Saturday, October 25, 2003

Global Flash Mob ##1 - Greet the world & Jump for Joy
London Flash Mob ##4 - Round and round the Garden

round and round the garden

What a fine idea - the world's first global flash mob. In 81 cities around the world at 2:15pm local time a crowd would gather, address the wider world in some way, and 10 minutes later jump for joy, cheer and disperse. That was the idea anyway. As I say, a fine idea that probably worked really well elsewhere, but alas it all fell a bit flat here in London.

Covent Garden was the chosen target of the London flashmobbers, the idea being for a huge crowd to walk in single file round the market building in the centre of the plaza. We were issued with a list of eight international greetings to use as we passed each corner of the building (bonjour, enchanté de vous rencontré). And that was about it.

If you know Covent Garden, you'll know that it's a magnet for tourists. There are jugglers, acrobats, guitarists trying to sell CDs recorded in their garage, and mime artists spray-painted silver in the hope that people will throw money at them for being complete aerosols. In fact, on a Saturday afternoon the whole of Covent Garden looks like it's already been invaded by a mob of tourists (ciao! Piacere di conoscerti!) and one more mob is going to be very hard to spot. And that was the problem.

At 2:14 you'd have been hard pushed to realise that a mob was assembling at the eastern end of the plaza, save for the bloke with the TV camera pointing his lens towards the cobbles where he hoped something was about to happen. At 2:15, magically coalescing out of the crowd, a surge of mobsters headed off in a clockwise direction. It wasn't so much single file as lots of people all out together for an afternoon stroll, and that made the queue rather on the short side. At each corner we tried out a new international greeting (ni hao! wo jiandao ni hen gaoxing) but it's a big market and we never got through all eight on the list.

We weaved our way slowly through the thronging tourists, completely failing to get noticed. Except by the press that is. A young gentleman from BBC Radio poked his big woolly microphone in my face and asked me if I'd mind telling him why I'd decided to come along today. He looked most hurt when I told him I did mind actually thankyou. At the next corner I was greeted by a beaming warmly-dressed young woman, to whom I would have replied privet, jarad tebja videtj if only she hadn't been standing primed with a TV camera in her face. Sadly de-press-ing.

After ten minutes, and not-quite-two circuits of the market, it was time to jump for joy. Only those members of the public in the north-east corner of the market heard the two hundred cheers that went up, and perhaps wondered whether this was just another piece of performance art. At least nobody threw any coins at us (hola, encantado de conocerte). And then we dissolved back into the crowd, as if we'd never been there, which we might as well not have been.

Nice idea, good try, no impact. It was good to have an audience for a change, but not one that was far bigger than the mob. Next time, if there is a next time, I hope it's all a bit more flash.

 Friday, October 24, 2003

Final approach

Mach 0Just before four this afternoon three ageing sisters appeared in the sky over London. Office workers stood respectfully on rooftops, pointing eastward as the first Concorde appeared. A second silver speck grew slowly in size to the south, and finally a third joined the procession across the capital. Nose down, landing gear down, engines blaring, the three planes cast their shadow across the city for the last time. I watched all three pass by, heading gracefully into the sun, towards Heathrow and into retirement. And then they were gone, and only a lump in the throat remained.


Mach 2I used to live under the Heathrow flight path, just a few miles away from the airport. Every evening at ten past seven I'd turn up the volume on my television to prepare for Concorde's daily flypast, awaiting the sudden arrival of a screaming silver bird in the sky, and then two minutes later return my TV to its normal volume. Anywhere else in the country a Concorde flypast would have been a special event, with crowds out on the streets to watch her pass over, but few of the locals round where I lived ever even stopped to look up. Their loss.

I used to live in Suffolk, where to spot any plane in the sky was a rare sight and Concorde was never seen. It still impacted on our lives though. On Tuesday 25th July 2000 a group of Suffolk students were on a summer trip to France and due to be staying in a small hotel in Gonesse, an obscure suburb of Paris. Their coach was still a few miles short of checking in when Concorde hit a metal strip on the runway at nearby Charles De Gaulle airport, burst into flames and crashed onto that very same hotel. Had the accident happened an hour later the terrible loss of life in that fireball would have been even greater, and would have included people I actually knew. Great loss.

I now live in London, rather further from Heathrow, but Concorde is still sometimes part of my sky. I remain one of those people who stops and stares every time she flies over, in the same way that an ornithologist would stop and stare at a passing osprey. Last year I took up position in Trafalgar Square for the Queen's Golden Jubilee flypast, not for the antique planes but for Concorde to fly directly overhead, flanked by nine Red Arrows. Most impressive. Today's final flypast sees three consecutive Concordes due to swoop into Heathrow at 4 o'clock this afternoon. I hope their final flightpath takes them over central London, because I'll be watching from my 7th floor office window just in case I'm allowed one last fleeting glimpse before the species becomes extinct. Our loss.

 Wednesday, October 22, 2003

the weather projectThe Weather Project

It's said that we English talk about the weather far too much. That's probably because we actually have weather in this country, where it can be cold and dry one day but mild and wet the next. We love to kick off our conversations by telling each other the meteorologically obvious ("sunny, isn't it?"). And can there be another country in the world where the weather forecast starts off with what the weather has been before going on to tell us what it will be? Ah, the weather, we do love it, even if it doesn't love us.

Every year the Tate Modern attempts to fill its giant Turbine Hall with a giant work of art. In 2000 they installed a couple of tall twirly staircases and a giant spider, sculpted out of steel by Louise Bourgeois. In 2001 there were lifts disappearing upwards through a series of darkened rooms courtesy of Juan Muñoz, and last year Anish Kapoor's giant red ring thing that somehow I completely managed to miss seeing. But now for 2003, rising for the first time last week, it's Olafur Eliasson's solar-inspired The Weather Project. And what better way to fill a huge space than with light?

the weather projectI visited the Tate Modern yesterday for an early view of this new meteorological phenomenon. An enormous yellow sun now beams out from the eastern wall of the Turbine Hall. Clouds of fine mist hang in the air and the ceiling above is completely covered by mirrors, doubling the height of the sky. The whole place feels like a cathedral to the great sun god, which must be why half the population of London has come along to worship. Down on the floor a congregation has gathered, most gawping in awe and wonder at the great solar disc, others lying prostrate to gaze upon their distant reflection in the mirrors above.

If you walk right to the end of the hall to stand behind the sun, the illusion is shattered. Above your head is suspended a semicircle of yellow lamps, reflected in another mirror to form a ring of light. Look back into the hall and all you see now is a crowd behaving strangely, like a bunch of weather-obsessed primitives worshipping a scientific phenomenon they don't understand. But walk back into the light and the eclipse is over, the magic returns and you become a sun-worshipper again. Most impressive.

On leaving the Tate Modern yesterday it was back out into the autumn sunshine (10°C, northwesterly wind at 5mph, skies mostly clear, showers threatening later). There in the sky hung a distant small yellow globe, totally ignored by those exiting the gallery. Somehow the real thing couldn't hold a candle to the artificial sun inside. But then you can't walk round the back of the real sun to see how it works (well, not unless you're willing to wait for six months anyway). Let there be light. And do come and see it before it sets.

 Friday, October 10, 2003

Tube watch (5) This week terminates here
I wasn't sure whether an entire week devoted to the London Underground was a good idea or not. As it turns out, I needn't have worried. Either you lot out there are as obsessed with the tube as I am, or you've kept coming back to see how much lower I could sink. I'm stopping now and going back to whatever 'normal' on diamond geezer is, but I think I have enough material to try hosting another tube week sometime. Just not soon, OK?

To finish, here are some tube-related websites I've discovered this week, or used to aid my research:
Geoff's selection of silly tube maps, including a rude version, an upside-down version, a German version, a geographically realistic version, a motorway version, a blank version and a version without the Central line.
Rodcorp's Walklines map, showing all the stations less than 500m apart at ground level.
Owen's Mappers Delight page, which links to more than 30 different webpages about the London tube map.
• A London Underground report from a few years ago, with a zoom-in-able ultra-detailed geographical tube map on the back cover, plus tons of journey-related statistics.
Clive's UndergrounD line guides - his anorak is bigger than mine.
• The official London Underground webpage, with a lot of statistics hidden beneath the surface.
Transport plans for the London area, which hasn't been updated for a couple of years but is fascinating all the same.
• The h2g2 Ultimate Guide to the London Underground, an eclectic selection of facts, observations and trivia.
Tube Prune, the Underground seen from a tube driver's point of view.
Proposals to introduce Business Class and Cattle Class on the new-tube.
• Tons of stuff on disused tube stations (but that's for next time...)

Tube geek (5) Speed
It can take forever to drive across London. The streets are crowded, there are traffic lights every 200 yards and half the roads are in fact only bus lanes. The Underground is therefore a quicker way to get around, as you can always tell when your train hurtles round a sharp curve throwing you into the lap of an unsuspecting fellow-traveller. However, your tube train probably isn't going as fast as you might think. Even if the driver does manage to get the speed up to 40mph, it's never long before he has to slam the brakes on again to stop at the next station. And then another station, and another, stop, go, stop, go, getting nowhere fast.

I've had a go at finding London's fastest, and slowest, tube lines. I've measured the longest possible journey on each tube line (for example, on the Northern line that's High Barnet to Morden, via Bank). Then I've used London Underground's route finder to find out how many minutes that journey takes, and used that to calculate an average speed. Two of the longest lines come out on top, maybe because the distances between the stations are greater, although the equally long Piccadilly and District lines come a lot further down the list. The poor old Circle line is the slowest, its infrequent trains held up by services on other lines in endless queues round a never-ending loop, but it's still faster than your average car (just about).

Speed limit on roads in central London: 30mph
Central: 34 miles in 81 minutes (25 mph)
Metropolitan: 28 miles in 70 minutes (24 mph)
Jubilee: 24 miles in 62 minutes (23 mph)
Waterloo & City: 1½ miles in 4 minutes (22½ mph)
Victoria: 13 miles in 36 minutes (22 mph)
Northern: 23 miles in 69 minutes (20 mph)
Bakerloo: 14 miles in 43 minutes (19½ mph)
Piccadilly: 32 miles in 100 minutes (19 mph)
District: 27 miles in 88 minutes (18½ mph)
Hammersmith & City: 17 miles in 58 minutes (17½ mph)
East London: 4 miles in 15 minutes (16 mph)
Circle: 13 miles in 56 minutes (14 mph)
Average speed on roads in central London: 11mph

Tube quiz (5) All change
(Just the one problem today, but it's a really tough one)
The problem: There are 12 tube lines in London, plus the Docklands Light Railway. Your challenge is to identify a journey that travels along each of these 13 lines once, and travels exactly one station along each line.
Note: No walking from one station to another is permitted. You may not use transport other than these 13 lines (no buses, taxis, Thameslink, etc). After travelling one station along any line, you must change to another line.
Example: Start at Farringdon, travel on the Circle Line to Kings Cross, travel on the Northern line to Euston, travel on the Victoria line to Warren Street... and now you're stuck because you've already travelled on both the lines passing through this station.
The solution: As far as I know, this problem has a unique solution (apart from a couple of different options for the first and last stations on the route).
A hint to get you started: If you think about it, there's a couple of one-stop journeys that must be part of the correct route.
Chance of you lot coming up with the correct answer: Very small. Go on, prove me wrong.
(Bloody impressive James, spot on: Well done. And all while the rest of us were asleep.)

 Thursday, October 09, 2003

Tube watch (4) Ten ways to reduce tube overcrowding
Encourage short journeys: turn up the heating in the summer and install air-conditioning in the winter.
Increase overground capacity: double the number of buses and increase the Congestion Charge to £50.
Reflect best practice in mainline rail travel: demand seat reservations and pre-booking for all tube journeys.
Increase available space in carriages: confiscate all rucksacks and wheelie suitcases at the ticket barriers.
Introduce selection: demand that passengers pass an entrance exam before issuing them with travelcards.
Reduce demand: shut down the whole system, because if there are no trains there'll be no overcrowding.
Establish a culture of fear: place an accordion player on every train, or hang up gasmasks in every carriage.
Reduce passenger numbers: install razor-sharp sliding doors on trains and remove all safety notices.
Relocate excess capacity: swap station names to confuse foreign tourists, for example Chigwell with Oxford Circus.
Invest in tube infrastructure: sorry, I've been trying to keep ridiculous and improbable suggestions off this list.

Tube geek (4) London's busiest stations
Lurking deep on the tube's official website lie a mountain of facts and figures on a page called London Underground performance update. Click on 'customer metrics', and then 'entries and exits', and you'll find detailed information on passenger numbers for every tube station on the network (well, all except three, for some reason). I now know, for example, that I'm one of 2188 passengers who enter my local station during the morning rush hour, whereas 87653 people exit Oxford Circus station every Saturday. Anorak heaven.

I've been busy investigating the total number of passengers using each station during 2001, attempting to come up with some sort of league table. The figures are for passengers entering or leaving the station only, not those changing lines, so some stations are even busier than shown. And sadly Victoria is one of the three stations with missing data, which is a shame because I think it's top of the list...

More than thirty million: Victoria (millions), Kings Cross St Pancras (79 million), Waterloo (66 million), Oxford Circus (64 million), Liverpool Street (54 million), Baker Street (43 million), London Bridge (38 million), Leicester Square (35 million), Piccadilly Circus (33 million), Tottenham Court Road (32 million), Paddington (31 million)
More than fifteen million: Bond Street (28 million), Green Park, Euston, Hammersmith, South Kensington, Holborn, Finsbury Park, Bank, Charing Cross, Moorgate, Earl's Court, Tower Hill, Canary Wharf, Embankment, Brixton, Knightsbridge, Stratford, Covent Garden, Farringdon, Camden Town (15 million)

Meanwhile, down at the bottom of the list, below are London's least used tube stations. Most are on the edges of the tube network, although there are three poorly used stations in Zone 2 on the East London line, all of which are under threat of closure. The far reaches of the Metropolitan line are rather quiet, particularly the station that was my local while I was growing up. But it's the Hainault loop of the Central line that's especially underused, which would explain why a whole stretch of it shuts down at 8pm every evening. I guess everyone in Chigwell has a car...

Less than a million: West Finchley (947099), Hillingdon, Rotherhithe, South Ruislip, Northwood Hills, Chorleywood, Kenton, Canons Park, Heathrow Terminal 4, West Harrow, Wapping, Watford, Mill Hill East, West Ruislip, Ickenham, North Ealing, Upminster Bridge, South Kenton, Chesham, Moor Park (520850)
Less than half a million: Barkingside (471998), Croxley (447897), Ruislip Gardens (432271), Theydon Bois (388698), Shoreditch (327844), Fairlop (327036), Roding Valley (175851), Grange Hill (156065), Chigwell (110556)

Tube quiz (4) Name that station (2)
   1) Name the only station served by six tube lines.
   2) Name the only station served by five tube lines.
The following five old stations have been renamed. What are they called now?
   3) Post Office
   4) Aldersgate
   5) Dover Street
   6) Trafalgar Square/Strand
   7) Charing Cross
And I don't claim that these last three questions are original, but they're good all the same.
   8) Name the only tube line that interchanges with every other tube line.
   9) Name the only tube station which shares none of the letters in its name with the word 'mackerel'.
 10) It's possible to take one tube train and travel through ten consecutive stations all starting with the same letter of the alphabet. Where?

 Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Tubewatch (3) Tube workout
Just because you're stuck on the tube doesn't mean you can't get some exercise in. There are plenty of opportunities underground to boost your health and fitness. Here's diamond geezer's guide to a successful tube workout. Let me be your personal train-er.
Warming up: you can overheat on the tube every summer and shed pounds - beats any sauna.
Waits: you use up five times as many calories waiting for a train for 10 minutes than you do waiting for 2 minutes.
Step Ups: this ancient martial art can be practised while battling your way into a crowded train.
Squat thrusts: compete in the sprint for a newly-vacated seat during the rush hour.
Crunches: stand in a tube carriage at 6pm and your flabby body has no choice but to squeeze into half the space it normally occupies.
Anaerobic activity: experience total lack of oxygen every time a fellow traveller has forgotten to use deodorant.
Strap hanging: reach out with both hands, grab the hanging dangly things, stretch, lift, hold... and down.
The Atkins diet: this is sure to be successful because the only food you can buy on a tube platform is a chocolate bar.
Treadmill: walking down those long tunnels when changing lines is a heck of a lot further than you think.
Escalator climbing: much better than step aerobics because you actually get somewhere, and less lycra is involved.

Tube geek (3) North and South
Tube stations are spread out very unfairly across London. North of the Thames there are 242 tube stations, for example, whereas there are only 33 to the south. Disturbingly, most of those 33 southern stations are on the so-called Northern Line. South London does have far more Network Rail lines than the north, but the trains running on the overground are older, shabbier, less reliable and far less frequent, so they don't really count. Connex and South West Trains are names that bring daily misery to millions, far more depressing than anything the District or Victoria lines could ever conjure up. And remember that it was councils south of the river that scuppered Ken Livingstone's Fares Fair policy back in the the early 1980s, because local taxes were being frittered away on tube services that nobody in their boroughs could actually use.

I've been busy with a large map of the capital counting the number of tube stations in each London borough. (Because I can, OK?) Here's the list in rank order, with the boroughs south of the river coloured in blue:

Westminster (30); Brent (21); Camden (17); Ealing (15); Hillingdon (14); Barnet, Kensington & Chelsea (13); Hammersmith & Fulham, Tower Hamlets (12); City of London (11); Harrow, Islington, Redbridge (10); Southwark (9); Lambeth, (Essex), (Hertfordshire) (8); Hounslow (7); Haringey, Newham, Wandsworth (6); Barking & Dagenham, Merton (5); Enfield, Havering. Waltham Forest (4); Lewisham, Richmond (2); Greenwich, Hackney (1); Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Kingston, Sutton (0)

You might expect the central London borough of Westminster to be top of the list, and it is, but after that it's north and west London that fare best, by far. South of the river there are five boroughs with no tube stations at all, and only Southwark and Lambeth reach a vaguely reasonable total. The one glaring exception to the north-south rule is Hackney with a miserable one tube station (and that's only Manor House, in the top-left corner of the borough, right on the border with neighbouring Haringey). Hackney's total should increase to 4 when the East London line is extended in five years time, but it'll still be a grim place to live, tube-wise at least. But not quite as bad as living in south London.

Tube quiz (3) Stations on film
Can you name these films in which tube stations feature prominently?
   1) Film directed by John Landis (1981) (An American Werewolf in London)
   2) Film directed by Joey Boswell from Bread (1999) (Sliding Doors)
   3) Film starring Peter Cushing (1966) (Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 AD)
   4) Film starring Donald Pleasance (1972) (Deathline)
And can you name the films in which these ficticious tube stations appear?
   5) Vauxhall Cross (Die Another Day)
   6) Hobbs End (Quatermass and the Pit)
   7) Hayne Street (Reign of Fire)

 Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Tubewatch (2) Underground translation
"Due to planned engineering work": Just so you don't think this delay is our fault.
"A replacement bus service has been provided": It would be quicker to walk.
"Next train 2 minutes": Next train 3 minutes.
"Unattended baggage": Next train 23 minutes.
"No Entry": This passageway is in fact the quickest way out of the station.
"Way Out": Every year 50 people throw themselves in front of tube trains.
"Services are suspended due to passenger action": Make that 51.
"Mind the doors": Make that 51 and a bit.
"Please move down inside the carriages": Our trains are far far too overcrowded...
"Mind the gap": ... due to a chronic shortfall in public spending on tube infrastructure.
"Keep left" / "Please stand to the right" : correct political balance.
"Mmmf fmhmh hffmm": This totally inaudible announcement is in fact very important.
"Will Inspector Sands please come to the Operations Room" : There's a fire alert but we don't want to panic the general public.

Tube geek (2) Your carriage awaits
Us seasoned tube travellers know exactly where to stand on each platform so that, at the other end of our journey, we get off the train right beside the correct station exit. Me, I'm the world expert at getting onto the rush hour Jubilee line at Westminster to make sure I'm always the first up the escalator at Green Park (it's crucial to be the last person into the rear of carriage number two). If you want to be able to pick your perfect spot on any central London platform, you'll find the ingenious Way Out tube map invaluable (maybe the best two quid you'll ever spend).

Meanwhile, here's the diamond geezer guide to choosing the correct carriage on the Circle Line (clockwise) for that perfect exit to street level:
Front carriage: Baker Street, Barbican, Kings Cross St Pancras
Second carriage: Bayswater, Farringdon, Moorgate, Notting Hill Gate, Paddington, St James Park (Victoria Street), Sloane Square, Victoria, Westminster
Third carriage: Aldgate, Monument, South Kensington
Fourth carriage: Embankment, High Street Kensington
Fifth carriage: Blackfriars, Cannon Street, Euston Square, Gloucester Road, Liverpool Street
Rear carriage: Edgware Road, Great Portland Street, Mansion House, St James Park (Broadway), Temple, Tower Hill

Tube quiz (2) Name that Northern Line station

 Monday, October 06, 2003

Tubewatch (1) London is my Oyster
I've had my new Oyster card for a fortnight now (note to non-Londoners: this is an electronic smartcard that you wave at a small yellow pad at the ticket barriers, rather than having to feed a cardboard ticket into a slot). I was expecting there to be all sorts of problems but, so far, I'm very impressed. It's great not to have to fiddle with your ticket at the barriers, and you do indeed sail through more quickly. There's a beep every time you use the card which can be disconcerting, particularly because 'normal' tickets are silent and up until now only invalid and children's tickets have made a noise. For those of us lost in headphone-world there's also a small light that turns green when your card registers, so I have yet to mess up and smash into the closed gates by mistake. Oyster works on buses too, although when the bus is packed it's a bit annoying not to be able to flash the card at the driver any more for a visual validation. Ticket inspectors on the DLR have, so far, merely glanced at the outside of the carrying case and moved on, I guess because there's nothing physically printed on the card for them to read. I do have niggling concerns that London Underground can now put together a complete electronic record of my movements around the capital, but I guess that having my mobile phone switched on is still much more of a giveaway. So far then, my Oyster's a pearl. Let's hope it stays that way.

Tube geek (1) It'd be quicker to walk
Harry Beck's London Underground tube map is a design classic, bringing underground order to overground chaos. His network diagram provided Londoners with a vivid mental image of the way their capital is laid out, but surrendered geographical perfection for linear clarity. In short, the map tells lies about distance. According to the map it's the same distance from Paddington to Aldgate as it is from Paddington to Amersham, although in real life Amersham is at least five times further away.

A number of stations are in fact a lot closer in real life than they appear on the map. Every year thousands of tourists descend onto the Underground at Covent Garden for the one stop journey to Leicester Square, without realising that these two neighbouring stations are the closest together on the entire network, only 250 metres apart. It's possible to walk from one to the other at surface level in three minutes flat, whereas the tube journey takes at least five minutes even in perfect conditions (2 minutes down to the platform via the lift, 35 seconds on the train and 2½ minutes back up via the second longest escalator on the network). I checked. I'm like that, you know.

Here are a few other stations that are surprisingly close at street level, and the actual tube journey times between them (courtesy of the tube website's route finder) (See also tube map with walklines - here)
• Bayswater to Queensway (220 metres apart) - 14 minutes via Circle and Central lines
• Regents Park to Great Portland Street (220 metres apart) - 17 minutes via Bakerloo and Circle lines
• Euston to Euston Square (300 metres apart) - 22 minutes via Victoria and Circle lines
• St Pauls to Mansion House (400 metres apart) - 25 minutes via Bank/Monument
• Kenton to Northwick Park (400 metres apart) - 58 minutes via Bakerloo and Metropolitan lines
• Ickenham to West Ruislip (1km apart) - 76 minutes via Piccadilly, District and Central lines

Tube quiz (1) Name that station
Can you name...
• the only tube station whose name contains the letter Z? (Belsize Park)
• the three stations containing the letter J? (St James's Park, St John's Wood, and Willesden Junction)
• the five stations containing the letter X? (Brixton, Croxley, Oxford Circus, Uxbridge and Vauxhall)
• the three stations containing numbers? (Seven Sisters, Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 and Heathrow Terminal 4)

This week diamond geezer is going totally tubular, with five days devoted to the London Underground. Each day there'll be heaps of tube-based stuff, including observations, some anorakky facts and a puzzle (maybe getting a bit harder as the week goes on). For the purposes of today's quiz, and those coming up later, please remember that there are twelve tube lines, and that the Docklands Light Railway and Network Rail services are not included. As is traditional in these things, answers go in the comments box, and please guess no more than one station each.

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