Thursday, April 28, 2005

Vote050505: BBC Question Time
...is coming live right now from Stratford Circus, East London. I know where the BBC's secret location is because I've just come back from watching a film at the cinema nextdoor, and the forecourt outside is crawling with police. I counted at least 50 coppers, seven vans and one helicopter, and I suspect I missed several cohorts more. I also missed the arrival of the three party leaders because I was inside enjoying my film at the time, but two hours earlier I had caught the long winding queue of "a cross-section of typical voters" waiting patiently to be admitted. To be honest they didn't look as if they could maul anything, as the live programme is now proving. But at least they got inside to make themselves heard, unlike the Stop The War protestors who are still standing around outside to wave their banners at one particular departing politician. I wonder if he'll be driven past my house later after the programme is finished - maybe I should go out and wave too.

 Saturday, April 23, 2005

Counting down

Just in case London's Olympic bid might be slipping off your personal radar, a minor media stunt was stage-managed yesterday in the middle of Trafalgar Square. A big clock has been erected beneath Nelson's Column to count down the 75 days remaining until the IOC selects Paris as the venue for the 2012 Olympics. One man who still hopes otherwise is Seb Coe (right, in sensible suit), and he persuaded some 'big' political names to join him for the unveiling. Tessa Jowell (centre, in bright green) was joined by two anonymous shadow Sports Ministers (left, and cropped from photo), while Cherie Blair (2nd from left, grinning) also appeared in her new role as one of the bid's international ambassadors. Seb and Cherie both gave brief inspirational speeches, probably using words like 'hope', 'community' and 'legacy' except that nobody had remembered to bring a microphone so their pleadings were largely inaudible. Two real sportswomen, brought in for their photographic charm, removed the heavily-sponsored plastic cover from the giant white timer, and then a brief photo opportunity was staged. This may have been a non-event of Olympic proportions, but at least it all looked jolly impressive for 15 seconds on local TV news later in the evening. The clock is ticking, but most probably for that big French city across the Channel...
by Eurostar: 2 hours 40 minutes from Waterloo

Excursion 10: National Gallery
As a finale to my week off in London, I stopped by at one of the capital's largest free attractions. The national repository of high art dominates the northern side of Trafalgar Square, from the monstrous carbuncle on the left to the boarded up portico to the right. Inside you can attempt to ponder the meaning of a millennium of art, from fat cherubs to blotchy irises. I won't go on about the gallery's contents because you've probably visited yourself but, for the record, the paintings drawing the largest crowds yesterday were Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Seurat's Bathers at Asnières. Equally as fascinating as the art were the multitude of bored gallery attendants, each sitting alone keeping watch over their designated room. One kept busy by doing a crossword, one yawned openly while scratching his chair, one was clearly eyeing up the passing talent, while another just stared at his knees and waited for his shift to end. The more sociable stood close to their gallery entrance so that they could gossip bitchily, but quietly, with a neighbouring attendant. In one small room a grey-haired jobsworth barked angrily at three tourists who'd dared to point their fingers too close to a minor masterpiece. There's certainly plenty to savour here, and it's not all on canvas.
by tube: Charing Cross

 Friday, April 22, 2005

Excursion 9: Kew Gardens

Now here's a sight you don't see every day. It's a Titan arum (amorphophallus titanium), and its flowering is one of the rarest events in botany. It's also the tallest flowering plant in the world, and the smelliest, and it's blooming in Kew Gardens right now.

Kew's first Titan arum bloomed in 1889, but then not again until 1926 when the crowds had to be held back by police. Kew now own more than one specimen, each of which they nurture lovingly behind the scenes, so they've been fortunate to have several bloomings over the last few years. Even so this is the first emergence since 2003, and it's all a bit special. This particular Titan arum grew from a bulb weighing a record 77kg (11 stone), with the characteristic big yellow spike first appearing at the end of last month. Since then the plant has slowly grown to its full height of 2.23m (7 foot 4) and the single umbrella-like petal finally unfurled early yesterday morning.

This flower is even more famous for its odour than for its size. Back in its native Indonesia it's known as the 'corpse flower' because it smells of rotting flesh, while others have likened the whiff to dead fish, burnt sugar, dustbins and smelly nappies. The smell has evolved to attract pollinating insects, but it also attracts human beings with cameras in large numbers. I was fully prepared for the agonising stench as I entered the wet tropics zone of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, but I was disappointed. Apparently the flower only releases its evil perfume every few hours and, despite returning to view it twice, the plant resolutely refused to fill my nostrils with noxious pong. Maybe today's visitors will have more luck.

If you want to see the titan arum, you'd better be quick. The flower starts to fade and droop within a day or two, its pollination work complete, so I was fortunate enough to see it yesterday at its very peak. I see from the latest pictures that the single petal has already started to close slightly, and by Monday the central spike will probably have slumped completely. If you don't make it in time, you can view past titan arum bloomings here, here, here, here and here.

I had feared that the rest of Kew Gardens would be some grey-haired middle-aged netherworld full of Latin names and tea shops, but I was very pleasantly surprised. It was a particular treat to wander the full 300 acres beside the Thames in yesterday's glorious spring sunshine. The tulips were out, the rhododendrons were budding, the bees were flying and the bluebells were struggling hard to maintain dominance under threat from an invading yellow weed. My camera steamed up in the humid Palm House, where there were spectacular tropical views looking down from the upper balcony. The cute ducklings blocking the footpath by the lily pond surely deserved their own TV cartoon series, while over by the pagoda I got this year's first whiff of freshly-mown lawn. And everywhere there were benches set amongst the trees and flowers, each with a plaque in memorial of someone who 'loved this place'. I can see why. Even without a botanical superstar on show, Kew Gardens will always be a place to cherish.
by tube: Kew Gardens   by bus: 65

 Thursday, April 21, 2005

Vote050505: Bethnal Green and Bow - rotten borough

The rumour was that Tony was coming to Brick Lane. The police said he wasn't, they said he was up north, and as it turned out they were right. But there did seem to be slightly too many policemen compared to normal, and a couple of camera crews, so something was clearly afoot. The epicentre of the action eventually became clear - a tandoori restaurant up Hanbury Street, and one of the few businesses in the neighbourhood with an Oona poster in the window. Outside the restaurant entrance stood a few people with Labour badges flanked by an ever-increasing number of police. Across the narrow street they were faced by a tribe of anti-war protestors wielding black placards, few of whom looked local. One older gentleman had a very different grievance, he was opposing Crossrail's proposed worksite in the area, and he thrust multi-language leaflets into the hands of every passer by. Everybody was very well behaved, stepping back onto the pavement whenever the rookie PC asked them nicely. Another small crowd gathered on the corner of Brick Lane to watch the main crowd, and a policeman with a camcorder took pictures of us all just in case we turned out to be international terrorists.

At precisely one minute to three the anti-war protestors started shouting. They had a few well-rehearsed one-syllable choruses ("Troops Out! Blair Out!") which they repeated even though Mr Blair was nowhere to be seen. At three o'clock a procession of Labour supporters holding red banners rounded the corner from Brick Lane. They swept up the street, in some cases rather sheepishly, and assembled outside the restaurant. Oona was amongst them, as was mayor Ken, but I only found this out several hours later when I got home and watched the encounter on TV. The protestors' chants grew louder ("Blair Out! Oona Out!") and eventually more chilling ("All The Way! Galloway!") as the Labour ensemble filed inside the restaurant. The whole shouting match was over within five minutes, and I was surprised how rapidly both the crowd and the police drifted away. This was a pantomime event stage-managed purely for the media, with no attempt whatsoever at coherent campaigning. Nothing was thrown, nothing was resolved, but it all made good publicity for both sides. Modern politics, at least round my way, appears to have lost its footing in the real world.

Excursion 7: Whitechapel Art Gallery
After a tough day's campaigning up Brick Lane, why not drop in at the Whitechapel Art Gallery for a little culture? It's free, and you never quite know what you'll find inside. Back in 1939, for example, you might have seen Picasso's Guernica, whereas yesterday's offering was a collection of amateur films made by Polish factory workers in the Communist era. The audience for one home movie about the glorious harvest was very small indeed, whereas rather more people appeared to be lurking in the dark behind a different set of curtains watching a giant socialist nipple. Upstairs, thankfully, the comic art of Robert Crumb was rather more to my tastes. His politically incorrect sketches were grounded in the mundane, rather like the comic doodles you might have scribbled in an exercise book as a child only infinitely better realised. And observing those present pondering each frame with the reverence normally afforded to classic art, that was highly entertaining as well (closes 22nd May).
by tube: Aldgate East   by bus: 25, 205

Excursion 8: Geffrye Museum
Why go to IKEA when you can visit a row of converted almshouses in Hackney? IKEA force you to walk through a series of carefully arranged rooms showcasing all their latest furniture before finally depositing you in their shop and cafe. The Geffrye Museum may still have the shop and cafe at the end, but the initial stroll through its 12 period rooms is considerably more inspiring. You move from the early 17th century to the present day, each interior showcasing the typical middle class furniture and design of the era. The mid 1800s reminded me how crass the Victorians could be, while the 1930s living room evoked deep-seated memories of my grandparents' crockery and glassware. A recent extension to the museum currently houses two very different chair-related exhibitions. I enjoyed the display of highly original contemporary seating but a whole room of "English Regional Chairs" was stretching things too far. The museum is complemented by a series of historical gardens at the rear - not especially well looked after but the intention is good. And the whole place easily beats IKEA, particularly on creativity and value for money. Geffrye - historical solutions for better living.
by tube: Hoxton (opens 2010)   by bus: 67, 149, 242, 243

 Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Excursion 4a: Cabinet War Rooms
Sixty years ago the lights were turned out in this top secret bunker beneath Whitehall which had been home to Britain's alternative seat of government throughout World War II. Today the subterranean corridors are crawling with American tourists, here to view the room where cabinet meetings were held during the darkest days of the war, the maps on which officers charted the loss of Allied convoys and the desk from which Churchill made some of his most famous radio broadcasts. There's also the secret broom cupboard inside which Churchill used to talk on the phone to the American President, disguised on the outside as an engaged toilet. The bunker has been perfectly restored to look just as it would have done in October 1940 (apart from the obligatory cafe and gift shop) and the whole experience gave me the feeling that I was walking through history. See also: Paddock in Neasden.
Excursion 4b: Churchill Museum
Halfway round the tour of the Cabinet War Rooms there's a new attraction, a spacious underground gallery opened by the Queen just two months ago. The museum celebrates the life of Winston Churchill, cunningly starting in 1940 and charting the years leading up to his funeral in 1965 before rewinding to tell the rest of his story from the beginning. Every modern multimedia trick is used to make the exhibits interactive and engrossing, and I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and variety of material presented. This is no propaganda whitewash, this is a fitting tribute to the former MP for Woodford. And they sell chocolate cigars in the gift shop.
by tube: Westminster

Excursion 5: Sir John Soane's Museum
Here's a rare treasure hidden behind the busy streets of Holborn. When Sir John Soane became Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806 he set about transforming his town house into an inspirational museum for his students. Today's curator permits only 20 visitors inside the house at one time, so I was forced to queue out on the pavement before being admitted to see the delights inside. The library and drawing room looked almost normal compared to the bizarre collection of marble busts, classical casts and ancient antiquities that covered the walls of the rooms behind. Throw in a genuine Egyptian sarcophagus, some noteworthy timepieces and a few prime Canalettos and this is a truly eclectic experience. I was most impressed to stumble upon Hogarth's Rake's Progress, eight evocative canvases depicting the gradual decline of of a young landowner from money to madness. Who'd have thought that this art classic was tucked away in a small house overlooking the green oasis of Lincoln's Inn Fields?
by tube: Holborn

Excursion 6: Dr Johnson's House
That splendid episode of Blackadder III featuring Robbie Coltrane as Dr Johnson is being repeated on BBC2 tonight. Yesterday I visited the real Dr Johnson's House, perfectly preserved in a small square off Fleet Street. I was the only visitor, which at least gave the charming lady on the front desk someone to talk to. I enjoyed having this historic house to myself, complete with creaky floorboards, winding stairs, several portraits and all the original door handles. High up on the third floor I found the garret room where Dr Samuel compiled his famous dictionary, precisely 250 years ago. I wish I'd visited last Friday, the day of the actual anniversary, because I'd have saved £4.50. A display case showcased the special fifty pence coin which has just been issued by the Royal Mint to commemorate the event and which I shall now be looking forward to receiving in my small change. I can also confirm that Dr Johnson's so-called comprehensive masterwork leaps straight from 'peninsula' to 'penitence', so I doubt that it was a great hit with the teenage schoolboys of the day.
by tube: Chancery Lane

 Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Primrose Hill (to celebrate Primrose Day)

As a sucker for a good view, here's one I'd somehow managed never to enjoy before. Just a couple of miles north of Oxford Circus, Primrose Hill rises up above Regents Park to afford superb views over the metropolis. Fifty acres of green grassy hillock, protected and unspoilt, reaching what for London is an impressive 206 feet above sea level. The area is named after the primroses that used to flourish on the hill back in the 17th century, but alas seem to be sadly absent today. Around the hill is one of those posh neighbourhoods inhabited by rich executives and dull celebrities, complete with expensive arty shops that sell nothing useful, but it's easy to see why people pay so much to live here.

I climbed to the summit of Primrose Hill from the perimeter of London Zoo. I'd hate you to think it's a gruelling climb, but it's certainly rather longer and steeper than I'm used to in central London. The grassy slopes are criss-crossed with paths and, at weekends, smothered with people. Some sit and picnic, some sit and cuddle, some run about and kick footballs, some are being walked by their dogs, but most are here to enjoy the view. People are drawn magnetically to the summit to stand in groups, face south and point out well-known landmarks on the horizon. There's the City to the left, and the West End to the right, and the London Zoo aviary crouching in the foreground like a giant spider. You can identify the distant buildings using an old metal plaque, on which a small circle has been scratched (to the right of the "London Telecom Tower") to represent the 'new' London Eye. A perfect viewpoint on a sunny day, but I'd recommend going midweek if you can.
by bus: 274

Benjamin Disraeli
Famous Victorian Prime Minister (biography here)
Became Conservative PM twice (which is more than Michael Howard will manage)
Britain's only Jewish Prime Minister (so far)
Famous debater and accomplished author
Awarded the title Lord Beaconsfield in 1878
Born Holborn 1804, educated Walthamstow, died Mayfair 1881
Queen Victoria sent a bouquet of primroses to Disraeli's funeral: "His favourite flowers: from Osborne: a tribute of affectionate regard from Queen Victoria."
A statue of Disraeli was erected in Parliament Square in 1883, sandwiched inbetween fellow PMs Lord Peel and Lord Derby
April 19th, the anniversary of Disraeli's death, used to be celebrated by decorating his statue with primroses
...and that's why today is Primrose Day

 Monday, April 18, 2005

Time off: I'm taking this week off work, for no particularly good reason other than it's been a while, and I can. My office colleagues immediate response on hearing of my imminent break was to ask "Where are you going?". They seemed especially disconcerted by my response - "London". When they have time off they like to travel - Euro city breaks, transatlantic jaunts, adventurous equatorial treks or even Antipodean long hauls. They don't stay in town unless they have something meaningful to do around the house, like decorating the kitchen or replumbing the bathroom. My proposed aimless week in the capital therefore somehow disappointed them, as if time off work were somehow wasted unless something substantial were planned. But I don't view my content-free London break like that. Huge numbers of tourists spend a fortune on holidays in my hometown, whereas I get to live here full time with zero additional accommodation costs. So I shall spend my week off enjoying some of London's finer delights, hopefully visiting some choice locations I've not sampled before. And not a repainted ceiling in sight. Now, where shall I go first...?

Excursion 1: Bow Tesco
This delightful retail outlet nestles on the banks of the picturesque Lea brook, a modern brick cathedral with easy access from the nearby Blackwall Tunnel approach road. Several rows of brightly coloured market stalls line the interior, bedecked with all manner of fine comestibles from all around the world. Venture inside on a weekday morning and the smiling staff will outnumber the visiting shoppers, making for an especially pleasurable customer-focused experience. Cruise the aisles with your 4-wheel racing trolley, snapping up haute cuisine bargains whilst dodging nimbly between the screaming toddlers. Favourites amongst the local clientele include scavenging the 'reduced' section for cut price discounts, queueing for that alluring lottery scratchcard and stockpiling value lager (4 cans for 88p) to sip delicately on the bench outside in the car park. The perfect start to any London vacation.
by tube: Bromley-by-Bow   by bus: 108, S2

Excursion 2: Imperial War Museum
It's not the most enticing name for a museum, smacking of Empire and murder, but the Imperial War Museum makes a good job of presenting the last century of world warfare. The entrance hall is filled with tanks and planes (and also, this afternoon, with several school parties in various states of disinterest). There's an extensive basement charting the first and second world wars in comprehensive detail, with an impressive collection of memorabilia and ephemera including Chamberlain's famous 'piece of paper'. I learnt about Franz Ferdinand and the real Kaiser chiefs, wandered through a shadowy WWI trench and experienced the aftermath of an East End Blitz bombing. Most striking, however, was the two-storey Holocaust Exhibition - a chilling exhibit complete with discarded shoes from the concentration camps of Eastern Europe. There's plenty worth seeing here, and plenty to reflect on.
by tube: Lambeth North

Excursion 3: Design Museum
After such weighty concerns, the Design Museum seemed almost frivolous and trivial by comparison. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my opportunity to review several decades of cutting edge British design. Where else can you sit back in an Erno Goldfinger chair and watch a 1960s black and white film about London's Transport's iconic designs, or review the state of album cover design from David Bowie to Spiritualized? I was particularly engrossed by the latest exhibition on "the design of information" (closes 15 May), but then I would be engrossed by a display of maps, road signs, calendars and timetables, wouldn't I? All fascinating, but I was expecting more than two floors of limited galleries for my £6 entrance fee.
by bus: 47, 188, 381, RV1

 Friday, April 15, 2005

Do you know the muffin man who lives in Drury Lane?
The street-sellers of muffins and crumpets rank among the old street-tradesmen. It is difficult to estimate their numbers, but they were computed for me at 500, during the winter months. The ringing of the muffin-man's bell -attached to which the pleasant associations are not a few -was prohibited by a recent Act of Parliament, but the muffin bell still tinkles along the streets, and is rung vigorously in the suburbs. The best sale is in the suburbs. "As far as I know, sir," said a muffin-seller, "it's the best Hackney way, and Stoke Newington, and Dalston, and Balls Pond, and Islington; where the gents that's in banks goes home to their teas, and the missuses has muffins to welcome them; that's my opinion." [Henry Mayhew, 1861]
Muffin men were a familiar sight on the streets of Victorian London, plying their teatime treats from trays held high upon their heads. They were competing for trade with lavender sellers, eel-mongers, chestnut-merchants and all sorts of other street vendors, but few could resist the seductive smell of fresh muffins. Two centuries later the baking trade has moved on, and it's now nigh impossible to picture the famous muffin man of rhyme walking down modern Drury Lane. In fact (and I checked) there are no longer any fresh (non cake-based) muffins sold anywhere down this ancient thoroughfare.

What you will find down Drury Lane are theatres (admittedly Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat barely counts as properly theatrical, but The Producers more than makes up for it). Drury Lane marks the eastern border of London's Theatreland. It's an ancient street, a winding medieval lane that stretches down from High Holborn to Aldwych. The southern end is a mix of institutional and residential, strangely tucked away beyond the bustle of the surrounding city. Halfway up you can peek down a sideroad into Covent Garden, or turn to face the imposing facade of Freemasons' Hall. And to the north the lane narrows, edged by smaller independent shops and cafes (and a nasty concrete hotel block).

The most famous independent shop in Drury Lane was opened in 1869 by a certain John Sainsbury. He and his wife Mary sold low cost high quality butter, milk and eggs (but not muffins) to a mixed clientele of penniless locals and rich theatregoers. The shop's success meant that new stores were soon being opened in Stepney, Islington and Kentish Town, then across the capital, then across the country... and you all know how John's little empire ended up. Full history here. But there's no Sainsbury's store at 173 Drury Lane today. The glassy office block of New London House (see photo) is numbered 172, while the bright yellow Snappy Snaps on the opposite side of Macklin Street is numbered 175, so John's retail birthplace appears to have disappeared forever somewhere inbetween.

It's been left to Londis to hold the fort and to provide the only supermarket presence down Drury Lane. It's not a big store, it's more the size of John Sainsbury's old green- and white-tiled grocer's shop, but it sells pretty much everything amongst its crowded shelves. And yes, right at the back, even those nasty stodgy modern American muffins (69p, contains preservatives, best before 25 May, made on an industrial estate in Willesden). The muffin man is deeply missed around here.

 Thursday, April 14, 2005

The London Line: At last London has a new free newspaper, one that isn't Metro. You can find a copy every Thursday outside most central London stations (or, in my case, discarded on the platform at Holborn). I was very pleasantly surprised how varied the content was, from Oona versus George to arts, film and music reviews, and from What's on to what's hot. The editors emailed me a few months ago to ask if I'd like to write the quiz on the back page but I declined. I'd probably have written something a little tougher than the EastEnders quiz in the launch issue, but at least I'd have ended up being published on the back page right beside Belle de Jour's agony column. And therein one of the secrets of the London Line's success - a merry sprinkling of material written by bloggers (Londonist, Recess Monkey, qwghlm, Snackspot & Belle), and therefore a hell of a lot of stuff worth reading. And it's not the Evening Standard - what more could you want?

 Sunday, April 10, 2005

Random borough 5: Lewisham

The London borough of Lewisham perhaps doesn't have the best reputation, but it's really only the northern swathe that's urban and grey. Further south the borough is more suburban and rather greener, in places at least. Lewisham pleasantly surprised me as I swanned around yesterday visiting an assortment of interesting locations.

Somewhere famous: The Laban Centre
Proper famous places are in short supply in Lewisham, so this award winning building will have to do (it won the Stirling Prize for Architecture 2003). This is the Laban Centre, a new dance conservatoire on the banks of Deptford Creek that's somehow transcended its bleak surroundings to become a national style icon. Architects Herzog & de Meuron have worked shimmering magic using semi-translucent polycarbonate, plus the occasional vertical strip in lime, turquoise and magenta down the side of the building. Beneath the walls there's a grassy terrace which looks out over a couple of decaying barges marooned in the muddy river. Add a few large windows and some landscaped grass features out the front and the whole thing hangs together rather beautifully. Inside there are 13 dance studios, a library, a cafe, a restaurant, and probably a small lounge where knackered hoofers can collapse and rest their pointy toes. I watched a steady stream of dancey types flow through the entrance, from serious women in leotards to tiny budding ballerinas. I didn't risk venturing inside myself, I thought I'd leave that to the local talent, but I was duly impressed by a regeneration scheme which not only looks great but does great work too.
by train: Deptford

Somewhere sporting: The Den
There are probably better times to try getting close to Millwall's football ground than half past four on a matchday afternoon. Even when that match is only against Crewe. The streets around the Den may have been much quieter than the excitable crowds I could hear shouting within, but not for long. Several white vans began congregating in the nearby streets, some driven by greasy fryers hoping to sell over-priced hot dogs to passing trade, but most full of policemen. As the final whistle approached the coppers emerged from their vans to take up their positions around the stadium, looking menacing enough to make me feel slightly guilty about just being there. Roads were quietly sealed off, stewards gathered by the gates, and the smell of cooking fat increased. The first fans began to drip out of the stadium, pie-faced and lager-waisted, although they must have been pissed off later to realise they'd missed the nail-biting end of a seven goal thriller. They were certainly pissed. I took refuge in South Bermondsey station, from which high vantage point I could see the mounted police gathering their forces outside the parade along Ilderton Road. And, from the very end of the platform, I could see right inside the stadium... or at least the small strip of pitch in front of the West Stand. I watched the linesman patrolling the touchline, and a substitution, and a brief spell of play by the touchline that wasn't quite a throw-in. Loud cheers and the stamping of feet signalled that Crewe had equalised, but an even louder ovation greeted Millwall four minutes later when they retook the lead. As fans began to advance on the station in greater numbers I abandoned my grandstand view and leapt on the next train out. I had a sudden craving for a burger on the way home, though.
by train: South Bermondsey, by bus: P13

Somewhere retail: Lewisham Shopping Centre
It's not the first place you'd choose for a day's shopping, but Lewisham town centre is a retail magnet all the same. I walked down from the station with a group of waddling mothers, fag in one hand, eager daughter in the other, presumably hoping to buy some more of those classy jeans with the embroidered arse (and the extra-large hips). They headed for the main shopping centre, a typical mall complete with award-winning Shopmobility scheme and award-winning car park. Kids ran riot in the themed play area (theme: garish plastic) and tired pensioners sat down for a cappuccino and an oversized muffin. Outside in the daily street market the stallholders were doing a roaring trade in fruit and veg, mostly to the poorer shoppers. This is the place to come to buy cheap towels, toiletries of uncertain origin, colourful flowers and a nice tartan trolley on wheels in which to carry all your purchases home. But Lewisham was considerably more down to earth than Blackheath Village (all boutiques and antiques) and considerably more upmarket than Deptford High Street (if you ever want to buy a lilac plastic washing basket, why pay more than 49p?) so I can't really fault the place.
by train: Lewisham

Somewhere historic: Blackheath
Blackheath is the roof of southeast London, a large patch of open grassland with fine views across the capital. The slice north of the A2 is owned by the Queen, and lies in Greenwich, but the larger chunk to the south is still held by the Dartmouth family, and lies in Lewisham. Back in 1381 Wat Tyler and his revolting peasants camped here, in 1415 Henry V's official post-Agincourt welcome was held here, and in 1540 Henry VIII met horse-faced Anne of Cleves here for the very first time. Blackheath later grew into a posh Victorian suburb and it's now the perfect place for a weekend stroll. And kites, by the looks of it, because the weekend wind brought avid flyers out in great numbers. Some were playing with large parafoils, perhaps practising for yesterday's Streatham Kite Festival, while one bloke was even busy kite yachting. He held tight to his giant yellow wing, leapt onto a small skateboard and allowed himself to be pulled at great speed across the heath. Ten seconds later he had to leap off again before he ended up in the main road, but he was soon back on his feet and off to prepare for another voyage. Next week the London Marathon will be starting right here, just to spoil his fun.
by train: Blackheath, by bus: 53, 380

Somewhere pretty: Green Chain Walk
Well, it looked pretty on the map. I thought I'd spent too long in the northern part of the borough so I headed south to walk along the Lewisham part of the Green Chain Walk, a 40 mile network of footpaths through southeast London. I had high hopes as I set off from the corner of Barings Road and Coopers road where E Nesbit used to live. This stretch of the walk has been named in her honour, although I doubt she'd be too impressed by the graffitied footbridge over the railway and the upturned pushchair lying abandoned in a grassy pond. The path skirted the delights of Hither Green Cemetery and instead passed a vandalised playground, a fire station and a pile of tyres, then straight on through the middle of a council estate. The Downham Woodland Walk promised much but was never more than a narrow strip of trees hemmed in between houses and industrial units, and the only wildlife I saw was a mean-looking mongrel which burst out suddenly from a back garden riddled by teenage hash smoke. A tiny brook running beside the path disappeared through a metal sluice, heralding the unwelcome intrusion of the busy A21, and I lost hope that this walk might ever be worth the effort. But then, across the recreation ground, the route entered real undulating woodland at last in the grounds of Beckenham Place Park. A group of volunteers were busy restoring the path leading to some rare willow carr habitat, and elsewhere in the deep undergrowth lurked ancient (and terribly rare) "wild service" trees. The natural beauty of the area felt sadly underappreciated given that there were far more people on the adjacent golf course than there were out walking the Green Chain. I continued - past budding blossom and a bench inscribed "Here be squirrels" - to my destination on the hilltop at the elegant 18th century clubhouse, Beckenham Place (which sounds much more famous that it really is). Maybe next time I select a southeast London borough I'll come back and walk some more.
by train: Grove Hill, Beckenham Hill, Ravensbourne

Somewhere random: Horniman Museum
Most museums have a proper raison d'être, but the Horniman was established in 1901 to showcase the "evolution of culture" and has a rather more random feel to it. And it's fab. The first room I entered looked exactly like the sort of place I might have visited on a school trip 30 years ago - full of natural history specimens, most stuffed and the rest heavily pinned down, attached to fading displays annotated using genuine 1950s lettering. Where else in London could you find a sign reading "Please do not touch the walrus"? Another room contained some of founder Frederick Horniman's extensive collection of hundreds of thousands of cultural artefacts, particularly his extensive collection of masks, although the emphasis is no longer on trying to prove how backward some of the lesser civilisations on display must have been. More recently the Horniman has reinvented itself, not least for today's school trip market, with an impressive modern extension. This contains extra new galleries devoted to musical instruments (one of everything, how cool is that?) and West African culture, plus (currently) a gallery of striking cartoon-like art from Papua New Guinea. All this plus extensive hilltop gardens with cross-London views, and it's all free. I can't believe I've not been before, but then I just didn't expect this sort of gem in Forest Hill. Ethnography has rarely been so eclectic. Further reports, and better photos, from onionbagblogger.
by train: Forest Hill, by bus: 176, 185

• my Flickr photostream with more shots of gorgeous Lewisham

 Friday, April 08, 2005

Vote050505: Bethnal Green and Bow

I've never lived in an interesting constituency before. Hertfordshire South West was dull as ditchwater, Bedford was fairly bland and Suffolk South was a safe seat of the most tedious kind. But Bethnal Green and Bow is shaping up to be something quite different - the scene of what promises to be one of the bitterest and most hard-fought constituency battles during the forthcoming election.

I only just live in Bethnal Green and Bow - right at the eastern tip of this compact urban constituency. It's a very mixed seat, stretching from the Tower of London to Victoria Park and from Brick Lane to Cable Street, covering most of the traditional East End. But, apart from the poverty, there's not a lot of the traditional East End left. Crumbling council estates outnumber gentrified yuppie enclaves. A very high proportion of residents are under 30, but life expectancy is amongst the very lowest in the country. And nearly half of the electorate are Muslim, with Bangladeshis by far the most significant minority. It's the sort of neighbourhood that Middle-Englanders with an engendered fear of immigration might cite as an example of how they don't want their backyard to end up. As you'll have gathered, I rather like the place.

There have only ever been two black female MPs in Britain, and one of them is my MP (at least until Monday). She's Oona King, and she was elected for Labour round here back in 1997 at the tender age of 29 (she's still younger than me, mumble, grumble...). Oona's an articulate and witty campaigner, so her supporters would say, although others would more readily call her a toadying Blairite. Whenever there's a big vote in the Commons, she always backs the Government. Foundation hospitals? Yes please. Top-up fees? Most certainly. Hunting ban? Quite definitely. And War on Iraq? Ooh yes Tony. And, with such a high proportion of Muslim voters amongst her electorate, it's the war on Iraq that's made Oona's ten thousand majority look suddenly rather vulnerable.

Enter George Galloway, the Scottish firebrand campaigner whose Glasgow constituency has vanished overnight in the latest Boundary Commission reforms. Never one to miss an opportunity, 'Gorgeous' George has parachuted into Bethnal Green and Bow to liberate the indigenous population from the dictatorial rule of their tyrannical MP. He's standing for the new(ish) Respect coalition, born from the socialist heart of the anti-war movement, and he reckons he has a very good chance of picking up tankloads of local votes from disillusioned voters. He's certainly been breast-beating loudly to get his message across, but our George is a litigious bloke so I'll stop short of calling him a self-obsessed hot-headed rabble-rouser. What is true is that George has one of the worst voting records in the current House of Commons, having spoken in no debates whatsoever during the last year and attending a mere 3% of the votes during the last Parliament. Which means I'm in danger of ending up with a political representative who doesn't actually represent anyone (but only if Oona's vote crumbles dis-Respect-fully). The media will be keeping a careful watch on Bethnal Green and Bow over the next few weeks and so will I, just in case any of my local candidates ever decide to take any interest in me and my X.

Bethnal Green and Bow (2001 result)
Oona King (Labour) 19,380 [50.4%]
Shahagir Faruk (Conservative) 9,323 [24.2%]
Janet Ludlow (Liberal Democrat) 5,946 [15.5%]
Anna Bragga (Green) 1,666 [4.3%]
Michael Davidson (British National Party) 1,267 [3.3%]
Dennis Delderfield (New Britain Party) 888 [2.3%]
Labour majority: 10,057
Turnout: 48.6%

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