Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Britain's newest National Park: the New Forest East End

Dot Cotton, the Urban Affairs Minister, today announced her decision that the East End is to become a National Park. The new East End National Park will be the smallest in the country, covering just 20 square kilometres. This remote Cockney wilderness lies to the east of the City and contains some hills topping almost ten metres in height. Most of the area is covered by concrete, and new planning regulations will restrict the amount of green open space in order to preserve this urban blight for future generations. Scenic streams of sewage flow beneath the streets, while air pollution levels above ground are amongst the most outstanding in the country.

The East End National Park offers significant opportunities for outdoor public recreation, fully in line with the natural resouces of this unique location. Visitors are welcome to attend and take part in one of the following local cultural events:

Knees Up Mother Brown: Join a gang of pre-teen street robbers beating up local pensioners outside the post office.
Don’t Dilly Dally On The Way: Keep walking, don't turn round, that could be a mugger behind you.
The Old Bull & Bush: Come drink at the local boozer named after Anglo-American relations.
Show Me The Way To Go Home: Social group meets every night at 11:30pm outside the local pub, then 15 minutes later in the local gutter.
On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep: Final resting place of the pile of inebriated drunkards found previously in the gutter.
Boiled Beef N’Carrots: Nothing they serve up round here any more, but you can get a nice curry instead.
Underneath The Arches: Where to come for all the best drug deals, please bring cash.
Roll Out The Barrel: Leave your barrel in the street next to the supermarket trolley, the rotting sofa and the binbag full of used hypodermics.
Get Me To The Church On Time: Hop on the new bendy bus to Bow, assuming one ever turns up.
Daisy Daisy: Ride a bicycle made for two down the Mile End Road, taking care not to fall beneath the wheels of one of those bendy buses.
Any Old Iron: Bare knuckle fighting takes place round the back of the pie and mash shop every Thursday night.
My Old Man’s A Dustman: That's his cover story anyway. In real life he's heavily involved in a secret life of gangland crime and kneecapping.
Me And My Shadow: Canary Wharf wrecks TV reception for half the residents in the area.
The Lambeth Walk: Take a historic stroll to another nearby borough, only to discover that conditions there are even worse.
Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner: That I love living here despite all of the above.

 Sunday, June 27, 2004

Flaming June

The Olympic flame came to London yesterday for the first time since 1948. It rained, but that didn't extinguish the fire or dampen the watching public's enthusiasm. The Torch Relay organising committee had thoroughly enjoyed themselves putting together the programme for the day, including sections carrying the torch by taxi, riverboat, London bus, rowing eight and on horseback. But the main body of the journey was made up of 140 runners each running 400m, some famous, some worthy and some both. I decided to go and watch the torch arriving in my home borough of Tower Hamlets, just to see how my council tax was being spent, and then caught up with the flame again a few more times along the route.

Around 2pm I was part of a small crowd gathered on the slipway at the very foot of the Isle of Dogs. Teams of mercenaries from the two companies sponsoring the Torch Relay busied themselves amongst the spectators handing out numerous small flags for us to wave. A young lady from Samsung tried to thrust a blue flag into my hand, then seemed very hurt when I didn't want to be part of her evil marketing strategy. I turned down a pair of her giant blue inflatable icepops as well. The flame was late, although it was clear from the twirling acrobats hanging from the rigging of the Cutty Sark over the river that it had at least reached Greenwich. Fireworks heralded the launch of a fire-bearing riverboat whose captain showed off by spinning round several times in the middle of the Thames before heading straight towards us.

A grinning Kriss Akabusi disembarked from the boat and ran up the slipway holding the torch aloft, cheering almost as much as we were. And then he was gone, round the corner into Island Gardens where Tower Hamlets had 15 minutes of community entertainment laid on. Five lycra-clad girls performed gymnastics suspended from five coloured hoops, accompanied by ethnic drumming. It may have been symbolically blatant but at least it was cheap. Rather more of my council tax went up in smoke in the ensuing firework display, before various council dignitaries queued up for a lengthy photo opportunity with the flame. This eventually passed to one of the non-famous runners who set off through the crowds towards Docklands, preceded by police motorbikes, a bus full of torchbearers and more sponsored flag distributors.

I reached Canary Wharf in time to see the flame run past in the capable hands of top oarsman Matthew Pinsent. He set fire to a fountain in Cabot Square while a choir dressed in plastic raincoats sang Amazing Grace. Possibly too symbolic that one. Alas I was too slow getting to the Mile End Road to see the flame pass at its closest to the possible site of the Olympic Games in 2012, and to my house. I hope it doesn't rain like this in eight years time.

Never mind, my next chosen vantage point was City Hall where surely our Ken would put on a good show. I could see the flame crossing Tower Bridge, although I was rather too far away to see it was Gandalf carrying it. At City Hall I was prevented from entering the courtyard by a jobsworth security guard who demanded that I keep behind a line of bunting, despite the fact that half of London seemed to be standing on the other side. He was probably trying to keep me out of the path of the 93-year-old Sikh marathon runner who soon swept by. Thousands of Olympic-coloured balloons were released into the sky and the elderly athlete ran straight back down to the main road. The visit of the flame was all over and done in under a minute. Sorry, not impressed.

My final viewing attempt was along Oxford Street, a location where I seem to have spent far too much of my Saturday. I took up position behind the railings outside the exit from the tube station, surrounded by an ever increasing crowd of shoppers and eager families. The sponsored flag-givers were out in force again, as was the rain. We all got very wet waiting for the helicopters overhead to edge nearer, and for the snail's pace queue of ordinary buses to finally end. At last the proper torch-bearing London bus came along, but alas there was no sign of a flame on the open upper deck. Some spectators mumbled and cursed and prepared to slink away disheartened. But no, the torch was still on foot at this point, and there hidden directly behind a number 25 bendy bus came a smiling Roger Black. He stopped right beside me, as you can see, before dashing off to the other side of Oxford Circus where the flame finally ascended to its rightful place on the top deck of a red London icon.

Enough of fire-chasing. I was home in time to see the BBC pretending to show live what I'd just seen for real at Oxford Circus an hour earlier. And in time to see possibly the blandest pop concert ever to limp onto our TV screens, live from the Mall. Great idea, miserably executed. A handful of musical greats allowed to sing no more than two songs each and a bunch of pop wannabes lip-synching their latest hits to an audience too far away to even care. All that media hype for a televised concert lasting just 90 minutes, only half of which featured music, not even half of which was any good. I'm mighty glad I turned down the ticket that was offered to me, even if those present saw rather more acts than appeared on air. But, despite the weather, I'm more than glad I caught the Olympic flame passing through town. And I hope I'll see it again, just up the road, in 2012. In blazing sunshine.

 Saturday, June 26, 2004

Round the bend

The 25 is one of London's busiest bus routes (absolutely jam-packed it is, even on a Sunday afternoon), following a pretty much arrow-straight route from Ilford to Oxford Circus (via my house). 'Busy and straight' are the perfect conditions for a takeover by huge 18m-long bendy buses so, as of dawn this morning, the huge 18m-long bendy buses have taken over. Overnight the Mile End Road has been hijacked by road-hogging articulated vehicles that can't manouevre particularly well. There's more space inside than on the old double deckers but there are now fewer seats. Passengers have a choice of three doors to board through but they have to buy a ticket before boarding or else they get kicked off. It's all a bit scary. I've been out for a Saturday morning ride on these new urban monsters, just to see how they and the travelling public are coping, and initial reports are not good.

The 25 starts its ten mile journey into civilisation just opposite the Oxfam shop on Ilford High Street. I hopped on through the rear door, just for the novelty value, and perched on a raised seat near the bendy bit in the middle. The bus smelt like the inside of a freshly purchased new car, deceptively spacious but still clean and gleaming. Hydraulics tilt the bus slightly towards the pavement at each stop to increase accessibility, the bell rings with a satisfying non-artificial ding, and none of the on-board Oyster card readers beside the second and third doors are yet functional. It was clear that our driver wasn't used to driving a 60 foot snake, so he edged gingerly round the narrow bends on the Ilford one-way system. "You've just got to keep thinking thin," he said to the bus company operative keeping a careful eye on him.

At the second stop outside Ilford Library a young Asian lady tried to board without having bought a ticket. The driver sent her back to the machine on the pavement and kindly waited while she tried desperately to stick a pound in. "It's only a machine, you only got to put money it!" said our driver, helpfully. Except this machine wasn't working properly and it took ages for her to extricate a small piece of paper from the slot at the bottom. By the time a second passenger had gone through the same rigmarole we were already running four minutes late. The driver learnt his lesson and whenever ticketless passengers tried to board later in the journey he sent them packing and drove off without them.

The bus chugged on through Manor Park and Forest Gate, slowly filling up with Saturday morning shoppers. Soon all the seats were taken and it was standing room only, although nobody seemed to want to stand on the bend in the middle for some reason. Passengers hadn't quite got the hang of being allowed to board through all three doors and so most queued up at the front door, only to squeeze on and discover that most of the remaining space was right down at the back. It's a long and difficult walk down a crowded aisle full of strap-hangers, eventually an impossible one, and as we approached Stratford the bus soon became front-heavy. It wasn't the most pleasant travelling experience for those forced to stand.

All this waiting around while passengers try to board isn't helping the buses to run regularly. The 25 is supposed to run every 6-8 minutes but instead these bendy buses appear to be bunching up with big long gaps inbetween. They seem to be running in pairs most of the time, the second emptier bus too cumbersome to overtake the first. At one stage I saw no buses passing the other way for about quarter of an hour, then six buses all within two minutes. The photo below shows four 25s queued up outside Bow Church, like a solid wall of red approaching the flyover. The front bus was packed, the second busy and the rear two almost empty. What a way to run a service.

Along the route a number of Transport for London employees were standing around in special red baseball caps handing out leaflets, generally at the least busy bus stops. One of them poked her head in to ask the driver if he'd tried out his ramp yet. He hadn't. In fact our only semi-disabled passenger had boarded at the rampless front door then struggled to hobble on crutches down the gangway, muttering "'kin assholes" under his breath. Given the speed that the swish new electric doors slam shut I wouldn't be surprised if these buses create more wheelchair-bound passengers than they transport. A ticket inspector climbed aboard along the Whitechapel Road, failing to find anyone who'd sneaked on without paying. It won't last.

We sped through the City, always deserted at weekends, until we were diverted off down an awkward sidestreet behind St Paul's to avoid major roadworks. Our driver took it slowly and thought thin. Down Oxford Street we joined the usual bus-jam, our now half-empty juggernaut taking up vastly unnecessary roadspace. The Olympic torch would be passing this way later in the afternoon, holding up the traffic even more. At Oxford Circus we followed the new 25 route left into Regent Street (because these lumbering buses aren't very good at turning right) before pulling to a final stop outside John Lewis. It felt a very long way from the Oxfam shop in Ilford, and a very long way from the horse-drawn omnibuses that used to drive into London down the Mile End Road 150 years ago. I took the tube home - I fancied a seat.

 Friday, June 25, 2004

A brief history of public transport down the Mile End Road
(extended to cover the three miles from Aldgate through Whitechapel to my house in Bow)

12th century: The main road from London to Essex passes over the newly built Bow Bridge.
14th century: Small villages grow up along the road, including Mile End and Bow. Nobody has yet invented public transport.

17th century: Stagecoaches depart from coaching inns in Aldgate, each heading out weekly to various destinations in East Anglia. "The Waggons from Chelmsford in Essex come on Wednesdays to the sign of the Blue Boar without Aldgate."
18th century: More stagecoaches run to lots more towns, more often. "Harwich coach, Sarazen's Head Aldgate, Tuesday, Friday." "Barking coach, Three Nuns Whitechapel, every Day."
1837: Charles Dickens was a regular visitor to the Bell Inn in Whitechapel, and it was from here that he sent Mr Pickwick off on a coach journey to Ipswich (poor bloke) in the Pickwick Papers. "And away went the coach up Whitechapel, to the admiration of the whole population of that pretty densely populated quarter. `Not a very nice neighbourhood, this, Sir,` said Sam, with a touch of the hat. `It is not indeed, Sam,` replied Mr. Pickwick, surveying the crowded and filthy street through which they were passing."

mid 19th century: The first horse-drawn omnibuses thread the streets of the capital, run by the London General Omnibus Association. Route 3 (green) runs to Bow and Stratford "from Oxford Street: Regent Street, Charing Cross, Strand, Fleet Street, Cheapside, Bank, Whitechapel. Each omnibus requires 8 to 10 horses to work it. To be readily distinguishable, vehicles are painted in conspicuous colours, and have upon each their destination, and the names of the more important streets in their route."

late 19th century: Horse-drawn trams arrive in London in 1870, and the second route to open runs between Aldgate and Stratford. The tramlines pass either side of Bow Church - photos here. "Colour, Blue. —Route— Whitechapel, Mile-end-rd, Bow, and Stratford-high-st. From Aldgate every 4 minutes from 6.40 a.m. to 12 midnight. From Stratford every 4 minutes from 6 am. to 11.5 p.m. Fares—to Bow Station, 2d. All the way, 3d. Outside, 2d. any distance."

1900-1930: Electric trams and motorbuses gradually replace horse-drawn transport. Bow Garage opens as a tramshed in 1908. Tram route 63 runs from Aldgate to Mile End, Bow, Stratford, Forest Gate and Ilford - photo here.
1931-1958: Trolleybuses and more motorbuses gradually replace trams. Bow Garage is converted to trolleybuses in 1938. Trolleybus route 663 runs from Aldgate to Mile End, Bow, Stratford, Forest Gate and Ilford - photos here. Other trolleybuses down the Mile End Road are the 661 and 695, and buses include the 10, 25, and 96 (withdrawn 1958).
1959: The last trolleybus down the Mile End Road runs on 4 August 1959, to be replaced by bus route 26 and additional Routemasters on route 25. Bow Garage is converted to motorbuses only.

1966: The 26 is withdrawn, leaving just the 10 and the 25, plus new nightbus N98 (Victoria to Ilford).
1988: The 10 is withdrawn, and the one remaining bus route down the Mile End Road (the 25) loses all its Routemasters. Bit grim.
25 June 2004: Today is the last day of double decker service down the Mile End Road, ending about 150 years of history.
26 June 2004: The arrival of the dreaded bendy buses on route 25. Report tomorrow.

 Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Classic Cafes - London's greatest vintage Formica caffs, for that perfect dining experience. Fab.
Hackney Lookout - newish blog from the streets of a godforsaken London borough. Fab.
alwaystouchout - a complete list of all London's impending transport projects. Fab.
Honestly I'm Sober - beautifully redesigned blog, written by a Gooner too. Fab.
Geofftech - new iPod owner, and holder of tube-station-visiting record. Fab.

 Monday, June 21, 2004

Random borough: Islington

It's been three months since I last took a random trip to one of London's 33 boroughs, so yesterday I thought it was about time to take another one. I had nothing special planned to do so I dipped into my jamjar full of folded slips of paper again and picked out another random London borough. Could have been anywhere - north, south, east or west - anywhere except Merton which I picked out last time. And that's how I ended up in northeast London in the randomly selected borough of Islington. I could have ended up somewhere a lot worse, I guess. I gave myself an hour to research the borough on the internet, then spent the afternoon wandering around the place. And yes, I did get very wet in the process. Here's my report.

Somewhere special: London Architecture Biennale
London has some fantastic architecture, and this week the streets of Clerkenwell are hosting the very first celebration of London's architectural fantasticness. It's all part of Architecture Week 2004, a national excuse to go out and look at nice buildings. Pictured right is the Farmiloes building, until 5 years ago the headquarters of a Victorian lead & glass merchants but currently headquarters to the ridiculously-named Biennale exhibition. Inside I found a fascinating mix of old and new, including an atmospheric 'collection of splendid artworks' in the company's dark cluttered offices, and details of redevelopment plans for a number of new capital projects. Enough to keep me busy while the rain beat down on the grassy road outside (there's not normally turf in the street but on Saturday they drove a herd of cows down here - it's that sort of festival). There are still another seven days for you to catch the exhibition or one of the many Clerkenwell events, and I'd recommend a visit if you're in the area.
by tube: Farringdon/Barbican

Somewhere famous: 1 Richmond Crescent
Somewhere infamous: 25 Noel Road

Here are two three-storey Islington townhouses each with a very different history. The first is tucked away in a leafy corner of Barnsbury, a prime residential location and once home to our current Prime Minister. Tony Blair moved here with his family back in 1992 when he was a mere shadow Home Secretary, and the Granita restaurant where he thrashed out ambitious leadership plans with Gordon Brown was just down the road. Five years later Tony moved into Downing Street and sold up here making a tidy profit. The house today looks quiet and spacious, although there isn't a plaque on the front because Mr Blair isn't dead yet. Merely wounded. There is a plaque on the second floor of the other house because its most famous occupant is very dead indeed. Joe Orton and his boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell moved here in 1959 and kept themselves busy by defacing the books in the local library. Joe became a really famous playwright in the mid 60s ('Loot', 'Entertaining Mr Sloane', etc) but his success merely caused Halliwell to get jealous and depressed. One morning in August 1967 Ken smashed Joe's skull open with a hammer, like you do, before taking an overdose himself. Joe had kept a candid diary which was later turned into a highly readable book - Prick Up Your Ears - the film of which was shot in this very flat.
by tube: Angel

Somewhere historic: Canonbury Tower
Canonbury Tower was built by William Bolton, a 16th century nutter who believed the world was going to flood and stocked his new tower with enough food to last him two months just in case. I suspect he may have been five centuries too early. In 1616 Sir Francis Bacon moved in, a genius who was definitely Lord Chancellor, probably had a legitimate claim to the throne and possibly wrote the entire works of Shakespeare. Or probably not. Other famous authors to have lodged here include the Irishman Oliver Goldsmith and the American Washington Irving (he wrote Rip Van Winkle, don't you know). 1952 saw the setting-up in the grounds of the Tower Theatre, the only fully licensed non-professional theatre in London, but they moved out last year and the building looks rather rundown already. The main tower building is home today to a Masonic Research Centre and the grassy lawn outside was home yesterday to a rather damp-looking garden party. Hope they rolled their trousers up.
by tube: Highbury & Islington

Somewhere pretty: London Metropolitan University Graduate Centre
The Holloway road is a grim grey artery filled with traffic pollution and lined by non-descript retail outlets. It comes as quite a shock, therefore, to see this startling spiky silver building looming up halfway along the northern side. This is the latest project for architectural megastar Daniel Libeskind, designer of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, and recent winner of the competition to redesign the World Trade Center site in New York. His 3-month-old Graduate Centre for the London Metropolitan University may not be terribly big on the inside but it's having a great impact on the neighbourhood outside. Anything has to be better than the faceless concrete towers of the original main university buildings, which hopefully nobody will ever notice again now that there's far something better to stare at.
by tube: Holloway Road

Somewhere Big Brother: 27B Canonbury Square
This is a picture of the very first Big Brother House, tucked away in the southeast corner of Canonbury Square. You're looking for the ground floor flat with the faint green disc to the right of the door - a tiny plaque to show where it really all began. This is also another Islington house lived in by Mr Blair, although in this case we're talking Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. Sixty years ago Canonbury Square wasn't the prestigious address it is now, and when Orwell moved into this rundown apartment in 1945 he was inspired by its imposing shabbiness. It was here that he started to write his classic satire Nineteen Eighty Four, basing Winston Smith's home 'Victory Mansions' on this very flat. It all looks much more upmarket these days, but listen carefully outside and you can still hear the clocks striking thirteen.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about forty-five, with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs. It was no use trying the lift. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.
Somewhere retail: Camden Passage
I've spent far too much of my life being dragged round antique shops. Dank musty emporia stacked high with useless objects, the sort of stuff your gran used to have before she threw it all away in favour of something modern that actually worked. Rusty metal picture frames, wooden tables with deep authentic scratches, a selection of hideous porcelain voodoo dolls, all for sale at vastly inflated prices. If you have a penchant for antique shops then there's no greater concentration anywhere in the country than in Camden Passage, a maze of narrow lanes off Upper Street. Just don't go on a Sunday like I did because they're (almost) all closed. Upper Street itself is full of more modern boutiques selling equally overpriced must-have items, interspersed with a frighteningly large number of places to eat and drink. Halfway up you'll also find legendary estate agent Hotblack Desiato, the name used by local resident Douglas Adams for the lead singer of rock band Disaster Area in the HitchHiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
by tube: Angel

Somewhere sporty: Highbury
Few major sporting stadia are tucked away in the middle of respectable suburbia quite like this, but Arsenal's home ground lurks almost unnoticed amongst the quiet residential streets of Highbury. That is until you turn into Avenell Road and see the huge Art Deco facade of the East Stand looming up over the local neighbourhood. Forget Old Trafford, Anfield and other lesser arenas, this is the true field of dreams. Well I think so anyway. It did feel strange to stand here on a crowd-free non-match day with the streets deserted, although that may have been the fault of the drenching rainstorm playing out overhead at the time. Alas in a couple of years it'll always be this quiet round here as a brand new Arsenal Stadium is due to open just over the railway at Ashburton Grove. I'm sure it'll be state-of-the-art, but the thought of new housing going up around the old pitch feels somehow sacrilegious. Seaman Street, Wenger Way, Rice Road and Double Drive anyone? I'm sure you can come up with better.
by tube: Arsenal

Somewhere random: Zoffany Road
This final photograph shows the ultimate London address. Oh yes. Turn to the very end of the index at the back of the London A-Z and there you'll find Zoffany Road, a tiny residential street nestling deep in Upper Holloway, N19. It's not even 100 yards long, containing six trees, two streetlamps, one new car, 21 old cars, and one abandoned brown armchair decaying quietly on the pavement. The north side of the road is taken up by the concrete playground of a centre for children with special needs. It's hideous on the outside but no doubt inspirational on the inside, and the site has recently been rescued from evil property developers. On the opposite side of the road you'll find a single terrace of eight identical and very ordinary houses. The residents do normal things like getting in their cars and driving to the shops or popping out in the middle of a thunderstorm to drop bulging binbags outside their front door. Wonderfully average. Unlike the other eight places I visited on my random day out, this is where the real residents of Islington live.
by tube: Archway

 Saturday, June 19, 2004

Home is where the Art is

Loyd Grossman was down my way yesterday evening. He was reopening the Bow Arts Trust, a huge studio space for 90 local artists carved out of an old nunnery. Yes, nunnery. We have proper history round where I live, remember? The front of the studio building used to be a drab slab of rundown Victorian brickwork. Not any more. A precisely constructed array of jet black planks has given the front of the building a striking new look, while a series of glowing fluorescent tubes now dangle over the lane down the side. Just a few thousand pounds of carefully placed design work has given a real lift to the street on which I live.

The Bow Arts Trust throws its doors open for one weekend every June for an 'Open Studios' event. We local residents were specially invited to last night's 'Private View', mainly so we didn't complain too loudly about the racket a guitar band was going to make in the courtyard until midnight. I missed seeing Loyd open proceedings in the Nunnery gallery, which was probably just as well, but I took the opportunity to look round the premises all the same. There were artists tucked into every cranny of that old building, lurking behind plasterboard partitions and hidden up rickety staircases in attic rooms. A swarm of Hoxtonites swept through the exhibition like locusts, fags and lager in hand, devouring each installation with faint praise.

I was able to see what entry-level modern art looks like, from sculpture to photography to drawing to glasswork to stonemasonry to mysterious twirly plastic phallic objects drooping from the wall. And paintings too, lots of them, some beautiful, some bland, some clever, some featureless, some inspiring, some slapdash, some devotional, and some so dull that even I could have painted them. Wish I had actually, there was an £850 price tag on one of the really poor ones. But I was impressed by much that I saw. Joseph Joy's portraits had an appealing simplicity and Anniken Amundsen's textile jellyfish floated my boat. Praise too for Mark Brogan's physical installations and Jonty Lees' turntable spirals. I was very much taken by Danny Cuming's bold graphic art and Zoe Marsden's contoured cartography. And I was enthralled by Tanya Millard's photographic montage showing every London bus from 1 to 100 arranged in ten rows of ten (photo here), but then I would be wouldn't I?

The relaunch of the Bow Arts Trust heralds the beginning of the development of an 'arts hub' round where I live, apparently. Bow Church is already floodlit and hosts the occasional arty show. And now, I kid you not, there are plans to restore the dilapidated Victorian public toilets on the traffic island outside the church and open them up as an exhibition space. Those toilets have been chained up for years, the original "terrazzo floors, glazed tiles and carved architraves" decaying slowly beneath the pavement. Soon there could be a Turner-nominated artist installing a mini-gallery among the urinals. I look forward to attending the opening night. And so close to my house too - imagine the convenience.

 Sunday, June 13, 2004

v1 no1Battlefield Europe: Sixty years ago today the first V1 rocket fell on London, landing less than a mile from my house. It was 4:25am on a Tuesday morning, exactly one week after D-Day, and nobody in Mile End was prepared for two thousand pounds of explosives to fall suddenly from the sky onto a row of sleeping houses. A new terrifying era of airborne bombardment had begun. 200 people were left homeless, 30 were seriously injured and 6 were killed, including teenage mother Ellen and her 8-month-old baby Tom. The flying bomb was Hitler's latest deadly weapon, fired from occupied France, aimed at London and dropping randomly from the sky onto an unsuspecting target. Another 2500 V1s would hit the capital that summer, with many more falling short across Kent, and hundreds of civilians would die. No world leaders are expected to gather by the railway bridge in Grove Road for a service of remembrance today, just a crowd of drunken football fans hoping that a very different French threat will be silenced.

 Saturday, June 12, 2004

Bow Road update: It's been four months now since the first blue wall appeared at Bow Road tube station as part of a major infrastructure regeneration project. Four months during which the station has been overrun with blue walls and safety notices, even if nobody yet appears to have done any actual redevelopment work. I thought you might like to see one of these legendary blue walls, given that I've been going on about them for so long. So here's one.

This is the shorter blue wall on the eastbound platform. It's fairly typical of the five blue walls on the platforms, blocking off half the previous width for waiting passengers. Above the wall there's a long metal grille, with a silvery sheet hanging down behind and a couple of green cylindrical loudspeakers spaced out along the top. And across the front of the wall there's a whole array of 'essential' safety notices. From left to right...

• We apologise for any inconvenience caused (I suspect they should be apologising for the lack of work)
• Tube map (this map opens up after 10pm so that a giant 'Station closed' sign can be displayed to passing trains)
• No smoking (not that you've been allowed to smoke on the underground for the last 15 years anyway)
• Storage licence (permission to erect a hoarding here until March next year, signed by somebody official)
• Poster (it's a London Underground poster, presumably because nobody else wanted to buy the space)
• Fire Point (just in case you can't spot the big red fire extinguisher underneath)
• Bow Road (it's about half the size of the original station name roundel behind the wall)
• ← Way Out (just in case you can't spot the stairs ten yards to the left)
• ← Bow Church DLR Station (what they don't tell you is how long a walk it is)
• Safety helmets and safety footwear must be worn (I've never seen a single person on the platform complying with this instruction)
• two small white stickers awaiting two more signs to be affixed over the top, namely...
    • Fire exit - keep clear
    • No unauthorised persons allowed past this point

• Caution: Site Entrance (optimistic usage of the word 'site' there)

One day, honest, I'll come back and show you how lovely the newly refurbished station looks. In the meantime, catch up on the daily Health and Safety update in the comments box.

 Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Screen 3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (PG)

In March last year I was wandering home through Southwark late at night, as you do, when I noticed a film crew busy outside Borough Market. Giant lamps illuminated the street while a crowd of hangers on were busy milling around outside the Market Porter pub. Strange, I thought, I wonder what they're filming? I should have checked here a few days later. But I know now. They were filming three seconds of the latest Harry Potter movie. It's the three seconds just before Harry enters the Leaky Cauldron and just after he steps off the purple triple-decker Routemaster (oh and Matt, there are two Titans in the film too a few seconds earlier). All that effort for just a tiny slice of celluloid magic.

I remain one of the few people on the planet never to have read a Harry Potter book. That means you have two books left to read, but I still have four films left to watch. Yesterday I went to watch the third, having very carefully selected a schoolday afternoon on the hottest day of the year to ensure 2½ hours of child-free air conditioning. Good choice.

I may not have read the books but I can spot a pattern. Chaos at Privet Drive. Visit to Secret London. Ride on Train. New teachers. Threat. Christmas. Quidditch. Evil beasts. Injured friend. Discovery of Secret Passage. Revelation. Magic. Happy Ending. The latest film may follow the formula precisely but thankfully it was very watchable. The outstanding special effects made me believe completely in J K Rowling's bewitching Famous Five world, and even Hermione gets a decent look-in this time. The plot sails along, with a time travel twist in the last hour rather better than Star Trek usually manages. And I'm looking forward to the next one already. I wonder where they're filming it...

Things to do in London
• Last Friday, a (very) full report on Bow's Routemaster farewell on Matt's London Bus Page.
• After work this evening, any commuters fancy going dancing?
• Next month, stalk your mobile prey on the streets of East London, with water pistols.
• Any time, listen to the gossip on the tube.
• Tomorrow, vote.

 Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Transit of Venus: as it happens

06:19 There hasn't been a Transit of Venus for 121½ years.
06:20 Hang on, yes there has.
06:21 Just for once the sky above London is blue and virtually cloudless. Perfect.
06:25 Breakfast TV is showing live pictures with a tiny bite taken out of the left-hand edge of the Sun.
06:32 More than half of Venus is now visible on the solar disc...
06:40 ..and now all of Venus is on board. No sign of the notorious 'black drop effect' (a blurry edge where the shadow of Venus merges with the edge of the Sun)
06:50 Venus is well on its way on this rarest of journeys, with just over five hours until it reaches the opposite edge of the Sun.
07:25 My first attempt to view the transit. I'm off outside with the special viewing glasses I got for the 1999 solar eclipse.
07:50 No luck. A perfect view of the Sun, but my naked eye couldn't quite make out a tiny Venus-sized spot. I tried to convince myself that the Sun was slightly darker in the bottom left corner but I saw nothing conclusive. I do look very fetching in luminous orange cardboard spectacles though (and please don't try this without).
08:25 My second attempt to view the transit. I'm off outside with the two bits of cardboard to try to make a pinhole camera.
08:40 No good at all. Can't focus the image.
08:45 The BBC are reporting live from the Greenwich observatory. Various D-list celebrities (including the legendary Jon Tickle) are viewing the transit using some rather more impressive kit.
09:00 My third attempt to view the transit. I'm off outside with a pair of binoculars (one eyepiece blocked off) and a piece of card to project the image onto.
09:10 No good either. I did manage to project a circle of light onto the card but I suspect the dots I saw were specks of dust on the lens, not a passing planet.
09:22 Exactly halfway through now.
09:30 I tried my solar glasses again and... success! There's a little black spot on the Sun today. It's very small but it's most definitely there, just up from the bottom and slightly to the right. Absolutely insignificant, and absolutely fantastic.
10:10 I'm heading off to Greenwich to see what I can see from there...

11:15 Greenwich Observatory is heaving with people, telescopes and TV crews. Amateur astronomers have gathered in the courtyard to view the transit using a variety of instruments, and the public are queueing up to take a look through the various eyepieces. There are free solar specs for all, and classes of children on very special school trips are gawping heavenward. Adam Hart-Davis is pre-recording chunks of tonight's TV programme from a fenced-off area by the car park.
11:30 I look into a proper telescope and see a perfect black circle silhouetted against the surface of the Sun. Wow.
11:55 I'm now looking into my third telescope, the Flamsteed Society's special 'Coronado'. Venus is very close to the edge of the solar disc, its image appearing inverted to the top left of the eyepiece. To the left right I can also see a giant orange flare burning off the side of the Sun.
12:04 Venus touches the edge of the Sun - third contact. I'm watching the planet's wobbly shadow projected inside a special cardboard box called a Solarscope. And the photo to the right is my contribution to international astronomy.
12:16 My last look into a telescope, with Venus now just a tiny semi-circular bite out of the edge of the Sun.
12:21 Watch the shadow disappear on the Solarscope. Is it still there? I think so.
12:23 No, it's gone. A cheer goes up from the assembled astronomers.
12:24 And that was it, the transit is over. Viewing conditions could hardly have been better, and it's been a memorable experience for all present and everyone else watching around the world. View some pictures of the transit of Venus here. Your next chance to see one will be on 6 June 2012, but from the UK you'll only see the final moments low in the sky just before dawn. Today's shadow play, I have to say, was a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.

 Saturday, June 05, 2004

Last Routemaster to Bow (Friday 4th June, 2315-0025)

Typical, you wait decades for the final number 8 Routemaster and then five come along at once. Late last night these five fine vehicles were lined up alongside Victoria station - three red buses, a green one and a white one. A surprisingly large crowd of enthusiasts had gathered to say their farewells and to take one last ride home (so it was just as well there were five buses available). The very last bus in the queue was RML 2760 (the very last Routemaster to be built), chugging away proudly with a Union Jack draped over the bonnet. This was the bus everyone wanted to be aboard, and the conductress had to hold the waiting mob of travellers at bay as if they were eager teenagers waiting to board a coach on a school trip.

I grabbed a window seat on the upper deck as the bus filled up with 'people who ride buses'. The bloke who sat next to me had NHS specs and the faint whiff of body odour, but I'd hate you to think everyone on board was like that. There were serial bus addicts who spent the journey testing each other out on which route ran where, there were friends who only seem to meet up on 'last runs', there were a couple of wives enjoying a double decker Friday night out with their menfolk and there were a few of the shy silent type who just sat and watched. Average age about 40, I would reckon, which is younger than I was expecting. Two blokes regaled us with bawdy songs and the odd lewd comment, a bit like being aboard a rugby club tour bus. One young afro-coiffed lad had even brought along a giant corkboard on which he had written 'Farewell No 8 Routemasters', but alas it was too big to hold up to the windows.

Ding ding. The last journey began. We set off through the illuminated streets of nighttime London, round Hyde Park Corner, up Piccadilly and through the backstreets of Mayfair. A man walked up the stairs carrying a film camera complete with giant furry microphone - the BBC were on board! He took a shot of the giant corkboard (so it wasn't entirely wasted) and pointed his camera in various people's faces (thankfully not mine). A journalist interviewed a few of the travellers, except they seemed more intent on discussing technical operational niceties rather than uttering the magic words "they're a London icon aren't they, we'll miss 'em".

Along Oxford Street the Friday night crowds waiting for their transport home were a bit cheesed off when our packed double decker sailed by without stopping. The bus was three-quarters of an hour late already and some of the on-board enthusiasts were grumbling that they were going to miss their last train home. "I wish they'd finished earlier," said one, oblivious to the irony of his statement. Some succumbed and alighted early to grab a final tube connection, allowing space for a handful of surprised Friday night revellers to take their seat aboard history. We sped past Centre Point, St Paul's and the Bank of England on this final express service to Bow. Just after midnight we passed Liverpool Street, the very last Routemaster to exit the City of London on a scheduled service. Some of us enjoyed the view, others enjoyed the upper deck social club and the BBC crew just slouched on the stairs. Bethnal Green, Roman Road, Bow Church, my house. End of the line.

Nobody wanted to be the first off the bus, mainly because the BBC cameraman was training his lens at all those filing down the stairs. The previous four buses had already disgorged their passengers and a crowd had gathered at the bottom of Fairfield Road to fire flashbulbs at the final double decker. There were still the last few yards into Bow Garage to be negotiated, and a traffic jam of vintage vehicles, current services, taxis and Smart cars had to be cleared from the narrow roadway before this could happen. The driver paused before turning into the garage so that the 200-strong crowd could attempt one last photograph. Only the crew and the BBC team were still on board as he finally disappeared inside the garage (moral: if you want to be part of history, get a job reporting it). The massed multitudes were eventually permitted a five minute photocall inside the garage - a giant shed filled by buses packed tight like loaves of bread in a baker's tray. The BBC were busy interviewing the driver and conductress, and grabbing more shots of us. I managed to capture one last decent photo, and then we were all sent back outside. Some of the old Routemasters were already heading out of the building on the way to their new owners. Slowly the crowd dispersed, ready to meet again in West London when the 7s lose their Routemasters next month.

This morning there are no crowds in Fairfield Road because there are no buses worth seeing. A steady stream of red boxy Tridents trickles out of Bow Garage every 7 minutes, and nobody's interested in the number 8 any more. It's just one more anonymous bus route traversing the capital, 40 years of historic Routemaster service lost overnight. It's hard to imagine anyone ever getting quite so worked up over these new buses. Having said that, the red boxy Tridents that go past my house on route 25 are due to be replaced by huge long bendy buses before the end of this month, and I shall certainly miss them when the only alternative is standing inside a characterless wheelchair-accessible box on wheels, packed in like cattle. But it's the Routemaster that will forever hold a special place in the heart of London. Ever had the feeling that progress is moving relentlessly in the wrong direction?


I've never had groupies massing outside my house before. There were scores of them yesterday, hanging around on the steps beside the takeaway, skulking outside Bow Church gates and lurking on the traffic island by the disused public conveniences. But they weren't here to see some famous celebrity, they were here to bid farewell to the Routemaster bus in east London. Yesterday was the very last day that these much-loved red workhorses were to be used on route 8 between Bow and Victoria. And what a show the local bus garage put on, with lots of extra old buses scheduled alongside the usual service. Enthusiasts came to ride, to photograph and just to experience this omnibus extravaganza. Some even bought commemorative t-shirts, mugs and yo-yos from the makeshift stall outside Bow Garage, but I resisted.

I stood at my local bus stop for over an hour waiting for a number 8 to come along. Actually loads of number 8s came along, just not the number 8 I was waiting for. The general travelling public hopped on the first bus that turned up (approx every 6 minutes), the assembled bus fans climbed on the first antique that turned up (approx every 20 minutes), but I hung on. The young conductor who'd checked my ticket earlier in the week wandered past on his way down to McDonalds for lunch. He'll probably be out of a job tomorrow. A traditional East End funeral dray crept past, which seemed kind of appropriate.

Finally I boarded RM1 (pictured right) - the very first Routemaster to be built, exactly 50 years ago. It'll form the centrepiece of the Routemaster's Golden Jubilee celebrations in Finsbury Park next month, should you be tempted to attend. Three stops along the route, at an obscure request stop in Old Ford, a phalanx of 16 photographers were waiting to take our picture. A series of classic buses trundled past in the opposite direction, surprisingly full for a Friday afternoon (did everyone else take the day off work too?). There may be quicker ways to get to central London, but few ways are more fun. And there can't be many 50 year-old vehicles that could still earn a day's living in heavy London traffic, so it's all the sadder that these fine machines are being taken off the road for politically correct reasons. Make the most of the remaining Routemasters while you can, because one day they'll be confined to a twee heritage route for tourists, probably charging £9.50 a ticket. Yesterday that heritage came for a quid. Priceless.

Routemaster links
Inspector Sands also took a ride on the 8 (with great photos)
Routemaster Association
Save the Routemaster
Tons of Routemaster photos
London Bus Page (for the latest on the the 8 farewell)
Routemaster Forum (where the bus spotters chat)

Remaining Routemasters
Going soon: 7 (2 July), 137 (9 July), 9 (3 Sept), 390 (3 Sept), 73 (Sept?), 12 (Dec?)
Hanging on: 13, 14, 19, 22, 36, 38, 159

 Friday, June 04, 2004


Today is the very last day that Routemasters will run in east London. Tonight, just before midnight, the final route 8 Routemaster will arrive home at Bow Garage, the end of a small red chunk of London's history.

Stagecoach have been running special old buses on route 8 all week (full details at the London Bus Page), just to make up for the fact that from next week there will be no special buses running on the route at all. I took the opportunity to ride RT3871 (pictured below) all the way from Bow to Victoria, just because I could. There were 10 of us waiting at the first bus stop, including two people with wheelie suitcases and a shellsuited couple with a pink baby in a giant three-wheeler pushchair. "I'm sorry, you'll have to wait for the next one," said the conductor as he left these five unfortunates and their oversized contraptions behind. It was, alas, a timely reminder of why these inaccessible Routemasters are finally being phased out.

I sat back in my comfortable non-plastic seat and enjoyed the view from the top deck. Ah the luxury of the Routemaster - blessed with wooden decking long before it became fashionable. The conductor soon bounded up the corner staircase to issue authentic paper tickets from the old wind-up machine slung round his neck. Passengers hopped on and off between stops, which may not have had the blessing of the Health and Safety Executive but it was certainly damned convenient. Other bus drivers, allocated the lesser job of driving some characterless new red cuboid, waved at our driver with unconcealed jealousy. Occasionally passers by (all male) would stop and look twice at our bus, registering that it looked slightly out of place in modern London. One smiling pensioner stood motionless clutching a copy of the Times behind his back, paying his last respects as we passed by.

I've made this journey many times before (see my Cube Routes feature, for example) but this occasion was different - the bus spotters were out in force. They were busy spotting my bus, so I kept myself busy spotting them. There was a bloke with a tripod photographing at the very first stop and another standing on some steps in Houndsditch with his camera at the ready. Two spotters had set up camp on a traffic island outside City Thameslink station and someone else was carefully positioned outside Sainsburys Local in Oxford Street with a giant swivelling lens. One passenger suddenly hopped off halfway down Old Bond Street to grab a couple of shots as we waited at traffic lights, and a keen snapper stepped out into the road as we sped round Hyde Park Corner. But the biggest welcome came as we pulled into Victoria Bus Station to be met by a posse of eight Routemaster paparazzi. The driver slowed down and posed for the cameras, like a slightly-surprised 60s pop star, before turning round and heading back to Bow (where I also spotted a film crew). And all this before the last day.

Only about ten or so route 8 Routemasters have survived until the last day of operation. A large proportion of the replacement red Trident double deckers have arrived early, diluting the service with impostors. But there's a final last show of strength from the old guard today, with no less then fifteen extra old buses plying between Bow and Victoria in addition to the usual service. I suspect most of the commuting public won't quite believe their eyes when some random ancient workhorse arrives at their bus stop, but I hope they'll enjoy the ride all the same. I wonder if there'll be any spare seats on tonight's very last Routemaster (leaving Victoria 22:45), riding the gauntlet of flashbulbs in advance of one final procession into Bow Garage. Report tomorrow.

Heard on the 8:
"It's much better than the newer ones"
"This is what makes London London"
"Doesn't look past its sell by date to me"
"Stand off the platform please love"

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