Thursday, July 29, 2004

Something old, something new, something Bow Road, something blue

Bow Road station is old, 102 years old to be accurate. Bow Road Station is new, or at least it will be if the current renovation work ever finishes begins. Bow Road is my local station, so I'm getting a little annoyed by it not being open all the time for no obvious reason. And Bow Road is blue, because almost every available surface has been covered by a protective blue wall.

There are eight blue walls at Bow Road station in total - two outside on the pavement, one in the ticket hall, three on the westbound platform and two on the eastbound platform. They vary in size from 'really quite short' to 'longer than a train'. And every single one of them has been covered with signage by some Transport for London safety operative with an obsession for risk assessment. Honestly, you'd think Bow Road station was the most dangerous place in the world given the number of safety signs that have been erected over the last six months. No matter that ordinary stations can get by with just a handful. And no matter that no obvious work seems to be going on to justify the enormous additional signage tally (nearly 200 at latest count).

Yesterday that tally increased. Three enormous new signs appeared, each on a different blue wall and spaced out along the platforms. Each sign is made up of 6 or 7 panels, each about two metres high and half a metre wide. Most of the panels depict big bold representations of hammers, screwdrivers and other construction tools, all made out of tube line graphics. Two of the panels namecheck 'Transport For London', to whom we the lucky passengers of Bow Road should be eternally grateful. And one board outlines all the good new things that are coming to pass at our station, like the installation of more seats (probably to replace the seats they took away when the blue walls were first erected). The bad news is that, apparently, work at Bow Road is due to continue until July 2005, nine months later than originally planned, so you're lumbered with my regular renovation updates for another year at least. Oh joy.

So today I thought I'd treat you to an obsessive list of all the signs and items of associated safetyware to be found on the blue walls of Bow Road station. Because I can. Because it gobsmacks me. And because nobody arrested me while I was recording it.

Key: [ad] London Underground advert, [adf] London Underground advert frame, [ap] Assembly point, [aph] Auto phone, [bc] directions to Bow Church DLR station, [BR] Bow Road roundel, [cse] Caution Site Entrance, [dv] All drivers and visitors must report to the site office, [fa] Fire Alarm, [fe] Fire Escape Keep Clear, [fp] Fire Point (with extinguisher), [fx] Fire Exit Keep Clear, [g] big bold graphic, [int] intercom, [map] London Underground map, [ns] No Smoking, [nu] No unauthorised persons admitted beyond this point, [o] orange safety light, [ru] renovation update, [sc] Surveillance cameras in constant operation, [sf] Safety helmets and safety footwear must be worn, [sh] Safety helmets must be worn, [sl] Storage licence, [slf] Storage licence frame, [so] Site office, [SS] Site Safety instructions, [sap] SAP, [tp] list of ticket prices, [wa] We apologise for any inconvenience caused, [TfL] Transport for London, [wo] Way Out, [wp] shabby word-processed message to site contractors, <doorway>, / corner.
n.b. Signs not yet erected, but whose eventual presence is indicated by a small white rectangular sticker, are shown in round brackets.
n.b. All signs are listed from left to right, and from top to bottom.

Blue wall 1: Pavement, left of station entrance
[fx] <[fe][fe]> [o] [o][adf] [o] [adf] [o][adf] [o][ad] / [o][ns]

Blue wall 2: Pavement, right of station entrance (see photo above)
[o] [ad] [adf] [o] [o] [o] [sc][wa][dv][sf] [o] [o] / [o][so→] [o] [o][sl] [o] [o] / [o] [dv][sf][SS][ap][sap] <[fx][nu]> [wp]

Blue wall 3: Ticket hall, eastern wall
[sl][ns][ad] <(fx)(nu)(cse)> [tp](sh)(adf) / (wa)

Blue wall 4: Westbound platform, eastern wall
<(cse)[sh]> [sh] [sl] [TfL][g][g][g][g][ru][TfL] [bc][wo→] (we) [sh] <(fx)(nu)>

Blue wall 5: Westbound platform, middle wall (east of stairs)
[bc][wo→] [BR] [sl] [sc][sh] <[cse](fx)(nu)> [int] [ad] [ns] [ad] [wa] [fa]

Blue wall 6: Westbound platform, western wall (west of stairs)
[map] <[fx][nu][cse]> (sf)[sl] [ad] [ad] [bc][wo←] [ad] [ad] [BR] [map] [ad] [ns] [ad] [sc][wa] [TfL][g][g][g][ru][TfL] [bc][wo←] [ns][fa] [bc][wo←] [BR] [ad] [ns] [ad] [sl] <[fx][nu][cse] [sh]> [ad] <[fx][nua]> [ns] [bc][wo←] [ns] (sh) [bc][wo←] [BR] (wa)(sh) <[fx][nu](cse)> [ns] [BR] [bc][wo←] [fa] [sl] [ns] [wa] [bc][wo←] [BR] [ns] [aph]

Blue wall 7: Eastbound platform, western wall (west of stairs)
[sf] <[fx][nu][cse]> [slf][sh][sl] [ns] [bc][wo→] [ns][fa] [ns] <[sh][fx][nu][cse]> [ns] [BR] [ns] [bc][wo→] [wa] [BR] [wa][fa] [bc][wo→] [TfL][g][g][g][g][ru][TfL] [sl] [ns] [BR] [ns] [bc][wo→] [ad] [ad] [ns] [ad] [map] [wa][sc] [BR] [ad] [ad] [ad] [ns] [adf] [ad] [bc][wo→] [sl] [nu][fx][cse] <[sf]>[ad]

Blue wall 8: Eastbound platform, eastern wall (see photo above)
[wa] [map] [ns][sl] [ad][fp] [BR] [bc][wo←] [sh] <(fx)(nu)[cse]> [int]

 Monday, July 26, 2004

Routemaster 50

London's favourite bus is 50 years old this year, and to celebrate there was a grand gathering of Routemasters in Finsbury Park over the weekend. Lots of them. And crowds of bus enthusiasts came along to admire them all too. It's not every day you see 75 buses all lined up in a row (except perhaps down Oxford Street in the rush hour) so this was a rare photo opportunity not to be missed. And it was free, and it only rained for a few minutes. See the official website here, Inspector Sands' write-up here and Matt's photo report covering both days here.

The line of Routemasters stretched down the hill in Finsbury Park for as far as the eye could see. In amongst the buses on show were nine of the first ten Routemasters ever built, including RM6 (pictured here in special gold livery). Most of the vehicles on display had been lovingly restored and were in almost mint condition, although others seemed barely off the scrap heap. Many featured period adverts ("Ladies - always shop between 10 and 4!") and one had been dressed up as the purple triple-decker Knight Bus to promote the latest Harry Potter movie. All sorts of unlikely destinations were on show, from Windsor to the Wirral and from Canvey Island to Växjö (it's in Sweden).

There were stalls selling all sorts of bus memorabilia, including models, magazines, videos and photographs. I realised that some of the old 1970s London Bus maps I have stored away in my spare room must be worth at least, ooh, £2 to a willing enthusiast. I doubt I'll be selling them yet. And there were also free bus rides to be taken, not round the park but out on the real roads between Manor House and Seven Sisters stations. It was especially good to ride aboard an open-topped special all the way along route 259 from Tottenham to Kings Cross. Ah, the strange looks we got at bus stops from passengers expecting a more normal service to arrive.

And finally there were the bus afficionados themselves. Average age about 50, which was quite appropriate given the event, and almost all male of course. If you have any preconceptions of how a bus-spotter might look then let me assure you that only half of them looked like that, and not all of them were wearing beige. Many of these addicts walked up and down the line of buses jotting down serial numbers in their tattered notebooks, although I thought this was cheating somewhat because all the hard work had been done for them. One particularly gauche dad barked orders at his two young daughters as he led them round their worst nightmare ("No girls, move apart so my camera can still see the numberplate").

The whole event appeared to be a homage not just to the Routemaster but also to digital photography. No matter which way you walked, someone was pointing a lens across your path trying to snap yet another picture of an old bus. I tried to be polite and keep out of people's viewfinders but it was an impossible task most of the time. Then I'd spot the perfect angle for a photo myself except that there were hordes of people in the way, usually taking photographs of something different, so I'd hang around for ages in case all of them moved out of the way simultaneously which alas they never quite did. And there just behind us, over the fence outside the park, a steady flow of modern red London buses plied their scheduled routes up the Seven Sisters Road. And not one person took a photograph of any of them, which I think summed up the whole event perfectly.

 Saturday, July 24, 2004

Fountain of Strife

They've closed down the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain again. Again. Again. They closed it down on its second day after unseasonably heavy rain caused the area inside the fountain to flood. They closed it down in its second week for what they told us was routine maintenance, but which seemed a bit too quick to be routine. And they closed it down on Thursday because it's dangerous and people keep falling over. It's still closed. It's a bit of a fiasco really.

I visited the fountain with my nephews and niece on what turned out to be one of its few functioning days. The fountain exerts a hypnotic influence on children who are irresistably drawn to remove their shoes and socks and go paddling in the water. After a minute or two splashing about in situ they decide to go for a walk all the way around the fountain, just because they can. Off they splash exploring all the different textures underfoot, paddling through the shallows, wading through pools and climbing mini waterfalls. And it's great fun. And then they fall over. And then they cry.

My niece was the first to slip. She didn't fall too badly and merely got rather wetter than originally planned, but this was the signal for our party to exit the fountain and attempt to dry off. We watched a small boy slip on the granite just a few feet away from us, then quickly pick himself up and continue his circuit rather more cautiously. And then another girl fell over. She'd come down to enjoy the fountain with her posh mother on what must have been the au pair's day off. Thwack, over went the little princess into the water and a few minutes of bawling and sobbing ensued. Such great entertainment, although probably not the serious tribute that was planned.

I'm not at all surprised to hear that three visitors slipped over on Thursday and had to be taken to hospital. Hard rock, running water, excitable children - what did the designers expect? It's sadly appropriate that a memorial to a nasty accident is now busy causing accidents of its own. Diana once said she wanted to have something worthy like a hospital wing named after her. I'd like to suggest that they set up a Princess Di Memorial First Aid Hut here instead. Assuming anyone ever takes a trip again.

 Thursday, July 22, 2004

I blog therefore I am

Blogging is getting serious. It's not just a bunch of people publishing their thoughts online as part of a hobby-type activity thing, oh no. It's a bunch of people publishing their thoughts online and being analysed by academics, oh yes. Blogging must be at least semi-important now because it's become the subject of research.

Last Saturday a big conference was held at the University of London, an austere seat of learning tucked in between Russell Square and the British Museum. The Literary London Conference investigated, amongst other things, "the changing cultural and historical geography of London" and "how the pluralism of London literature is reflected in London society". I'm sure you've all discussed these weighty issues down the pub recently. These topics were properly dissected by fellow blogger James Blogwell (aka Ralph) who delivered a fine paper to the conference entitled "London Blogging: Weblog Culture and Urban Lives". You can read a copy here. And here's a brief extract:
The notion of a community is important in considering the overall significance of London weblogs. I’d like to suggest that the typical interconnectedness of weblogs make them particularly appropriate as a form to the complex communal space of the contemporary city. London, as a multicultural, global city, linked in ever more complicated ways with the world outside as it is linked internally, demands media that can offer their own congruent forms of interconnectivity. Any weblog, being part of a virtual network of websites, including other weblogs, offers distinct advantages as a form of representating and mediating London as itself a kind of network society.
Ralph argues that London weblogs are a dynamic new way of representing the city, reshaping traditional notions of 'literary London'. He contends that London weblogs are "able to represent London itself as process: a city continually changing, a city in flux." And he uses a small selection of London blogs to illustrate his hypothesis, including this one. I'm honoured. As are Jag, Lisa and Tom. Apparently we each participate in "what one critic has called ‘electronic flânerie’— cruising the city (as well as the internet) like a flâneur, in search of novelty and edification." I plead guilty. Cheers Ralph.

Select academic works
• Parfect, Ralph, 'London Blogging: Weblog Culture and Urban Lives'
• Blood, Rebecca, 'Weblogs: a history and perspective'
• Nardi, Bonnie A. et al, '"I'm blogging this": A Closer Look at Why People Blog'
• Herring, Susan C. et al, 'Bridging the Gap: A Genre Analysis of Weblogs'
• Geezer, Diamond, 'London Geezer'

 Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Crossrail is finally set to get Government backing today. But not Government money. Someone somewhere is going to have to raise £10 billion to fund this sub-London pipedream. Here are a few fundraising possibilities - although you may have additional ideas...

a) Get multinational companies to sponsor each of the new stations, perhaps renaming them (from west to east) British Airways, Selfridges, Virgin Megastore, Sainsbury, Lloyd's, Whitbread, HSBC and Poundstretcher.
b) Divert one of the western branches to Chelsea and ask Mr Abramovich to pay up.
c) Hire students to walk up and down tube carriages for the next decade carrying large buckets and pretending it's Rag Week.
d) Increase the Congestion Charge for BMWs to £10, for 4x4s to £100 and for black ministerial limousines to £1000.
e) When Crossrail trains are finally ready (sort of 2013-ish) set up an onboard trolley service serving up overpriced coffee and flapjacks - should make a fortune.
f) Charge every 2012 Olympic visitor a special £500 surcharge to build a rail system that won't be ready until well after the Marathon has finished.
g) Ask every business in the City to donate 0.001% of its annual share capital, or maybe get some fat suits to forego their annual bonuses for a few years.
h) Ask every Londoner to contribute 40p a day for the next 10 years. I don't mind giving up buying the Evening Standard every day if that's what it takes.

Today's Special: Channel 4 is running a very short series of very short films about London's classic caffs. Tonight we were treated to a peek inside the Copper Grill and the Piccolo near Liverpool Street, both of which sadly closed last month. City redevelopment, pah! Tomorrow (7:55pm) it's the turn of the New Piccadilly, Soho's finest formica temple. Read and revere here, here and here. Sausage, beans and chips, anyone?

 Friday, July 16, 2004

The History Boys by Alan Bennett (National Theatre)

You just know that an Alan Bennett play will be brilliant. Erudite, comic, touching, well-observed, literary and insightful too, but especially brilliant. And so it proved. His latest play is set in an anonymous all-male northern grammar school in the early 1980s and follows an unruly bunch of sixth formers trying to gain a place at Oxbridge. Some work colleagues and I joined yesterday's matinée audience at the Lyttleton Theatre. We were the youngest people present by some considerable distance (reminder to self: on retirement, join the matinée set). I suspect I was the only person in the audience actually to have been a sixth former in the early 1980s, let alone a grammar school boy and Oxbridge candidate. But my school was never quite like this one.

The cast sparkle as much as the script. There's "an unruly bunch of bright, funny sixth-form boys in pursuit of sex, sport and a place at university" (played by a fine ensemble cast who I'd have loved to have had as classmates). There's "a maverick English teacher" (played by Richard Griffiths, who I've always rated, and who brings just the right amount of passion and compassion to the role - which can be difficult when your character is a motorbiking child-fiddler). There's the "young and shrewd supply teacher" (whose teaching methods smack of Thatcherism, not that Bennett is ever quite blatant enough to say so). There's "a headmaster obsessed with results" (about 20 years ahead of his time I think, played by a Tebbit-like Clive Merrison). And there's "a history teacher who thinks the head’s a fool" (the marvellous Frances De La Tour, revelling in the most cynical lines in the script).

The play isn't afraid to explore some erudite and intellectual themes, but intertwines them successfully with the comic and the tragic. It's simply but effectively staged and the audience lapped it up, all nearly-three-hours of it. We grinned, we nodded, we laughed, we applauded and we left feeling richly satisfied. I think it was only me noted the proper 1980s-style yellow socks and graffitied hessian rucksacks though. 95/100 A+

 Thursday, July 15, 2004

London's Drowning

St Swithin’s Day, if it does rain, full forty days it will remain,
St Swithin’s Day, if it be fair, for forty days t’will rain no more.

This baseless meteorological superstition dates from the late 9th century. A group of over-zealous monks decided to dig up the grave of Swithin, former Bishop of Winchester, and move it to a more prestigious location inside the cathedral. Legend tells us that this botched exhumation caused it to rain for forty days and forty nights. Common sense tells us that this legend is rubbish, and has continued to be rubbish for every single one of the last 1133 summers. Having said that, given how appalling this summer has been so far, this might be the year that finally proves the rhyme.

So just what is up with the weather at the moment? It feels like it's been damp, cool and cloudy all summer. A telltale tanline round my watchstrap suggests that we have had a few scorching days, but they've been few and far between, and nigh non-existent of late. Maybe this is global warming kicking in. The government's chief scientific adviser is certainly worried, and has just given a speech suggesting that it won't be long before melting ice caps cover the globe with rather more water than a few shower clouds can produce.

London is one of the world cities with the most to fear. Should the Greenland ice cap ever melt then sea level would rise by nearly ten metres and a large part of the capital would be flooded. Never mind all those piddling security risks to the Houses of Parliament I listed earlier in the week - rising sea level would completely submerge the lower floors of this riverside building. It'd be also be farewell to Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street, St James Park and the Tower of London, and that's just for starters. A huge swathe of London lies below the ten metre contour (see map), including Fulham, Chelsea, Docklands and Stratford north of the river, and most of Wandsworth, Lambeth and Southwark south of the river. The City and the West End would remain safely above the rising waters, although the tube network would be flooded out. And my flat in Bow would be transformed into a valuable riverside apartment on the banks of the three-mile-wide Thames, but I'd need scuba gear to go shopping at my local Tesco.

We continue to pump excessive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere like there's no tomorrow, and for London maybe there isn't. Future generations will pay the price of our materialistic greed, and not enough important people yet seem to care. But I suspect our recent wet weather has nothing at all to do with global warming and is merely a symptom of the wildly variable British climate. Last summer was record-breakingly hot, this one's depressingly damp and that's just the way our weather works. It's unpredictable and that's why we love to talk about it.

St Swithin’s Day 2004 is looking decidedly wet already. I shall be keeping a tally over the next forty days to see whether the next forty days it will remain. Come back on August 24th and see if London's still under water.

 Wednesday, July 14, 2004

01 for London: One of London’s most potent symbols always used to be the 01 phone prefix. London took the premier easiest-to-remember code, in line with its national status, while the rest of the country put up with the leftovers. For example, Consett in County Durham took the insignificant 0207 prefix, while Bodmin in Cornwall was lumbered with 0208.

Then in the 1990s came an explosion of fax machines and second-, third- and fourth- phone lines, particularly in the capital. This forced an expansion of the phone numbering system, brilliantly mismanaged by OFTEL. They first assured Londoners that a split into 071 and 081 areas would be perfectly sufficient, then that the less-than-memorable 0171 and 0181 codes were urgently required, and finally that 0207 and 0208 were absolutely necessary. Londoners were forced to reorder new stationery three times in ten years, and many businesses around the capital still have out-of-date phone numbers engraved prominently on their shop-fronts. Meanwhile, in Consett and Bodmin, the behind-the-times shops now display current London numbers.

Yesterday we discovered that the supply of 0207 numbers is already drying up so yet another new London dialling code is required. OFCOM will be introducing 0203 numbers next summer (as used less than ten years ago in darkest Coventry). The 0203 code will only be used for new lines, not existing ones, and won't be restricted to either inner or outer London as before. And yes I do know that the official code for London is actually just 020, not the four-digit 020x, so there is some rationale behind the introduction of 020 3. Maybe one day the signwriters in the capital will notice this fact and businesses will learn to split up their phone digits correctly. But somehow London's not the same now that almost everywhere else's number starts with good old 01.

 Tuesday, July 13, 2004

MI5 Security Update: Palace of Westminster

Dear Tony,

I'm delighted that you liked our latest security review of the Houses of Parliament. That's the report containing the bleeding obvious observation that a well-aimed terrorist might cause Big Ben to topple onto the Commons chamber. I'm pleased that this report has deflected the political spotlight off your crumbling reputation slightly during this most difficult week. And I'm happy to provide you with the additional security advice below which you requested to try to keep journalists off your back for another 24 hours.

Love and kisses,
Eliza Manningham-Buller (Director General, MI5)

Risk 1: A terrorist attack might cause Big Ben to topple onto the Commons chamber.
Solution: Swap the Commons chamber with the Lords chamber, then nobody will care.

Risk 2: A suicide bomber could drive a truck full of explosives into the side of the Houses of Parliament.
Solution: Replace all those concrete barriers around the perimeter by a wall of open-topped sightseeing buses full of American tourists.

Risk 3: Terrorists could approach the Houses of Parliament by river, perhaps aboard a pirate ship armed with heavy cannons.
Solution: Drain the Thames and fill it with the lifeless bodies of the 104,000 civil servants Gordon Brown sacked yesterday.

Risk 4: Terrorists could approach the Houses of Parliament from the sky, perhaps lobbing a large grenade out of the basket of a hot air balloon.
Solution: Hang a very large pair of bombproof net curtains from the top of St Stephen's Tower.

Risk 5: Terrorists could attempt to detonate 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellars beneath the Commons during the State Opening of Parliament in an attempt to kill the monarch as well her elected representatives.
Solution: No problem, we foiled that particular plot with ease last time.

Risk 6: Any terrorist could discover Parliament's location merely by looking on a tube map.
Solution: Swap the station names "Westminster" and "West Ruislip" on the tube map - that'll fool them.

Risk 7: A disgruntled member of the public could gain entry into the Strangers Gallery and lob a condom full of purple flour over the MPs below.
Solution: Remove all the condom machines from the House of Commons lavatories.

Risk 8: The Houses of Parliament have been carelessly located in the middle of a densely populated area.
Solution: Invent time travel, go back to 1066 and persuade Edward the Confessor to build Westminster Abbey on the outskirts of Colchester.

Risk 9: Something terribly unlikely but really very nasty that we haven't planned for might happen somewhere in the vicinity of the Parliament building.
Solution: Seal off all nearby roads, divert all nearby traffic and piss off all local residents, a bit like the Americans have done round their Embassy in Grosvenor Square.

Risk 10: The British public might be stupid enough to elect a warmongering Prime Minister whose thoughtless actions in the Middle East endanger the security of the nation.
Solution: Resign. By the end of the week you may have no choice anyway.

 Sunday, July 11, 2004

Fairly Scrumptious

Yesterday, for the second time in a week, I found myself crammed behind rows of spectators just off Regent Street straining for the occasional view of a Grand Prix racing car. I was tantalisingly close to a selection of famous faces, the noise was deafening, and there were at least 20 minutes in the middle of the event where I saw absolutely nothing. But no, this wasn't a rerun of Bernie Ecclestone's farcical Formula 1 parade, I was attending a matinee performance of the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the London Palladium. Uncles tend to be asked to do these sorts of things when the the nephew/niece contingent comes down from Norfolk to London for the day.

We managed to fit in a whistlestop tour of Greenwich before taking our seats in the leftmost extremeties of the Palladium's Upper Circle with minutes to spare. There was a reasonable view of most of the stage, so long as the child in the seat in front wasn't sat bolt upright trying to see past the six-foot mum in the seat in front of them. An international family audience was in attendance, anxious parents hoping that their offspring could stay seated, quiet and tantrum-free for a full three hours. We resisted buying any of the vastly overpriced souvenirs, and avoided the half-time ice creams that must have been the worst value per spoonful in the world ever. And we spent the afternoon in the company of Gary Wilmot, Christopher Biggins and Lionel Blair. Lucky us.

As for the musical, well, you know all the songs because you've sung along with them all on the telly every Christmas since you were little. And you know the story. Car meets man. Car meets woman. Woman meets angelic kids. Family picnic interrupted by nightmare trip to eastern Europe. Everyone falls in love. The plot works great for a film but less well for a West End play because there are far too many characters who only manage to appear in two or three scenes. The evil Child Catcher is a case in point, with poor old Lionel Blair left sitting in his dressing room for 99% of the first half and a good two-thirds of the second. His brilliantly dark performance got a loud panto boo from the audience every time he appeared, but the fast-paced linear story meant that he couldn't stalk the stage often enough. And all to soon he was gone, although he did leave the stage in a net on the end of a very long rope through a hole in the auditorium roof, which was nice.

But the real star of the show was Chitty herself. We didn't see the car often enough, with rather too much "Oh we've just left Chitty round the corner" throughout, but its rare appearances at the end of each half had the appropriate wow factor all the same. I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed, with obvious strings or some automated mechanism clearly visible underneath but no, the presentation was immaculate and highly convincing. All in all an entertaining afternoon full of singalong favourites and rock-solid acting. The very special effects won over the hearts of my nephews quite convincingly ("We liked the car best"), although I'm assured by the more adult members of my entourage that the whole Lion King experience is much much better. Oh Chitty, you Chitty, pretty Chitty Bang Bang, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang we sort of loved you.

 Thursday, July 08, 2004


It's nice to have a Mayor who's an optimist, and Ken Livingstone most certainly is. Earlier this week he slipped out a new map of London showing how the tube network might look by 2016. You can download the whole map here, assuming you can cope with pdfs, or view some choice segments elsewhere courtesy of Geoff and Annie. Is there a word for a London tube map o-holic? If so, I confess to being one. <hit> <hit> <hit> <hit>

Only three extra Underground sections are planned - the East London Line, a tunnel out to Heathrow Terminal 5 and the tiny Croxley link (which you probably don't care about, but I do because this particular link has been on the drawing board for the last 30 years in the village where I grew up). The 2016 map also features various potential tramway projects, Crossrail, Thameslink and a few DLR extensions, further details of all of which you can find on the brilliant alwaystouchout website. I suspect only a fraction of the new lines shown on the map will actually get built because they require those two most rare of commodities - money and commitment - but we can dream.

Here's how Stratford station in east London might look one day, an overdeveloped mass of lines and interlocking circles. There's the Central line and the end of the Jubilee line, there's mainline services to East Anglia, there's the North London Line northwest towards Hackney, there's the existing DLR and a new DLR extension to Stratford International, there's the new Eurostar terminal and finally there's Crossrail. Blimey. Too late for the Olympics though, alas (and probably almost as likely to actually happen).

Meanwhile here are some additional new lines Ken appears to have missed off his 2016 map:
Grand Prix Circle Line: A guided trackway capable of transporting individual helmeted passengers round the West End and back to their starting point 75 times, and a bargain at only £10 million per ticket.
Northern Line extension: Now that London's economic hinterland reaches as far as Grimsby, so does the tube network. Bloody long way to commute though.
Very Cross Rail: "Why has this train stopped in the middle of a tunnel, and it's far too overcrowded, and have you seen the price of a ticket, and that bloke's not wearing any deodorant."
Central Iraq Line: The quickest and most convenient way to transport British troops to the Middle East. "This train terminates at Baghdad Parkway."
East London Line extension: 500 yards of new track branching off from Walford East calling at Launderette, Allotment Central and Arthur's Bench.
Docklands Heavy Railway: A special commuter link with extra-wide seats for obese Canary Wharf workers.
Lovely Jubbly Line: "You want Peckham do you? Sorry mate, we don't go south of the river."
A brand spanking new underground network full of air-conditioned trains that travel on time: By 2016, even with PPP funding? Fat chance.

 Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Formula zero

Formula 1 cars came to the streets of London last night. At least I think they did. I was standing right next to where I think they were, but I didn't actually see any. I think there were eight of them, judging by the number of times I heard a noise like a herd of demon dentists armed with pneumatic drills passing by, but I saw nothing except a few clouds of burning rubber.

Trouble was, lots of other people had come to see the Formula 1 cars too and they'd got to Waterloo Place before me. Trouble was, the pavements from here up to Regent Street are very narrow so there was very little room for half a million spectators to stand. Trouble was, I ended up way back on the seventh row of the pedestrian grid squashed into a tiny space about the same size as a Formula 1 cockpit. Trouble was, the event was supposed to start at 6 so everyone got there at 5:30 but the first car didn't set off round the course until 7. Trouble for the people on the other side of the road was, the organisers parked the street cleaning vehicles right beside them completely blocking their line of sight which nearly caused a mutiny. Trouble was, everyone around me seemed to be a six-foot-something petrolhead wielding a camcorder blocking off any last slivers of the remaining view. Trouble was, the event wasn't so much a race as a relay, with each car having to wait for the previous car to get back to the start before it could rev up and zoom off. Trouble was, Formula 1 cars go past very fast indeed so they're very hard to spot before they're gone. Trouble was, and this is the real killer, Formula 1 cars are only three feet high, so whichever jerk thought it would be a good idea to parade them through the streets of London in the hope that huge numbers of the public would be able to see them needs their head examining.

Various people are now supporting the introduction of a London Grand Prix racing round the streets of the West End. These people are hideously misguided. The last thing London needs is three days of road traffic chaos so that almost no spectators can watch 20 overpaid motorists negotiating traffic islands and cycle lanes whilst trying very hard not to crash into a department store window, all for the benefit of multimillion pound sponsorship deals and a global television audience. Bunch of Prix, all of them.

 Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Remembrance Di

You can't move in Hyde Park without bumping into some memorial to Princess Diana. That's because she used to live up at one end in Kensington Palace, looking winsome and being sick occasionally. There's a Princess Diana Memorial Walk which snakes its way through the park marked by raised studs in the footpath. There's a Princess Diana Memorial Playground which is full of pirate ships and wigwams (and really rather fantastic for any kids with an imagination). There's a Princess Diana Memorial Brick-Spiral-Thing outside the Serpentine Gallery, of which she was patron. And, as of today, there's the new Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, which looks like this:

The fountain is a grey stone oval the size of half a football pitch set into the grass beside the Serpentine. It's been built from 545 chunks of Cornish granite, each slab lovingly sculpted to fit together in a curving channel complete with every water feature Charlie Dimmock ever dreamed of. 100 litres of water per second will gush, cascade, bubble and babble down this liquid necklace from the top level (rear right of photo) to the pool at the bottom (lower left, where all the workmen's tools are lying). It wasn't bubbling when I was there at the weekend because there was no water in it, but it'll be bubbling today once the Queen's stood beside it and said how much she really quite liked Diana, honest.

The fountain's not quite as pastoral and idyllic as it looks. That turf is brand new and has yet to bed down. And what you can't see in the photo are the Lido tearooms to the left and the newly-tarmacked car park to the right, immediately beside the busy road that runs through the middle of the park. But I rather liked the fountain. Some have said that Diana deserved better than a mere 'puddle', but to me this giant paddling pool looks perfect for wading in, exploring and generally interacting with for many generations to come. It's for children, not for adults, and if I were five years old again I'd be in my element.

Meanwhile, just under a mile to the west, Diana's real shrine can be found outside the gates of Kensington Palace. Even seven years after her untimely death the railings are still festooned with laminated photographs, newspaper cuttings and cheap bouquets. It would have been Diana's 43rd birthday last week (she'd have been heavily into Botox by now, wouldn't she?) and the fresh birthday tributes pinned to the gates are the outpourings of the irrationally obsessed. Especially the poetry. I had to photograph a couple of the most toadying eulogies just to take in the sheer awfulness of them. Click here for one particularly verbose devoted dirge, and click on the extract below to read the full gobsmacking text of the following.
Today you would have been 43
You were so lovely
Why did you have to die
Why, why, why, why?
It was left to another mother talking to her children outside the Palace gates to come up with the perfect summary of Diana's life. She was trying to explain who the princess was to her three daughters, none of whom had even been born while Diana was alive. And Mummy came up with the following. "She was a nice lady who died." And yes that's all she was, in the right place with the right face at the right time, just as flawed as the rest of us and probably more so. At least we got a couple of heirs, a few less landmines and a nice paddling pool out of her. I hope that one day the cult of Diana can finally be laid to rest. And if not, well, at least the poetry's a scream.

 Monday, July 05, 2004


Hyde Park is no ordinary park. It's enormous, a giant green grass rectangle only slightly smaller than the City of London. The western half of the park is officially called Kensington Gardens. It's all ancient land, acquired by Henry VIII for hunting almost 500 years ago. It's beautifully landscaped, with carriage drives, tree-lined avenues and open lawns. It includes the Serpentine, an elegant thin lake slicing down the middle of the park. It includes the Albert Memorial, a garish golden pinnacle gilded in the blood of Empire. It includes Rotten Row, originally the fashionable riding track between Kensington Palace and Piccadilly. It includes Speaker's Corner, that bastion of free speech where you can hear boring fanatics drone on about some supposedly burning issue. It is no ordinary park.

And yet Hyde Park is also a very ordinary park. I went for a wander around Hyde Park yesterday afternoon, and in many ways it's probably very much like your local park. It has all the usual park-y features, as listed below. Aren't parks great?

Grass: Got nothing to do? Never fear, because park lawns are a green canvas for your imagination. You can sit on them, have a picnic on them, kick a ball about on them, sunbathe on them, read a book on them and snog on them. And look, that's a whole afternoon filled already. Hyde Park has immaculate grass, all 600 acres of it.
Paths: These are essential to the smooth running of any park, helping divorced dads to get their offspring to the ice cream van and back with ease. They're also perfectly designed for pushchairs, bicycles, joggers and those little green trucks that parkkeepers drive, so watch where you're walking in case you get knocked over. Hyde Park has official 'skate instructors', trying desperately to teach wobbly rollerbladers to stand upright.
Wildlife: Britain's parks are like mini zoos, each containing exactly the same cuddly animals much loved by little children everywhere. See the little squirrels nibbling their nuts in the rosebeds. See the mangy ducks quacking loudly for crumbs of sliced wholemeal. See the fat pigeons lolloping along because they're too heavy to fly. And don't see the rats because they only come out at night. Hyde Park has very tame squirrels, as you can see.
Turdbins: Many years ago you couldn't sit down in a park for fear of lowering yourself onto something brown and smelly. Nowadays you can't walk for more than a minute in a park without seeing some well-meaning dog owner scooping up something brown and smelly and placing it in a plastic bag. I don't know which is more unpleasant. Hyde Park is jam-packed full of dogs, many of them brown and smelly.
Tearooms: If you've been stupid enough to forget your picnic basket, never fear because your local council will have opened up a small kiosk selling weak tea, Cornettos and pre-packed biscuits. Hyde Park has some very upmarket tearooms of a distinctly 70s design, selling posh ice cream and paninis.
Bandstand: The old Victorian bandstand always stands rusting in one corner of the park, lonely and unloved. Local youngsters are more likely to use it for graffiti practice than for band practice. In Hyde Park yesterday the band outnumbered the geriatric deckchair-bound audience.
Pond: When children get bored, send them off to stand around the shallow duck sanctuary filled with stagnant water and crisp packets. No paddling, swimming or divebombing the swans is permitted. As well as the Serpentine, Hyde Park also has its own proper pond called the Round Pond, which is actually octagonal.
Civic artwork: Municipal art usually comprises of three ugly concrete blocks erected at the behest of some council committee who hoped it might improve community focus. They were wrong. Hyde Park has plenty of statues and also its very own art gallery (admission free, and well worth a look).
Fountain: In the centre of every park lies a stone statue featuring the only genitalia your Victorian forebears were permitted to gawp at, leaking off-colour water into a large bowl probably filled with washing-up liquid. Hyde Park has a brand new fountain, of which more tomorrow...

 Saturday, July 03, 2004

BB25 update: We've had Bendy Buses on route 25 for a week now. There's no getting rid of them then. They're still hunting in packs, alternately crammed and half-empty, scuttling down the Mile End Road like a plague of giant red caterpillars. Bow Church station appears to be the designated stop where all the drivers change over, or at least where five drivers stand and queue and wait in case any much-delayed bus should actually turn up for them to board. A large number of existing bus shelters are suddenly being dug up, which means the newly-installed ticket machines are temporarily fenced off and nobody can buy a ticket before boarding any more. My nearest bus stop has been downgraded to a request stop for no adequately explained reason, physically moved to the opposite end of its bus shelter and no longer has a timetable posted. And I'm disturbed to discover that there are proper official planning proposals in the pipeline to extend the road markings for this particular bus stop from 19m long (1 bendy bus length) to 45m long (2½ bendy buses!), which will mean the obliteration of the only parking space along this strip of road. Apparently this is progress. I still yearn for the golden era, just one month ago, when cuddly Routemasters and nice friendly double deckers served my local community rather than dominating it.

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