Monday, March 29, 2004


The Docklands Light Railway first opened in 1987, linking the Isle of Dogs and Stratford to the City. It was a revolutionary concept - guided rails, driverless trains, automatic signalling, the lot. The DLR was unexpectedly successful, not least in its ability to revitalise the communities it passed through, so a further extension to Beckton was soon planned. This extension opened on Monday 28th March 1994, exactly ten years ago yesterday. I never can resist an anniversary, so I spent Sunday afternoon taking the train to one of London's least loved locations, right down at the end of the line. (I know I know, it's a sad excuse for a life)

The Beckton extension was an attempt to breathe new life into the old Royal Docks, an industrial belt of decay clinging to the northern banks of the Thames. The new railway stretched eastwards from Poplar station, a five mile switchback ride on concrete stilts. The photograph to the left shows a typical two-carriage DLR train entering East India station, two stops along the line, with Canary Wharf rising tall in the background. The Greenwich meridian crosses the tracks a few metres outside the station, its position once marked by a line across the tracks, but sadly this is no longer visible. The railway then curves sharply around the mouth of Bow Creek, providing grandstand views of the Millennium Dome across the river, meeting up with the Jubilee and North London lines at Canning Town. Then it's on past the ExCel exhibition centre and out to far-flung Gallions Reach before curling back deep into the heart of darkest Beckton.

These giant white and blue pepperpots form part of the student accommodation at the University of East London, an extremely short walk from Cyprus station. There are nine coloured roundhouses altogether, strung out beside the Royal Albert Dock, far better architecture than the usual student-packed shoeboxes. They form an impressive backdrop to any flight into London City Airport, located just across the water, where a new DLR extension is due to arrive next year. I strolled into the UEL campus yesterday just as a fire alarm went off inside the green cylinder. A crowd of bleary students massed by the dockside, many still lounging in pink dressing gowns, waiting for a couple of trucks of firemen to give them the all clear. Bet the incident was toast-related.

25 years ago Beckton was an under-populated expanse of marshland and heavy industry. Not any more. Thanks to the London Docklands Development Corporation the area is now a thriving family-filled community, nestling around two characterless pubs and a supermarket. Asda is the true heart of the Beckton estate, like some vast retail magnet, but a superstore that can in no way be described as upmarket. White-trainered lads swagger round the aisles with stilettoed girls on their arms. Parents waddle by, trailing fat Beckton-born offspring. Pensioners hobble home pushing cheap tartan baskets on wheels. A selection of tracksuits sit vacantly on the benches by the store entrance. Most of the tiny shops in the small parade outside have closed down, but the betting shop and £7.99 shoe shop continue to trade. Sorry to any residents reading, but it's not a pleasant place to be, even on a Sunday afternoon.

The original village of Beckton was named after Simon Adams Beck, the man responsible for building the local gasworks in 1870. This was no ordinary gasworks, it was Europe's largest, covering an area bigger than the City of London. The gasworks sprawled across 540 acres of flat, low lying marshland, powered by coal brought up the Thames by barge. The chimneys used to belch corrosive yellow smoke into the sky, at least until North Sea natural gas killed off the plant for good. Stanley Kubrick assisted demolition of the site during the filming of Full Metal Jacket, the tumbledown buildings doubling for wartorn Vietnam. A brand new retail park has very recently been opened on part of the site in the shadow of the few remaining gasholders, surrounded by bleak fenced-off wasteland. It beats Asda for shopping, that's for sure, but that's the nicest thing I can say about the place.

Beckton is also the final destination of all the sewage in North London. Joseph Bazalgette, of whom I have written before, terminated his great Northern Outfall Sewer here at the largest sewage treatment plant in Victorian Europe. You're getting the true flavour of the place now, aren't you? Downwind from central London, Beckton was the perfect location for the capital's smelliest, most unpleasant industries and services. East London got heavy industry, while West London got upmarket suburbia. That sewer still slices through Beckton, now heavily disguised as a cycle path called the Greenway. Walking along the top of this ancient highway I could hear the sewage bubbling along through the pipes beneath, and I could smell it too. Brownway more like.

One of the by-products of all this heavy industry was a huge pile of industrial waste. The London Docklands Development Corporation had the waste compacted and re-contoured to form a large mound, the highest artificial hill in London. A dry ski slope was built, and so the Beckton Alps were born. This ski slope survived until 2001, at which point the centre was closed with proposals to build a giant Snowdome on the site instead. Alas, no money was ever forthcoming, so the hill now lies bleak and empty, like a concrete-flecked industrial pyramid. A zig-zag path leads up the side of the slope, now fenced off at the top, but scramble round beneath the deserted viewing platform and you can still find a route to the summit. I did, and the 360º view from the peak was quite fantastic. To the west the distant towers of Docklands, to the north Upton Park and the A13, and far to the east the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge on the M25. I bet the view looks even better in the sunshine. And to the south the estate houses of new Beckton, lapping at the foot of the hill like a sea of brown. It's always been brown round here. First mud, then gasholders, then sewage and now bricks. Some places, it seems, never quite escape their history.

 Saturday, March 27, 2004

Bow Road station renovation: update

Two weeks into the official renovation of my local Underground station, and time to keep you updated on latest progress. What a fortnight it's been. First a huge long blue wall appeared along almost the entire length of the eastbound platform, screening off the original paint-peeling walls from the travelling public and halving the width of the platform. And then a second blue wall appeared at the west end of the westbound platform, considerably shorter than its twin opposite, but standing tall proud and blue all the same. Today's photo shows an artist's impression of the location of those two blue walls, just to give you a visual flavour of what's going in.

Behind those two blue walls it's been impossible to tell if any real renovation work has been happening at all. I've seen no signs of action, no passing workmen, not even the hint of a discarded tool, no nothing. Maybe all the action has been happening after the 10pm station curfew, with a gang of painters and interior designers drafted in to give the ancient surfaces a silent makeover, but I'm not convinced. There's still a year of renovation to go, so maybe they're taking their time. And the eastbound platform at Bow Road must now be the safest station platform in the UK. Previously the walls were plain white, with just the occasional roundel interrupting the emptiness. Now the blue wall is covered by a dazzling assortment of safety signs, directional signs, informational signs, no smoking signs, way out signs, adverts and yet more safety signs. Presumably this is part of some government workplace directive, lest any innocent member of the public should accidentally stumble into the building site and maim themselves horribly. But it does all seem a bit over the top, especially when the erection of safety signs appears to be the only work going on.

Anyway, for those of you who've been following the daily reports from Bow Road via my comments boxes, I've now shifted all those into this comments box, just to ensure that they don't disappear off the bottom of the front page. The excitement continues? Mind the gap.

 Friday, March 26, 2004

At your (London) newsagent today

Two new-ish capital-based periodicals hit the streets of London this morning. The first of these is edition number 3 of my favourite London magazine - Smoke. It's a sort of local fanzine, or 'a london peculiar' as the strapline has it. This quirky labour of love is published quarterly, featuring 'words, photos, cartoons and graphic art inspired by the city'. Look, there's even a tube station on the cover. In Smoke 3 we're promised London's busiest phone box, IKEA, Temple Bar, the BT Tower, flying into Gatwick, Burgess Park, Tyburn Kickit, New Cross Gate, another bus of the month, Squeeze, skyscrapers, the Grand Union Canal, Battersea Power Station and even a very local chunk about Bromley-by-Bow. Full tasters here. It's testimony to the success of the magazine that edition three is going to be available from an extensive list of stockists, rather than the three or so bookshops that sold the first one. Also available via mail order, for those of you outside the M25. I shall be spending two quid on my hot-off-the-press green 'un later today, and adoring it soon afterwards. Do join me.

The second capital-based periodical to hit the shops today is rather different. It's edition number 2 of the London News Review, a weekly newspaper-type-product brought to you by the same people who produce The Friday Thing, London by London, and the long-established LNR website. The print version was first launched at the party that me and Dave Gorman attended back in February, remember? It costs a quid for 12 pages and is also available by mail order. I finally tracked down a real copy of edition 1 earlier this week, lurking in a plastic wrapper at the foot of the escalator in Borders in Oxford Street. Was it worth the money? Here's my London News Review review:

London? Ah, now there's a slight trades description problem here. The London News Review isn't actually very 'London'. Only two pages out of 12 are specifically about the capital, one of which is an interview with Mayoral-hopeful Simon Hughes. Then there's a London Diary cadged from the weekly London by London e-mailout, and a witty column by the marvellous Richard Herring about travelcards, but lifted direct from Richard's (excellent) blog. Not London enough, overall, for my tastes.
News? Ah, and there's also a slight news problem here. This is not a newspaper in any traditional sense of the word, so the news content is more like political commentary on national and international affairs. This means articles about Blair and terrorism, Blair and Bush, more terrorism, more Bush, Iraq, more Bush, more Iraq, and a cartoon about the American presidential elections. I'm sure this is some people's idea of news (I mean, there are plenty of one-track yawn-inducing politics-obsessed blogs out there) but it's not mine.
Review? Ah, a bit more successful here, with an eclectic two-page spread of music, TV, film, art and book reviews. This is more like it, but sorry editors, it's not enough to get me subscribing. Looks like I'll just have to carry on being a heavy Smoker instead.

 Thursday, March 25, 2004

London's best sitcom

This Saturday the BBC will be announcing the results of their three month quest to uncover Britain's Best Sitcom (or the BBC's Best Sitcom, as it's turned out). I've cast a geographical eye over the Top 10 shortlist to investigate any possible spatial connections. Three of the supposed favourite sitcoms were located along the south coast of England (Torquay, Bournemouth-ish and Walmington-on-Sea), one in a Buckinghamshire village, one in Doncaster and one in a Cumbrian prison. But the other four were very definitely London-based, as indeed have been rather a lot of other TV sitcoms over the past fifty years. A suspiciously large number of these have been based in South, West and Southwest London too, not a million miles from BBC TV Centre and Thames's Teddington Studios. I guess at least this saved on the licence fee.

I've delved back into my memory, and deep into the internet, in an attempt to produce the definitive (clickable) postcode-by-postcode guide to London's sitcoms. And here's my first updated version:

Central London: Blackadder II and III (Westminster SW1), Black Books (Bloomsbury WC1), Life With The Lyons (Marble Arch W1), Yes Minister (Westminster SW1), Are You Being Served (inspired by Piccadilly W1), Down The 'Gate (City EC3)
North London: Spaced (Tufnell Park N19), Babes In The Wood (St John's Wood NW8), Gimme Gimme Gimme (Kentish Town NW5), Father Dear Father (Hampstead NW3), Agony (Golders Green NW11), Going Straight (Muswell Hill N10)
Northeast London (1 mile outside): Birds Of A Feather (Chigwell IG7)
East London: Drop The Dead Donkey (Wapping E1), Til Death Us Do Part (Wapping E1), Goodnight Sweetheart (East End, E1), Shine On Harvey Moon (Hackney E8), Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (Romford RM1)
Southeast London: Desmond's (Peckham SE15), Only Fools And Horses (Peckham SE15), Up The Elephant And Round The Castle (Elephant & Castle SE1)
South London: Game On (Battersea SW11), Not In Front Of The Children (Battersea SW11), 15 Storeys High (Kennington SE11), Terry And Julian (Streatham SW16), Citizen Smith (Tooting SW17), The Gnomes Of Dulwich (Dulwich SE21), Hancock (East Cheam SM2), Terry And June (Purley CR8), Please Sir
Southwest London: Fresh Fields (Barnes, SW13), Bless This House (Putney SW15), The Good Life (Surbiton KT6), Brush Strokes (Motspur Park KT3), George and Mildred (Hampton Wick TW12), The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (17 minutes late, points failure at Effingham Junction)
West London: Man About The House (Earl's Court SW5), Home James! (Chelsea SW3), Girls On Top (Kensington W8), Robin's Nest (Fulham SW6), Steptoe and Son (Shepherd's Bush W12), Absolutely Fabulous (Holland Park W11), Bottom (Hammersmith W6), Sykes (East Acton W3), Men Behaving Badly (Ealing, W5), 2 Point 4 Children (Ealing W5)
Northwest London: The Kumars at No 42 (Wembley HA9), May To December (Pinner HA5), My Hero (Northolt HA4)

 Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Stanleys (6 Little Portland Street, London W1): My brother made a rare working visit to London yesterday, so we decided to meet up for a meal in the early evening before he returned home. We headed for the sausage nirvana that is Stanleys, a bangers 'n' beer restaurant down an insignificant backstreet near Oxford Circus. It's an original dining concept, complete with 70s diner decor and a fine selection of continental ales. The all-red seating included side booths with authentically ripped leatherette benches and canteen-type chairs at understated tables. There's a well-frequented bar and extensive wine list, but it's the sausages that make the place special. I chose a beer-soaked meaty tube with creamy mash and dumplings over the alternative bratwurst, Glamorgan veggie and simple porker. My brother went for the burger option, an impressively thick slab of meat accompanied by chunky, tasty chips. Had it not been for his impending homebound train, the stodge-trad dessert menu would have provided an alluring finale. We liked the place. I'll be back.
Click on these blobs to read further reviews:

 Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Is your bag really necessary?

Who owns this bag? That's the question us Londoners have recently been asked to ask ourselves as part of a tube-wide security campaign. We've been advised to keep our eyes peeled for suspicious looking baggage in case of imminent terrorist attack. I've been playing my part, looking around particularly carefully, but I've actually ended up noticing something completely different. Virtually everybody on the Underground is carrying a bag. Except me.

I don't carry a bag to work. I always used to think that this was perfectly normal behaviour, but closer scrutiny has revealed that I'm in a tiny minority. A bagless freak in fact, adrift in a portable world. Somehow I manage to survive my daily commute weighed down only by a couple of pocketfuls of belongings - one wallet, one phone, one travelcard, two handkerchieves and a bunch of keys. Even in coatless summer that's all I carry, which makes me wonder why virtually nobody else can survive even twenty minutes underground without some sort of plastic or canvas receptacle weighing them down. Travellers are regularly being advised to "Keep all your personal baggage with you at all times". Are Londoners taking this instruction too literally?

Shoulder bags, battered briefcases, sleek attaché cases, chunky handbags, bulging rucksacks, square DJ bags, posh carrier bags with rope handles, supermarket carrier bags stuffed with groceries, sports holdalls, cavernous laptop bags, cross-body sling bags, downpour-resistant backpacks, luxury clutch bags, gym bags, leather satchels, designer luggage, canvas drawstring bags, sporty duffle bags, and of course the devil's own wheelie suitcase - the tube is absolutely heaving with all of the above. The question Londoners should be asking therefore isn't "Who owns this bag?" but "Why do so many of you feel the need to carry bags in the first place?"

I can see why holidaymakers need to carry luggage, I know that shoppers have to lug their purchases home and I'll concede that pocketless women need a handbag to keep all their bits in. But I'm absolutely baffled why so many people find a bag essential in their everyday commuting lives. And why so many bags on the tube droop in an unfilled unfulfilled way. How little are people actually carrying around with them? A book, a packet of chewing gum and a bottle of Dasani? A couple of magazines and a packet of cigarettes? A sweaty gym kit ripe from the lunchtime workout? A hoard of post-its and plastic folders nicked from the office stationery cupboard? Seriously, I haven't got a clue what other people feel compelled to carry round with them because I'm not a bag carrier myself. Any of you bag men and bag ladies like to confess?

Most disconcerting of all, however, are the multitude of people who 'need' to carry more than one bag when just one would do. I've lost count of the number of tube travellers I've seen laden with both tiny handbag and big rucksack, or huge holdall and little shoulder bag. Surely all those belongings spread between two bags would fit quite happily inside just the one, and then there'd be less bags and more space for the rest of us. And, probably, fewer security alerts too. So, people of London, do your bit for the capital and leave your bags at home. You'll survive, and maybe the rest of us will too as a result.

 Monday, March 22, 2004

Street Cries of Old LondonStreet Cries of New London
Sixpence a pound, fair cherryes!Evening Standard! West End Final!
Bonnets for to fit English heads!Can you spare a minute for Alzheimers?
Roasted pippins, piping hot!Taxi! Hey, taxi!
Wood, three bundles a penny!Will you take us photo yes?
Large silver eels, a groat a pound, live eels!   Hands up against the wall sonny!
Fair lemons and oranges!Can you ring me back in ten minutes?
New laid eggs - crack 'em and try 'em!Oi, lads, wanna see some nice girls?
Past three o'clock and all's well!Pasta, all you can eat for £5.99!
Fine ripe strawberryes!Stop thief!
Turnips and carrots, oh!Which way Covent Garden please?
Hot spiced gingerbread, smoking hot!Genuine Swiss watches, only five quid!
Four for six pence, mackrell!Anyone wanna buy tickets for Les Mis?
Ribbons a groat a yard!Big Issue, get your Big Issue here!
Six bunches, sweet blooming lavender!Get out of my bloody way!

Lots more old street cries here! Tons, with woodcuts!
Hear ye an olde Orlando Gibbons composition here!

 Tuesday, March 16, 2004

London Prepared?

It was hard to be certain but I sensed that people were looking a little uneasy on the Underground yesterday. Maybe that was just their regular Monday morning back-to-work look but maybe it was something else, a subconscious response to events last week 800 miles away. Not that most people enjoy rush hour tube travel at the best of times, packed head-to-armpit in overcrowded carriages, but somehow those carriages didn't seem quite so overcrowded yesterday either. Those of us wielding newspapers flashed bleak headlines across the carriage, while travellers with bags clutched them a little closer. It's as if Londoners are silently praying not to be 'there' when 'it' happens, not that anyone quite knows where 'there' is, what 'it' might be, or when 'it' might happen. Me, I prefer to continue to wonder if, not when.

Last week's terrorist atrocity in Spain reminded us all how fragile freedom is, how much we take it for granted and how easy it is to lose it in a flash. Anyone can board a train in Europe, travelling anywhere, carrying anything. It's not like boarding a plane where we expect to queue for hours in advance and have all our darkest recesses searched lest we have even a nail file stashed away somewhere. Trains and stations remain very public spaces, very accessible but also very exposed. And long may that remain so. Should we ever end up flashing an ID card to pre-book a ticket to travel three stops down the Victoria Line then the terrorists would undoubtedly have won. And there would still be plenty of other targets elsewhere for them to hit anyway.

London can't afford police patrols in every Underground carriage, which is just as well because there are hundreds of carriages, most of them quite full enough already. The police are introducing plain-clothes patrols, or at least they've told us they are (it is by definition hard to be sure). They've also promised to increase 'stop and search' checks by uniformed officers, although the chance of any of them uncovering 'it' 'there' if 'it' happens must be absolutely tiny. No, our best chance lies with the latest campaign to ask the travelling public for increased vigilance. Our eyes can be everywhere. And better to bring the entire network to a halt for every unattended carrier bag than to miss one anonymous rucksack opportunely abandoned underfoot in the peak hour rush.

London's been here many times before, of course, and London's by no means unique. The IRA's bloody mainland bombing campaign kept Londoners alert thirty, twenty, even as recently as ten years ago, and you still can't find a litter bin on the Underground as a result. And sixty years ago there was the Blitz, night after night of terrible bombing, and night after night of terrible casualties. 17 died in a direct hit on Marble Arch tube station, 68 at Balham, 56 at Bank, 173 at Bethnal Green... and even that was but a tiny fraction of the overall death toll. A very heavy price was paid but London continued, and so it will again. Even if 'it' happens which, please God, 'it' never does.

 Sunday, March 14, 2004

Random borough: Merton

So, yesterday I ended up in southwest London in the randomly selected borough of Merton. That's Wimbledon to you and me. I could have ended up somewhere a lot worse, I guess. Below are the places I decided to visit after an hour's detailed net research. And, hmm, I still have 32 folded pieces of paper sitting by my computer in a used honey jar, just in case I ever decide to turn this into a regular series...

Somewhere famous: Wimbledon Common
We can thank author Elisabeth Beresford for making famous this glorious expanse of open space. Thirty-five years ago she wrote a book about some litter-tidying inhabitants, then in 1974 Bernard Cribbins provided the voices for the BBC cartoon adaptation, Mike Batt wrote one of the hookiest TV themes ever and a childhood classic was assured. No Wombles in sight today, nor any litter either, which proves how hard Orinoco and friends must still be working. The most famous spot on the Common is a restored windmill, now home to a museum, inside which Baden Powell wrote much of Scouting for Boys back in 1908. Beside the mill is a large car park to which London's upper middle classes drive their 4x4s at weekends so that they can pretend to be in the countryside and take their dogs/children for some exercise. Walk a few hundred yards away from the car park, however, and you can have the common to yourself, even on a Saturday afternoon. Uncommonly good.
by bus: 93

Somewhere historic: Morden Hall Park
Right at the southern tip of the Northern line lies Morden, not the most historic part of the world you might think, and you'd be right. In fact I found it really hard to find anywhere even vaguely historic in this borough at all, but I assumed that if the National Trust had a property in the area then it was worth a visit. Morden Hall was built in 1750, which makes it positively ancient for this part of London - originally a boarding school, now a posh restaurant. The National Trust own some of the outbuildings, including a waterwheel formerly used to power a snuff mill (that's a mill for making snuff, of course). The surrounding parkland by the banks of the River Wandle is an oasis of green in grey suburbia, including both woodland and wetland. There's an extensive rose garden, laid out by former owner and philanthropist Gilliat Hatfeild (sic), although the roses won't be spectacular for another couple of months. The whole place is unexpectedly pretty, so long as you don't spot the garden centre nextdoor, the giant car park and the A24 thundering by outside. And it's free.
by tube: Morden; by Tramlink: Phipps Bridge

Somewhere pretty: Wimbledon Park
It was a very showery day yesterday, with a number of heavy downpours between sunny intervals. I found myself walking through posh North Wimbledon, sheltering under available trees, when suddenly I spotted a rainbow curving over the Merton sky. It was a double rainbow no less, sweeping down to touch the ground just out of reach across the park. Local golfers paused awhile to point it out to one another, then continued on their rounds. Old ladies shuffled by in blissful ignorance, huddled under tartan umbrellas. From my viewpoint the rainbow had picked out its crock of gold well. As well as the golf club and a certain nearby tennis facility, the houses round these parts drip wealth. Close by is Wimbledon Village, sat atop a hill overlooking central London, and the site of the original settlement around which the local suburbs grew up. There are now designer boutiques, bakeries selling ciabattas, and that telltale sign of overaffluence - the Bang and Olufsen shop. Maybe not so pretty after all, then.
by tube: Wimbledon Park

Somewhere sporty: All England Lawn Tennis Club
AFC Wimbledon play in the neighbouring borough of Kingston, so I headed instead to my second choice sporting venue. Opposite Wimbledon Park lies the most famous tennis club in all England, probably in the whole world. It started life as a croquet club, but diversification into racquet sport has subsequently earned the club many millions of pounds. The Lawn Tennis Championships have been held here annually since 1877, the only Grand Slam event still played on grass, and there are now 19 courts spread out over a massive 42 acres. The southern tip of the site, viewed from outside, has the austere look of a beige and green holiday camp. The main courts, however, are on a completely different scale with huge green grandstands, far bigger than I'd imagined, surrounded by imposing bars and restaurants that close for fifty weeks a year. You can of course visit the museum throughout the year, or join the massed 7-year-olds playing short tennis in the shadow of Centre Court as part of the Junior Tennis initiative. Oh, and I'm glad to report that nobody's started queueing for June just yet, but I'm sure it won't be long now.
by tube: Southfields; by bus: 493

Somewhere retail: Merton Abbey Mills
In search of shopping nirvana I avoided Wimbledon High Street - a mass of department stores sliced through by road traffic hell - and headed instead somewhere slightly more alternative. Merton Abbey Mills is a 'craft village' located in the former Liberty silk-printing works beside the River Wandle. William Morris, the Victorian god of wallpaper, set up a workshop here in 1881 to undertake dyeing, block printing, weaving and stained glass manufacture. His buildings are now home to about 20 shops, selling everything from lace to ceramics, and beanbags to sci-fi memorabilia. Merton Abbey Mills describes itself as 'southwest London's answer to Camden Lock', which I think is stretching the truth somewhat - not one Goth was anywhere to be seen. In fact the whole place was a bit on the quiet side, but maybe I arrived a bit early in the day. The mill at Merton Abbey houses an 1860s waterwheel, used by Morris to rinse his silks after printing. This waterwheel has since been adopted as the logo of the London Borough of Merton - presumably it symbolises continuity, community and sustainability, or whatever the important local government buzzwords are these days.
by tube: Colliers Wood

Somewhere random: Abbey Parade
I picked somewhere random in my random borough by looking up the first Merton road to be listed in the index of the London A-Z. And so I found myself at Abbey Parade, a shabby parade of shops just up the road from Merton Abbey Mills. Forget the five places I've visited above - this is real London. Mothers and pushchairs crowd the OK Laundrette, beside the dark mysteries of the Wizard Tattoo Shop. You can buy your perfect bathroom, call in at the Tubing Centre, or get your bike fixed at AW Cycles (a satisfied customer blogs here). It costs just £65 for diamond bleaching at the Teeth-u-like dental surgery, while Chris's Gents Haircutters displays the same six perfectly-coiffed heads as can be seen in barbers' windows across the country. And at the heart of the parade lies The Nelson Arms pub, a hint that this might not be quite such a random location as I'd first thought. Turns out that 200 years ago Lord Nelson bought a small house on this very site, where he busied himself with 'gardening, attending the House (of Lords), eating and drinking and hurra-ing'. He'd no doubt turn a blind eye to the state of the place today.
by tube: South Wimbledon

 Thursday, March 11, 2004

Bow Road station: Meet our Managers

It's been a month now since I started reporting daily on London's first PPP-funded tube station renovation project. It's been a month of compelling drama as blue walls have suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and a month of high tension as those blue walls have occasionally disappeared again into thin air. Then, yesterday, something even more thrilling happened. Elsie got an email about it last week, but the first any of us locals knew came when details were posted on a board at the station on Tuesday afternoon.
Meet our Managers events give our customers the chance to raise their concerns and air their views about the work we are carrying out by asking our Managers questions. It also enables us to receive feedback about general Underground matters, from a cross-section of the public. The event will be held at Bow Road Station on Wednesday, 10 March 2004 between 1600 and 1900.
Needless to say I was very excited by this opportunity to discover more about my adopted pet station. Imagine my joy at meeting the people who would be shaping the future of this Grade II listed building. I could ask them all sorts of questions, not just about blue walls but also about what they were planning to do, to what, and when. Would we finally be getting a train display indicator that would tell us how far away the next three trains were, not just that the next train was 45 seconds away? I have an insatiable blog audience who need to be told, you see.

I arrived at Bow Road station last night around 6pm, crushed aboard a packed District Line train. I wove my way out of the carriage onto the platform and looked around. Paint continued to peel off the walls, the ceilings and all other available surfaces. Of 'the Managers' there was as yet no sign. I joined the home-bound tide of commuters and swept up the stairs, round the corner and into the narrow ticket hall. There beyond the barriers stood a massed gathering of smiling people holding leaflets, much as a group of evangelicals might stand poised with tracts ready to thrust into the hands of passing unbelievers. There was also a trestle table piled high with goodies, but no signs whatsoever that might have told travellers who these people were or what they were doing standing there.

I stopped for a closer look at the table and its contents. There were more leaflets, a pile of uncompleted questionnaires and a small number of stubby light blue pencils stamped with a London Underground logo. There were also some small flat round objects that might have been either pencil sharpeners or key fobs, of the sort that eight-year-old girls buy in museum shops on school trips. I only managed a quick look before one of the people standing nearby, I suspect not a manager, tempted me away from the table by offering me a leaflet. There was no follow-up, no attempt at feedback, not even a free pencil, not for anyone. Within seconds I was outside the station, in front of the legendary blue wall, wondering if there had in fact been any managers to meet at all. My views had not been aired. I was a very cross section of the public.

The leaflet announced that the modernisation of Bow Road station would finally begin next Monday. Workmen will have the station to themselves between 10pm and 6am every day until further notice, i.e early next year, and the rest of us can jolly well walk home from Mile End or get the bus. Oh, and we shouldn't touch our Oystercards on the reader when using the bus or it'll accidentally charge us extra, we should wave our cards at the driver instead. Such is progress. But we are due to be getting:
• upgraded platforms, ticket hall, station entrance, passageways and stairs (and trains? some trains that run on time would be nice)
• all floor, wall and ceiling finishes are either being repaired or replaced
(this wrinkly centenarian station needs one hell of a facelift)
• as this station is a Grade 2 listed building, all the heritage features are being restored
(I wonder if that includes all the chewing gum)
• installation of customer help points
(maybe that's what all the blue pencils were for)
• improved CCTV
(cor, wouldn't a webcam be exciting?)
• installation of induction loops for the hard of hearing
(Mind the gap. I said, MIND THE GAP!)
• better lighting and new signage
(ladies and gentlemen, this way to the replacement bus service)
It begins. Can you stand the excitement?

 Tuesday, March 09, 2004

The 39 stops (with apologies to John Buchan)

Today (3/9) I reach the grand young age of 39. No really, I know a lot of people pretend to be 39 for years because it sounds a lot better than 40, but I really am 39. That's still thirty-something, and that'll do me for another year. To celebrate, if that's the right word, I'm going to indulge myself by looking back over my last 39 years. I've come up with a list of 39 tube stations that have been important in my life - the 39 stops. No, really, it is very self-indulgent - you'll probably want to come back tomorrow when I've got over it all. Time-travelcards at the ready, my life's journey starts at station number three.

Bond Street (age -100): My great-great-grandfather was a tailor living in central London. Home was in South Molton Street, just round the corner from what is now Bond Street tube station. It's a bit posher down there these days.
Kilburn (age -60): My great-grandparents later moved out north-westward, into suburbia. My great-grandfather is buried in the local cemetery, not that I've ever managed to locate him.
Watford High Street (age 0): Me, I was born a stone's throw from this station, early in the morning on my mother's 30th birthday. Sorry Mum. Alas, Watford's premier maternity hospital is now lost beneath the town's ring road.
Croxley (age 0 onwards): And this so-called-village was my childhood home. Not a bad place to grow up, not bad at all. And how thoughtful of the tube to have arrived at the bottom of the road 40 years earlier.
Putney Bridge (age 3½): By this age I knew the tube better than my Mum, so one day I took her to a wedding in Putney by the river. Precocious child, but apparently I made a lovely page boy.
Finchley Road (age 5): Travelling up into town on the Metropolitan line, this was always where the proper Underground started...
Baker Street (age 5): ... and here's where we changed trains to visit the centre of the big city. Or we went to the Planetarium nextdoor to see something even bigger.
Arsenal (age 6): 8th May 1971 was FA Cup Final day, and before the match kicked off I chose to support Arsenal while my little brother picked Liverpool. Arsenal won the Double, I've supported them ever since, and my brother is still misguided.
Marble Arch (age 6): Later that same year I took a trip with the family up to London to watch Bedknobs and Broomsticks in the biggest cinema I'd ever seen - the Odeon Marble Arch. Angela Lansbury was old even then.
Ravenscourt Park (age 8): Our next-door neighbour was a graphic designer. Out in my back garden one sunny afternoon I watched him accurately hand-painting giant lettering on a big blue sign ready to be erected outside the park gates. Funny the things that make an impact on you when you're young.
Wimbledon (age 9): I had all the Wombles albums, you know. And pin-ups of Wellington and Madame Cholet on the back of my bedroom door. And some very long-serving pillowcases, which I think I still have somewhere.
South Kensington (age 10): When you grow up near London, it seems that every other school trip is to one of those wonder-ful big museums. It was usually the Natural History Museum in my case. Oh look, it's the big dinosaur, again.
Heathrow (age 11): I missed my last week at primary school to go on my first big overseas holiday. We flew across the Atlantic to Toronto to stay with one of my Mum's old schoolfriends. Niagara, magic.
Watford (age 11) When I went to big school, it was located right beside Watford tube station. Which was useful, because absolutely nothing else in Watford is located anywhere near it.
Grange Hill (age 12): Apparently they didn't name the TV series after the tube station, but I've been watching every year since the show started. Series 27 episode 19 tonight - my video is set.
Ongar (age 14): Me and a bunch of schoolfriends tried visiting as many tube stations as possible in one day. You can get away with doing almost anything for charity. We didn't manage the lot, not by a long chalk, but we managed this distant outpost.
Oxford Circus (age 16): My very first summer job was located down a dodgy sidestreet in Soho opposite a seedy cinema. The job involved checking film invoices - no, really, it was very respectable, honest.
Rickmansworth (age 17): Apologies to the residents of this fine town because it's here that I learnt to drive. I think most of the street furniture is still standing. Passed my test the day after my birthday too, except it was my 18th not my 17th.
Harlesden (age 18): My first proper summer job was three months spent in a printing factory in NW10, eating my packed lunch daily beside the rusty canal. They even let me drive the fork lift truck, very very badly.
Covent Garden (age 18): There used to be a newsagent just across from the road from this station. One day I managed to psyche myself up enough to go in and buy, erm, something important. The shop now sells watches.
Embankment (age 21): Somewhere I still have a photo of my university mates and me larking about on the platform here on a rare day out in London. Wonder what they're all doing now.
Tottenham Court Road (age 21): After university I tried, unsuccessfully, to get a job in advertising. Everyone gave me an interview, but nobody gave me a job. Probably just as well, long term, although it didn't feel so great back then.
Kings Cross (age 21): And then, because it seemed like a good idea at the time, I spent a year in Hull. Returning home by train, Kings Cross was always a very welcome sight.
Paddington (age 22): My first proper job was in nightmarishly expensive Windsor. If I ever fancied a night out I had to be back at Paddington before the last connecting train left at 11pm. Didn't get out much...
Shadwell (age 22): ...but I did come up to town for a ride on the brand new Docklands Light Railway. Typically, for those early days, my train broke down before it reached the end of the line. Little did I realise I'd eventually end up living round here.
St Pancras (age 26): Next job - Bedford. And what a magnificent station to have as your London terminus.
Old Street (age 29): If I ever came down from Bedford for a night out, you'd probably have found me round here, well before Hoxton became even vaguely trendy.
Kensington Olympia (age 32): Who'd have thought that a trip to Olympia would change my life? I normally went to one particular annual exhibition there on a Saturday, but one year I was allowed to go on Friday instead. And that's how I managed to meet my ex for the first time on the Saturday, somewhere completely different.
West Ham (age 33): My ex owned a flat right beside this station. We only visited it the once, but it nearly put me off the area for life. I now live less than a mile away.
Liverpool Street (age 34): It was at this point that my ex became an ex, and I moved to Suffolk. Liverpool Street was my gateway back to civilisation. Not regularly enough though.
Temple (age 34): I saw in the Millennium standing on the Embankment amongst a crowd of champagne-soaked revellers, very close to this particular station. It rained.
Bow Road (age 36): At last, after years of never quite living in the capital, I moved to London. Like a moth to a flame? No, like a salmon coming home.
Green Park (age 36): My new London job was based in Mayfair, and still is. Trust me, it's so much better than overlooking a furniture warehouse in Ipswich.
Plaistow (age 36): Conveniently I managed to find myself a best mate who lived just a couple of stations up the District line. Alas, he now lives rather closer to a station on the San Francisco subway instead. No longer walking distance anyway.
Leicester Square (age 37): Isn't it great having Soho on your doorstep? Remind me to make the most of it more often.
Swish Cottage (age 37): That would be David's blog masquerading as a tube station, that would. Insiprational. And now sadly abandoned.
Chancery Lane (age 37): I rode the Central Line through this station just 15 minutes before the big train crash there last year. Thank you God, that was close enough, don't try anything like that again.
Ealing Broadway (age 39): Ealing Broadway is halfway from my house to Slough. I hope I don't end up visiting the place on a daily basis in the near future - decision expected very soon. Actually God, there was just one more favour you could do for me...
Bond Street (age 39): ... I'd rather carry on just down the road from where my great-great-grandfather used to work. Fingers crossed.

 Monday, March 08, 2004

The retail therapy project II - successful conclusion

I am crap at shopping, remember? Quite terrible. So I attempt to cure myself of this hideous affliction each year through my annual retail therapy project. Last year I forced myself to spend £100 on a birthday present of your choice. Very nice the light bricks were too, but I went back to my miserly ways again soon after. This year I stuck up an Amazon wishlist containing £200 of London-based stuff and asked you not to buy me anything off it. And you were brilliant at that - not one item arrived in my mailbox. Thanks for that. Anyway, the deal was that I would go out and buy £100 of the remaining stuff on the wishlist after it had been up for a fortnight. So I did, just in time for my birthday tomorrow.

I spent all Saturday afternoon traipsing round the West End, hunting down books and CDs and DVDs at best value prices. I could have got most of the books cheaper on Amazon, but I didn't want to have to wait three weeks for the postman to fail to shove an oversized package through my letterbox, so I decided against. I managed to find most of the CDs and DVDs rather cheaper in real life anyway, hurrah. By the end of Saturday afternoon I was walking the streets carrying eight different plastic bags - I looked like a real shopper for once. And I'd managed to spend £105, on eleven items I actually wanted. Success. Course, it'll take me months to read/view/listen to them all, which may not be good for my retail therapy long term, but never mind.

Here's a (clickable) list of what I bought myself...

Books (non fiction)
Underground London (Stephen Smith, £13.99 at Waterstones - I got £4 off): Subtitled 'Travels beneath the city streets', this looks wonderful. So new that it's not officially published until this Thursday. Chapters on lost rivers, Roman remains, plague victims, cold war bunkers and, yes, abandoned tube stations. I think I'm going to love it.
Walking Notorious London (Andrew Duncan, £8.99 at Waterstones - I got £2 off): Nine walks around the capital, concentrating on death, crime, villainy, scandals, prostitution and spying. Yes, and the Kray brothers.
Eccentric London (Benedict le Vay, £12.95 at Stanfords): Thanks to Woozie for suggesting this. I started reading it on the tube home, and it's full of bizarre fascinating snippety historical bits. Already hugely recommended.
Leadville (Edward Platt, £6.99 at Waterstones - I got £1 off): Thanks to Vaughan for suggesting this. Leadville is a chronicle of suburban life beside the A40 Western Avenue, the bit between White City and Hanger Lane. Wonder if I could write a similar book about life beside the A11 Mile End Road?

Books (fiction)
Bleeding London (Geoff Nicholson, £6.99 at Blackwells): Thanks to Inspector Sands for suggesting this. Three characters linked by an obsession with the London A-Z. Apparently includes 'weird sex, arbitrary violence and obscure threats', but I've only read the encouraging blurb on the back cover so far.
White City Blue (Tim Lott, £7.99 at Foyles): Thanks to dave for suggesting this. One of those about-growing-up books, based in West London, and winner of the 1999 Whitbread First Novel award. Looks a good read, even if I'm five years late.

London 0, Hull 4 (Housemartins, £10 at Fopp): Ah, they don't make albums with 16 tracks any more, and not tracks as good as these either. Proper 80s northern, with soul. However, having lived in both cities, I'd like to declare that the score should be London 4, Hull 0.
London, England (Corduroy, £7.99 at Selectadisc - £1 cheaper than Amazon): 90s coffee-table acid jazz, very laid back, very understated, very well done. Title track's the best, but you get 39 other gems for your money. And Selectadisc, wow, there isn't a record shop like it.

28 Days Later (£10 at Fopp - £5 cheaper than Amazon): I've sort of been meaning to buy this for a while, but I don't generally buy DVDs. Cured myself of that at the weekend. Hide from the nutters in zombie-infested East London - much like real life really.
An American Werewolf in London (£12.99 at Tower - £2 cheaper than Amazon): Another horror classic, but this one has Jenny Agutter and a quick lycanthropic rampage through Piccadilly Circus tube station. Maybe I shall wait for the next full moon before watching it.
Tube Tales (£5.99 at the Virgin Megastore): Bargain rack movie funded by Sky TV. A collection of nine underground-related stories featuring top British talent (dave - Ray Winstone's in one of them). I suspect I shall enjoy this more than the critics did.

 Sunday, March 07, 2004


They're big, they're red, they're much loved, and they're doomed. They're London's 50-year-old Routemaster buses, a global transport icon now destined to be sacrificed in the name of 'accessibility'. Instead, rolling onto a street near you soon, some soulless red replacement vehicle that takes pushchairs. If this is progress, I'm afraid I'd rather live in the past. So, many thanks to Casino Avenue for drawing my attention to a new website - Save The Routemaster - with campaigning comment, maps, links and news. Excellent stuff (even if the Flash presentation does get a bit wearing).

Below I've put together a list of the 16 remaining routes on which Routemasters are still running. The eight routes marked in red are scheduled to lose their Routemasters later this year. Ken, you're a bastard. In the meantime, the best places to go and see Routemasters in action are Oxford Street (ten routes), Marble Arch (nine), Hyde Park Corner (nine), Piccadilly Circus (eight) and Tottenham Court Road (eight). I particularly recommend a trip to Piccadilly, along which every single bus is still a Routemaster. It's tourist heaven, while stocks last. But less than three months to go, sob.

    6 Kensal Rise - Queens Park - Warwick Avenue Station - Marble Arch - Regent Street - Aldwych (last day: 26 March)
    7 East Acton - North Kensington - Paddington - Oxford Street - British Museum
    8 Bow - Old Ford - Bethnal Green - Shoreditch - Bank - Holborn - Oxford Circus - Green Park - Victoria (last day: 4 June)
    9 Hammersmith - Kensington - Green Park - Aldwych (last day: 3 September)
  12 Dulwich - Peckham - Camberwell - Walworth - Elephant - Westminster - Oxford Circus - Notting Hill Gate (last day: 30 July)
  13 Golders Green - Finchley Road - Baker Street - Aldwych
  14 Putney Heath - Putney - Fulham - South Kensington - Green Park - Tottenham Court Road Station
  19 Finsbury Park - Highbury - Islington - Holborn - Green Park - Chelsea - Battersea Bridge
  22 Putney Common - Putney Bridge - Parsons Green - Chelsea - Green Park - Piccadilly Circus
  36 New Cross Gate - Peckham - Camberwell - Vauxhall - Victoria - Marble Arch - Paddington - Queen's Park
  38 Clapton - Hackney - Islington - Holborn - Green Park - Victoria
  73 Stoke Newington - Islington - King's Cross - Tottenham Court Road - Marble Arch - Victoria (last day: October-ish)
  98 Willesden - Kilburn - Marble Arch - Holborn (last day: 26 March)
137 Streatham Hill - Clapham Common - Chelsea Bridge - Knightsbridge - Marble Arch - Oxford Circus (last day: 17 September)
159 Streatham - Brixton - Kennington - Westminster - Oxford Circus - Marble Arch
390 Archway - York Way - King's Cross - Euston - Tottenham Court Road - Marble Arch (last day: 20 August)

Routemaster links:
Save the Routemaster
London Destruction (I love this site)
Routemaster 50th Anniversary celebrations
Routemaster Association
• Chat on the Routemaster Forum
• Last day of operation on the 15/11/23/94
Save the 73 - ban those bendy buses now!

 Wednesday, March 03, 2004

The Big Decision: London or Slough?
This is the most important decision being made in my life at the moment. Nuff said.

Which would you prefer? Check out the arguments below, then vote here.

Big Decision 3
London or Slough?

View final results
(pro) "London is one of the world's most popular and historic cities with a varied and exciting cosmopolitan culture, making it the ideal place to live and visit."
(con) "London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistably drained."
(pro) Less of a city, more of a nation - from Roman beginnings to potential Olympic future.
(con) Less of a home, more of a prison - nobody talks, nobody stops, nobody cares.
(pro) Created here: fashion, culture, news, money, decisions, history.
(con) Created here: crime, pollution, gridlock, overcrowding, poverty.
(pro) There's always another sight to see, place to visit, attraction to view, secret to uncover.
(con) When you've lived in London, somehow being expected to live anywhere else seems pointless.
(pro) Dr Johnson.

(pro) "Slough is a town close to West London. It's (sic) location and access to fast communication links are a key factor in the town's commercial success."
(con) "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn't fit for humans now, There isn't grass to graze a cow. Swarm over, Death!."
(pro) The town grew up along the Great Western Railway - now very convenient for the M4 and Heathrow Airport...
(con) ... but nearly two hours away from my house by rail, assuming the trains are running.
(pro) Created here: Mars bars, Thunderbirds, Britain's first trading estate, Cecil Aldin.
(con) Shifted here: Jag's company have just relocated him in beautiful Slough.
(pro) You can see Windsor Castle from Slough.
(con) You can see Slough from Windsor Castle.
(pro) David Brent.

The Big Answer: London (98%)

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