Wednesday, December 31, 2003

10 ways to see out New Year's Eve

1) Stand in Trafalgar Square
Every year tens of thousands of New Year revellers are drawn mysteriously to Trafalgar Square as midnight approaches. They stand around beside the boarded-up fountains, just out of earshot of Big Ben, and nothing happens. Even in 2003, with the area rejuvenated as a semi-pedestrianised 'World Square', nothing will happen. The Mayor may have staged all sorts of diverse events here during the rest of the year but tonight he admits "The only thing to do in Trafalgar Square will be to get cold and wet". Cheers Ken.

2) Stand by the River Thames (dg's choice 1999/2000)
Westminster Bridge, that's the place to be. Right beneath Big Ben chiming twelve, and a grandstand view of Mayor Ken's real Hogmanay treat - a riverside firework display. Except that he'd rather you weren't here either. This brief display beside the London Eye is meant for global viewing, not for real Londoners standing out in the cold, so the police would much prefer you to stay home and watch your council tax going up in smoke on the telly instead. Cheers Ken. Let's hope it's more impressive than the 'River of Fire' four years ago.

3) Stand in a Circle Line train
Ken's got one thing right this New Year - the tube will be running all through the night. This means you can attend any of the non-events in Central London and still get home without having to cram into a drunken nightbus. Instead you can allow the police to shoehorn you slowly onto an overcrowded platform waiting for a train that may not arrive until next year. Just make sure you're not under the Embankment at midnight rather than on it.

4) Stand inside the Dome
Is it really a century since the eyes of the world nation taxpayer were trained upon this upturned bowl by the Thames? Yes it is. Who could forget all those unfortunate celebrities stuck queueing at Stratford station, or the Queen trying to look excited as she shook hands with Tony Blair's vanishing credibility? I must admit I still rather like the Dome, sitting there spikes-to-the-sky at the tip of a desolate peninsula, doomed to an afterlife as the world's only billion pound bus station. But I have no plans to be there tonight for the last gasp of Winter Wonderland - an underpatronised overpriced fairground. No change there then.

5) Stand in a pub
Any other night of the year you can stand in a pub for free. On New Year's Eve you have to pay £10 for the privilege, surrounded by a bunch of losers from your local neighbourhood eating mini sausage rolls from a luke-warm buffet. At midnight some greasy no-hoper will take advantage of the national thirty-second groping amnesty and plant a wet kiss on your unwelcoming cheek. The pub should be paying you.

6) Stand in a club (dg's choice 2001/02)
If you thought the pub was expensive, wait until you see what your favourite club is charging. All that ready cash is presumably essential to pay for DJ overtime and the twelve o'clock balloon drop. Try to spot the clubbers who've perfectly timed their pill-popping for a midnight high, and don't forget to feel sorry for the crowds still patiently queueing outside as the techno version of Auld Lang Syne bleeps out onto the pavement.

7) Stand around at a mate's party
Accepting an invite to a New Year party always sounds like a good idea, particularly if you're getting desperate for at least some social contact this evening. Unfortunately the party will be attended by people you don't know who've only brought cheap booze and then insist on playing the naff compilation CD they've brought with them so that the TV's off when midnight comes round and you miss the chimes of Big Ben altogether, forcing everyone to raise an anti-climactic glass of sparkling wine five minutes late. Cheers.

8) Get out of London altogether (dg's choice 1998/99)
Hide away in a country cottage on a New Year break and you can miss all that unnecessary hubbub in the capital. There again, you do have to sleep under floral duvets, shiver with coin-in-the-slot Economy 7 heating and discover that all the tourist attractions in the neighbourhood have shut down until Easter.

9) Get out of the country altogether (dg's choice 2002/03)
Fly away, say, 6000 miles to the west and you'll find yourself in a totally different time zone. This means that midnight GMT will pass unnoticed by the locals somewhere mid-afternoon, and then you'll end up celebrating New Year somewhere around what's really breakfast time. It may be unnatural, but the firework display will be considerably better.

10) Sit at home on your sofa (dg's choice 2000/01)
So, looks like it's just a can of lager and that dire Scottish Hogmanay TV special for company. Try to spot which of the featured celebrities has died or been involved in a terrible accident since the show was recorded back in November. Then text all your friends pretending to be somewhere else rather more glamorous, whilst bemoaning the fact that nobody appears to have sent you any messages in return. But, smile, because you're not cold, you're not wet, you're not on a train, you're not surrounded by drunkards and you're not fifty pounds poorer. Happy New Year!

 Monday, December 22, 2003

On the 3rd day before Christmas...
the arrival of snow is anticipated

How fantastic it would be to wake up on Christmas morning, pull back the curtains and see the landscape covered by a thick layer of snow. All those nasty concrete outbuildings carefully blanketed, the footprints of robins scattered randomly across the lawn and Aled Jones frolicking in the lane with a couple of snowballs. Picture postcard perfect. We love snow at Christmas because it's the one day of the year most of us don't have to travel anywhere. We're already where we want need to be, the entire public transport network has already been shut down for the day and we couldn't drive safely anywhere after that pre-lunch sherry anyway. Any other day of the year and we'd all be cursing the nightmarish collapse all all local services but, on December 25th, 's no problem.

Will there be a White Christmas this year? Well, no, sorry, there won't. Even this morning, when snow was actually forecast, the streets of London remain resolutely grey. Alas, a snowy Christmas Day in the UK is a rare event. Even rarer is a 'proper' white Christmas, rather than the 'a flake of sleet will do' travesty of a definition that the bookies now use. December's always been a bit early in the winter for snow (January and February are rather more likely), and global warming threatens to make the entire 21st century a bit late in the millennium for snow too. White Christmases were rather more common here during the 'Little Ice Age', back when the Thames used to regularly freeze over, but the last London Frost fair was held as long ago as 1814. In the future any light sprinkling of white across the capital is far more likely to be the result of terrorist-induced nuclear fallout.

Only ten of the last Christmases in London have been white. That'd be 1916 (sleet), 1927 (snow, falling and lying), 1938 (sleet, but 15cm of snow lying on the ground), 1956 (snow), 1964 (snow), 1968 (sleet), 1970 (snow, falling and lying), 1976 (snow), 1996 (sleet) and 1999 (sleet). You may also remember a white 1981, but that year doesn't officially count because no snow fell on Christmas Day itself. Me, I remember 1970 well enough, which may be just as well because if I were any older I probably wouldn't be able to remember a proper white Christmas at all. Alas, today's children have probably missed out on seeing one for good.

White Christmas links:
Detailed log of White Christmases across the UK since 1900
Snow at Christmas in the UK
The Met Office White Christmas page, complete with recent white Christmas events in London and 14 other locations around the UK
White Christmases in the UK between 1990 and 2002
London's Frost Fairs
3D snow forecasts for the UK
The origins of the 'White Christmas'
Particularly mild UK Christmases
Bing Crosby's White Christmas

 Thursday, December 18, 2003

On the 7th day before Christmas...
here's the Underground Christmas story

1 One day, while Mary was still slepping, the Angel of the Lord visited her. Mary fell to her Neasden looked up. The Angel told her she Woodford have a baby who'd be Wapping important.
2 Mary-lebone and husband Joseph had to go Upney to Bethlehem, also known as Park Royal David's White City. Mary on a BlackHorse Rode because she was Leyton in her pregnancy.
3 There was no Morden room anywhere down the Old Street, but one innkeeper Maida Valeable the stable round the back. Baby Jesus was Holborn there surrounded by Barking animals.
4 High in the Hillingdons, abiding in the Southfields, there were Shepherds Bush watching over their flocks by night. And lo the Angel of the Lord came upon them, so they got off their Arsenal and walked the Mile End into Bethlehem to see the baby.
5 There came three Blackfriars from Dagenham East, following a star. They brought gifts of Golders Green, Farringdon and Moorgate. On the way they stopped off at a Mansion House to meet Kings Cross Herod.
6 Herod couldn't StanMore of this. It was enough to Turnham Green with anger. "Kill, Burn the children!" he cried. But baby Jesus and his parents had already escaped Northwood, far beyond Zone 6.

 Tuesday, December 16, 2003

On the 9th day before Christmas...
the shops are full of people buying rubbish

There comes a day whe you finally have to grit your teeth, knuckle down and head to the shops to buy stuff for Christmas. Yesterday I succumbed, even though it meant squandering 4% of my annual leave entitlement merely to avoid the weekend crush. And so I spent the afternoon trawling the West End, trying desperately to find some presents that other people might find borderline acceptable. I no doubt failed, but other people do always seem to prefer being bought something to being bought nothing, even if that something is rubbish. And there's certainly plenty of rubbish around to be bought, all stuff that you'd never ever buy for yourself, and you'd never dare buy for anyone else unless it was Christmas.

Oxford Street was full of of other people who weren't working, all seeking that elusive perfect Christmas gift. I pity the someone somewhere who's going to wake up to a fake Rolex on the 25th, or the DVD of some film that ITV's screening on Boxing Day, or one of those tiny 'gift' books with three words on each of fifty pages. Shoppers bustled by, some with the full set of designer carrier bags, others with only a bemused frown. Stores prayed that some of the passers-by would stop, come inside and part with large amounts of money. A couple of policemen mopped up a pool of blood from the road where an inattentive shopper had wandered into the path of some unexpected traffic. In Berwick Street market the sprouts were almost as big as the fake glass baubles. Christmas approached, inexorably, just 125 shopping hours to go.

A brand new Tesco Metro store had just opened, part way down Dean Street on the way into Soho (see eye-catching poster adverts here). This was launch day so management were standing outside offering free mince pies and red wine to passers by in a vain attempt to make the store look busy. A row of bored till operators sat at the checkouts with nothing to do but gawp (they'd be more than welcome at my local Tesco which appears to be five times the size but with half the staff). I had a '£3 off champagne' coupon thrust into my hand (the chilled bubbly section is noticeably larger than the area selling milk), but declined to use it. Wouldn't have been much use to the closest residents either, those who live in the local shop doorways.

But yes, in the end I did manage to buy my family some presents that hopefully aren't rubbish. I hope they've managed the same, because I'll need at least one present to read/play/devour on Christmas afternoon to get me safely through the third screening of my niece's new Barbie Swan Lake video. And apologies to the rest of the family - while I was in Tesco I did buy Mum that CD. All rubbish is relative, it seems.

 Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Cup Routes: the capital celebrates
Bus O2: Marble Arch - Trafalgar Square
Location: London central
Length of journey: 1½ miles, 80 minutes

Forgive me if I report on just one more bus journey. The service on this particular route is appalling - passengers crawl through central London at about one mile an hour. The space available on the bus is wholly insufficient - travellers are left waiting ten-deep on the pavement. The fare to board the bus is out of most people's reach - one gold piece. Conditions on the bus are inhumane - there's no roof and passengers are forced to stand in freezing conditions throughout the journey. And the frequency on this route is abysmal - you wait 37 years and then three buses turn up at once. But yesterday this shambolic service was the most popular bus route in the country.

You'll remember England won the Rugby World Cup a fortnight ago by outperforming a handful of serious countries, some comedy also-rans and a few South Sea islands. It's not often we defeat the rest of the world at a sport we invented, so how better to celebrate than going for a short bus ride one cold grey midweek lunchtime. Three quarters of a million people turned out all the same, thronging the streets of the West End and blocking off all the shops. A trio of open-topped buses set off from Marble Arch at noon, the squad in the first, management in the second and media in the third. I thought I'd catch up with the procession as it passed through Piccadilly Circus.

Every space along the route was packed with people - office workers, beery rugger types, cheering pensioners and schoolchildren who really should have been elsewhere. It was impossible to tell when the bus was coming, the curved buildings of Regent Street blocking off the view and four helicopters drowning out any approaching cheers. Eventually the cheers drowned out the helicopters and the first bus edged into sight. The crowd went wild (well, wild-ish) and waved their free Evening Standard flags and Daily Mail placards. A mass of cameras, camcorders and mobile phones were raised into the air, simultaneously capturing the view and blocking it. The team breathed in the adulation and waved the shiny gold cup in the air. I think they smiled, but they were too small to see.

As the bus disappeared behind Eros, the crowd started to ebb away. Many of us poured down the sidestreets to intercept the bus again further down Haymarket. A bit of judicious squeezing saw me much closer to the action, ready for Jonny Wilkinson's second coming. I was now surrounded by ecstatic rugby disciples, a fire in their belly and a song in their heart (Swing Low Sweet Chariot, naturally, over and over and over). This time I saw the cup and the players close up, and even recognised some of them. Nice suits, lads. Team coach Clive Woodward waved enthusiastically at me - me, the hardened rugby refusenik from school. I suspect he was waving at anybody by this point. Light showers of shredded paper fell from a few office windows, and the parade passed by again.

Trafalgar Square was absolutely packed - a bit like it used to be with pigeons, but with people instead. Had this been an anti-war protest, the police would no doubt have tear-gassed everyone by now. It was impossible for us latecomers to squeeze in far enough to see either of the giant TV screens, let alone the approaching buses. Loudspeakers broadcast a BBC commentary across the crowds, so at least we knew what we were missing. I left before the unctuous speeches began and headed off down the Mall, a good half hour ahead of the team, and against the continuing flow of of human traffic. I can't get excited about rugby, even if we are quite good at it. But, good try lads.

 Monday, December 01, 2003

Cube Routes

It's time for diamond geezer to spend a week exploring London, by bus.

London's a huge place, far bigger then the central zone most tourists see. I thought I'd get out and view some more of the capital from the best vantage point of all, the top deck of a London bus. And then I'd come back and write about what I saw. (Trust me, you can do this sort of thing when you're single. Nobody looks at you with a withering stare when you walk out of the house clutching your bus pass, as if to say "But you can't do that, it's pointless... and anyway, we have a bathroom that needs redecorating.")

Seven days, seven different buses. But which seven, there being more than 500 to choose from? I decided to follow a mathematical pattern (did you really think otherwise?) and selected all the buses whose route numbers were cube numbers. Cube routes. (You remember cube numbers... 1x1x1, 2x2x2 and so on. They're one of those bits of maths you learnt at school that are of absolutely no use whatsoever when you're older. Until today of course.)

So, seven routes, sort of picked at random, and covering the capital. I made all seven bus journeys during the last month, I took my camera with me, and this map shows where I went. Outer and inner, suburbia and urbia, north and south, east and west, upmarket and downmarket, rich and poor, day and night, but all 'London'. Hold very tight please, the first bus is about to depart.

Read the whole of Cube Routes week on one page by clicking here.

London bus route links
anorak-level route information
anorak-level historical route information
anorak-level bus information
anorak-level bus map information
anorak-level operational details
Route 73: a social study, and a collection of journeys
Route 79: a London blog

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