strode into the middle of the fountains, brollies raised. Just as happened at the last flash mob, everyone suddenly looked at each other as if to say "Are we really doing this? Excellent!" And then we started acting like damp four year-olds.

It soon became apparent that the organisers had omitted one crucial piece of information from their instructions. They hadn't told us what to do when while we were standing in the middle of the fountains. Perhaps it was supposed to be obvious that we should dance round the fountains like famous Hollywood movie stars, but they'd forgotten to tell us that. Eventually one group was brave enough to start singing Singing in the Rain and everyone joined in, but they skipped a chunk of the first verse which sort of threw the rest of us partway through. It still sounded good though.

A number of the mobsters were really enjoying splashing in the water, running through the fountains and getting their suits wet. As the jets shot up into the air sometimes they caught the underside of an umbrella and water shot out across the crowd. Some wished they'd not brought their laptops, videophones and digital cameras with them. Ten minutes we stood there, getting slowly wetter, until at 6:35pm precisely it was time to leave. As we vanished out into the Strand the three security guards stood and watched the departing crowds, scratching their heads and mulling over what it was they might just have witnessed.

There was one last finale, a "Bonus Mob", as our group were then directed to pop up onto nearby Waterloo Bridge and face upstream. There in the distance across the Thames was tonight's other flash mob, spread out across the new Hungerford pedestrian bridge, doing goodness knows what. (Ahh, report here, photos here) We waved. They may have waved back, it was hard to tell. And then, trainers still squelching, it was time for everyone to disperse.

I think Flash Mob ##2 worked rather better than Flash Mob ##1 a fortnight ago, not least because we were in a public place and not apparently hounded by the press. Perhaps the organisers should give up on their fixation with mobile phones and letters of the alphabet, because I have yet to see those ideas work in practice. Just standing in the middle of a fountain with an umbrella was quite surreal enough for most participants. And the chances of there being a successful Flash Mob ##3? Odds on, I reckon.

 Wednesday, August 20, 2003


Here are ten fascinating facts about the board game of Monopoly.

• Monopoly evolved from The Landlord's Game, the invention of Maryland resident Lizzie Magie. Her game was intended to teach players about the property ownership system, the object being 'to obtain as much wealth or money as possible'. Original 1904 patent here, rules here and board here.

• The game of Monopoly was first patented by Charles Darrow in 1933. Folklore tells how, jobless and destitute, he thought up the rules one night in a flash of inspiration, hand-painted the board on a tablecloth and used old trinkets around the house for game pieces. Rather more likely is that Charles already worked for Parker Brothers and merely nicked the idea from homemade versions of Lizzie's original game. Conspiracy theories abound.

• Darrow, who was from Pennsylvania, based his version of Monopoly on the properties of Atlantic City, New Jersey. This supposedly reminded him of happy family holidays he had spent there before the Great Depression. Or else he stole the idea again. The street names in the American version of the game are still based on Atlantic City, from Mediterranean Avenue ($60) right round to Boardwalk ($400).

Monopoly remains the best-selling board game in the world, licensed or sold in 80 countries and produced in 26 languages. Over 200 million games have been sold worldwide, containing more than five billion little green houses.

• The most expensive property on the board? In the USA it's Boardwalk, in the UK Mayfair, in France Rue de la Paix, and in Germany Schlossallee.

• The London version of the game was licensed to Waddingtons in 1935. Managing Director Victor Watson and his secretary Marjorie made a special trip from Leeds to London to decide which streets in the capital would be used on the UK board. They concentrated on the West End, with only the light blues located to the north and the cheap old browns to the east. The story of the London board is well told in the book Do Not Pass Go by Tim Moore, a capital travelogue and one of last year's bestsellers.

• Each UK Monopoly set comes with 20 £500 notes (orange), 20 £100 notes (beige), 30 £50 notes (green), 50 £20 notes (blue), 40 £10 notes (yellow), 40 £5 notes (pink) and 40 £1 notes (white). Total amount of money per game = £15,140.

• There are 16 Chance cards, ten of which move you elsewhere, two of which give you money and three of which take money away. There are 16 Community Chest cards, nine of which give you money, four of which take money away and two of which move you elsewhere. Each pack contains one legendary Get out of Jail free card.

• The most landed-on square in Monopoly is the jail, whether you're banged up or just visiting. The best cards in the game to own are the stations, which players tend to land on roughly one in every ten throws. And the best properties to own are the orange set, including good old Bow Street (or St James Place, to American readers). Orange earns the highest rate of return because it lies, on average, exactly one dice throw further round the board than the jail. All the statistics you could ever want here, here, here and here (in the Strategy Wizard in the Tips and Tricks section).

• As for me, I can't ever remember winning a game of Monopoly. Or finishing one for that matter.

 Sunday, August 10, 2003

• So, today really has been the hottest day ever recorded in the UK, with temperatures nudging 38°C at Heathrow.
• It's the first time ever that the temperature in the UK has reached 100°F, and bookies face a six-figure payout.
• Highest temperature of the day was 38.1°C at Gravesend, a full degree higher than the previous record.
• Britain's previous record temperature of 37.1°C was recorded 13 years and one week ago in Cheltenham.
• For anyone with an anorakky interest in these figures, the Met Office provides meteorological nirvana here.
Temperature in London: 7am 22°C; 10am 29°C; 1pm 36°C; peak 37.9°C; 4pm 37°C; 7pm 30°C; 10pm 26°C.

 Thursday, August 07, 2003

London Flash Mob ##1 (click on picture to enlarge)

sofa so good

The first London Flash Mob took place this evening at the Sofas-UK showroom in Tottenham Street, off Tottenham Court Road. Over 200 people turned up, very suddenly. To say that the shop assistant was taken unawares would be an understatement - the shop was closed because he'd locked up ready to go home early. It's normally very quiet round here, you see. Not tonight. Here's the story of what happened (and don't worry, he was persuaded to unlock the door and let us in eventually, although he may have wished he hadn't...)

6pm onwards: Everyone assembled, gradually, at one of three designated pubs near Goodge Street tube station. Being a Pisces I was directed towards the Rising Sun in Tottenham Court Road, which appeared to be unnaturally full for that time of the evening. Rather a lot of, how can I put it, people who probably use computers at work, but not as unphotogenic as that might sound. Buy drink, look casual, wait.

6:17pm: Our top secret instructions were written on tiny pieces of paper left on top of the fruit machine. This was bad news for anybody under 5 foot 4, but we coped. Only now did we learn that our intended destination was factory showroom Sofas-UK, just up the road, where we were to assemble at 6:30 (precisely) and gaze in awe and wonder at the assembled soft furnishings, muttering the words "Oh wow, what a sofa". There were some other instructions about texting a friend at 6:33 (precisely), and not using the letter 'O' while the flash mob was underway, but they seemed somehow secondary. At 6:40 (precisely) the mob was to disperse as quickly as it had appeared. Magic.

6:27pm: Watches synchronised, we left the pub and walked up to nearby Tottenham Street. It still wouldn't have been obvious to any of the passers-by that something big was afoot.

6:30pm: Three groups converged on the sofa shop, just opposite Heal's. Everybody looked at each other as if to say 'blimey, it worked then', then started taking pictures of the crowd (maybe that's why they're called flash mobs) and then turned to look at the sofa shop. It was shut. This rather wrecked all the instructions we'd been given, so we all stood around in the street, smiled a lot at each other, took some more photos and waited.

6:32pm: By this point the solitary shop assistant appeared to have woken up to the fact that he had customers, lots of them, and unlocked the door. The crowd surged inside, in that very British way of just nudging forward very slowly and politely. A TV crew were one of the first through the door, preparing to film the scene inside. The organisers had bungled their choice of venue, not because it had been shut (because it was supposed to be late-opening on Thursdays) but because the showroom only had one narrow door. And it takes a very long time to get more than 200 people inside a showroom, especially when the space just inside the door is already teeming with leatherette. And so we queued.

6:38pm: At last I reached the door to the showroom and managed to squeeze inside. The place was absolutely packed, not least with people taking even more photos to record the event. All thoughts of 'texting a friend' or 'ignoring the letter O' had disappeared, as everyone just stood there and soaked in the sheer incredulity of it all. Some sat on the sofas, some played up for the cameras, but most just smiled. The shop assistant stood by the door, astonished at the number of people taking an sudden interest in his products and at those still trying to enter behind me. "You wait til my boss hears about this," he said. Given the obvious press presence in that shop, I suspect his boss will be hearing a lot more about it, and soon.

6:40pm: There was a spontaneous round of applause, and then it was time for the flash mob to disperse, suddenly. Again, this was nigh impossible given the large crowd now inside the shop and the Knebworth-esque bottleneck by the single exit. Having been one of the last in I managed to be one of the first out, but as I looked behind me it appeared as if many of the mobsters were there for the duration. I followed instructions and left the area immediately, with just a 'goodbye' to a stranger (as requested in Rule 7), but I wonder how many people were still there long after the event was due to finish. And I wonder if Flash Mob ##2, planned for August 22nd, will manage to maintain the momentum of this first instant event, without becoming too popular, too crowded and too overground.

 Friday, August 01, 2003

This month is local history month on diamond geezer. I shall be your tour guide round some of the famous locations within 5, then 10, then 15 minutes walk of my house. You can expect chemical poisoning, Votes For Women, organised crime, Murder She Wrote, poverty, Dickens, Shakespeare and Gandhi, amongst others. Some of it should even be interesting. And for those of you who don't live around here (which would be all of you) don't worry, because there'll be all the usual stuff this month as well.

See the whole of local history month on one page by clicking on the sign below...

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