Thursday, June 30, 2005

The best of June

Album of the month: Tales From Turnpike House is a concept album from top beat combo Saint Etienne. They've written a suite of sublime ditties about the residents of a (real) tower block in Islington, thereby constructing a new style urban concept album that's far sweeter than the Streets. It's sparkly, poetic and effortless, unexpectedly so, and utterly charming, My favourite track is Milk Bottle Symphony, possibly the only song ever to namecheck both Unigate and quilted dressing gowns. Anyone for a cuppa?

Monday, July 25, 2005

What London commuters are thinking this morning (but trying very hard not to)

What comes next?

1) three tubes and a bus, three tubes and a bus,

2) north south east west, north south east west,

3a) Thursday, Thursday,
3b) 7/7, 21/7,

4) morning rush hour, lunchtime,

5) Aldgate, Edgware Road, Russell Square, Oval, Warren Street, Shepherd's Bush,

6) Circle, Circle, Piccadilly, Northern, Victoria, Hammersmith & City,

7) bus number 26, bus number 30, bus number

8) rucksack, rucksack, rucksack, rucksack, rucksack, rucksack, holdall, rucksack,

9) Asian man, Asian man, Afro-Caribbean man, Asian man, Asian man, Asian man, Asian man, Asian man,

10) life, death,

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Quickmap: The best map for finding your way around inner London isn't the A-Z, it isn't Multimap and it isn't Streetmap. And, despite being an all-time design classic, it isn't Harry Beck's tube map either. No, it's the Quickmap all-on-one map. Trust me on this one. If you're trying to get from one part of town to another (and you're not mad enough to be driving) then this tiny fold-out masterpiece has everything you need. See which buses go where, which tourist attractions are in the local vicinity, how far it is to the nearest station, which street that is just round the corner, where the all the markets are, which zone you're in and where all the nightbuses go. I've used it to negotiate the Richmond riverside, to work out where the hell my number 23 bus was going and to find the quickest way home from Highgate when the Northern line failed. And all this for just £2.50. Even better, at this time of 'increased travel difficulties', they've made the entire map available as a free download. Which is great if you have an A3 colour printer (or, ahem, if your place of work does). But I'd still recommend buying the real thing (unless of course you live in Melbourne) - you never know when you might be lost without it.

Quickmap links (hours of fun)
full details of the Quickmap all-on-one London map
free download of the all-on-one all transport map (pdf)
Central London walk map
• dead clever bus maps, including Baker Street, Bank, City, Euston, Holborn, Kings Cross, Liverpool Street, Marble Arch, Paddington, St Paul's and Victoria
central London tube trains (this map is so therapeutic)
trains (underground and overground) and the DLR
transport to the new Wembley Stadium
Notting Hill Carnival route and transport map
maps of Reading, Winchester and Glasgow

Smoke #6: The sixth issue of Smoke (a london peculiar) has just been issued. Smoke, if you remember, is a sort of London literary fanzine, full of "words, photos and graphic art inspired by the city". It only comes out sort of quarterly (which in real life seems to mean 4/5-monthly) but Smoke is always well worth the wait. In the latest edition you can read about former archaic practices at Foyles bookshop, currect archaic practices at a Jermyn Street barber, the unexpected view from a Dalston kitchen window, Soho's long lost northern sector, footbridges across the Thames, bus of the month (lucky Uxbridge), taxi drivers and London's campest statues (plus much much more spread over 52 shiny pages). Smoke 6 has a slightly more fictional bent than past issues, and there's also a bit of a bias towards locations close to the Thames (not much Barnet or Croydon, then), but as ever it's well worth two quid of anybody's money. Further details here, where to buy a copy here and how to get hold of a copy if you live nowhere near London here. Perfect reading matter for your next tube journey, I reckon, especially to take your mind off wondering which of your fellow passengers the police plan to shoot next.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Routemaster RIP
15 11 23 94 6 98 8 7 137 9 73 390 12 36 19 already passed away
14 (Putney - Tottenham Court Road) died yesterday [bittersweet report from Matt]
22 (Putney - Piccadilly Circus) deceased yesterday [report from Inspector Sands]
13 (Golders Green - Aldwych) expires 21st October 2005
38 (Victoria - Clapton Pond) goes bendy after 28th October 2005
159 (Marble Arch - Streatham) extinction date 9th December 2005 [and that's it]
[with just two 'heritage routes' to follow]

Friday, July 22, 2005

Commuting home from work - a Qualitative Risk Analysis

Risk 1: Being in the office
Hazard: Fatal paper cut; scalded by machine-vended hot chocolate; electrocuted by rogue photocopier; tie caught in paper shredder; crushed by toppling filing cabinet; inappropriate use of hole punch.
Risk: Negligible [only about 200 people are killed each year in the UK in workplace accidents]

Risk 2: Sitting at my desk, refreshing a selection of internet webpages in an attempt to discover the latest news on the failed London bombings
Hazard: Repetitive strain injury; long term spinal damage from poor seating posture; eyestrain leading to premature sight failure
Risk: Nil [obviously my employer's detailed health and safety policies protect me completely]

Risk 3a: Taking the lift to the ground floor
Hazard: Plunging to my doom following a terrible accident involving a severed lift cable
Risk: Fictional [these things tend to happen only in Hollywood movies]
Risk 3b: Walking to the ground floor
Hazard: Slipping accidentally on the top stair and breaking my neck in the ensuing fall
Risk: Relatively tiny [there are only approximately 100 annual fatalities on non-domestic stairs]

Risk 4: Exiting the office and walking along the pavement outside
Hazard: Tripped by passing wheelie suitcase; forced to inhale clouds of cancerous cigarette smoke wafting from office doorway; mugged by evil London street-vermin; hit on head by falling scaffolding; approached by charity representative with clipboard and forced smile; innocent victim of drive-by shooting; bitten by giant rat
Risk: Particularly hazardous [as everyone outside London knows, the capital is much more dangerous than where they live]

Risk 5: Using a pedestrian crossing at a busy central London road junction
Hazard: Swept along by crowd of passing French tourists; dragged beneath wheels of passing bendy bus; mowed down by procession of cyclists ignoring yet another red traffic light; suffering lung damage after inhaling ozone and exhaust fumes; crushed by white van accidentally mounting tiny traffic island; tempted to cross road during brief gap in traffic, only to be splattered by speeding motorcyclist
Risk: Unexpectedly perilous [the pedestrian crossing outside Holborn tube station must be one of the most dangerous in the country]

Risk 6: Going home on the tube during a time of heightened national security
Hazard: No, really, I'm not thinking about it (much)
Risk: Still insignificant [compared to the daily horrors lurking on the pavements and streets outside]

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Random borough 6: Southwark

The London borough of Southwark has pretty much everything. It stretches five miles top to bottom, from the historic south bank of the Thames through the multicultural estates of Camberwell and Peckham to the green suburban avenues of Dulwich. Just for once I was spoilt for choice for where to visit, so the borough's comprehensive tourist websites were most useful in planning my itinerary. I hope I've managed to sum up Southwark's diversity and vibrancy in what follows.

Somewhere historic/famous: the Thames
Southwark drips with history, particularly the northern slice alongside the Thames. This was the rough lawless side of the river, safely tucked away from the wealth of Westminster and the pomp of the City, a bolthole for criminals, prostitutes and the poor. But Southwark also developed as a thriving home to traders, travellers and entertainers, thanks in particular to its location beside the one bridge across the Thames out of London.

So, when I came to select 'somewhere historic' to visit in Southwark, I was spoilt for choice. All along the Thames there were far too many fascinating sites to choose from. So I walked the lot, from the Oxo Tower in the west to Greenland Dock in the east, and very pleasant it was too. Below are the highlights. For the full walk, go view my annotated photos. Go on, I took them for you, you know.

www.flickr.com : Take a virtual walk through Southwark-on-Thames.

A riverside stroll from the Oxo Tower to Greenland Dock
Mile 1: The first mile took me along the world famous South Bank, beside the Tate Modern and past the recreated Globe Theatre. Tourists streamed along the gleaming river's edge, flitting from sight to sight and from pub to pier. Just before London Bridge there was an embarassment of historical riches, including the infamous Clink prison, Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hinde and the immaculate Southwark Cathedral. Beat that, Barking & Dagenham.
Mile 2: Further along the Thames the testicular City Hall is still totally eclipsed by the iconic sight of Tower Bridge. Redevelopment is key along the cobbled Shad Thames and past the Design Museum. All along Bermondsey Riverside wharves are being converted, or more likely demolished, to make way for new blocks of housing. Nobody works here any more, they just live where work used to be. An old lady stopped me in Chambers Street, bemoaned the lawless nature of the local children and then encouraged me to go and view a local apartment being sold by a friend of hers. Just in case any of you have £425K to spare here are the details, and tell them Brenda sent you. New London is way out of my price bracket.
Mile 3: It was quieter through Rotherhithe, but with a brief stretch of genuine historical significance around Brunel's Thames Tunnel Engine House. The Pilgrim Fathers set sail in the Mayflower from the quayside here in 1620, and Captain Christopher Jones returned to be buried at St Mary's in 1622. The rest of Rotherhithe's riverfront would be unrecognisable to him now - an endless swathe of modern apartments hugging the river's edge.
Mile 4: It's a very long way round the rim of the Rotherhithe peninsula. Every now and then a watery inlet hints at the area's maritime past - originally 85% of the peninsula was dockland, now it's almost all residential. One of the few docks not to have been filled in is Greenland Dock, now an attractive backdrop to several waterside developments. Read the full redevelopment story here, or take a BBC 'Coast' walk here.
by tube: Southwark, London Bridge, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Surrey Quays, by bus: 381

Somewhere diverse: the Rise London United festival
Every year the Mayor (or rather his hard-working staff) organises a free music and dance event celebrating the capital's diversity and promoting anti-racism. Every year the festival is hosted by a different London borough, and last Saturday it was Southwark's turn. So I went along. In the aftermath of last week's terrible events the official title of the festival had been changed to 'London United' , but it had been too late to change the Rise programme, the Rise stickers and most of the other Rise branding. Still, if the day was meant as a celebration of all things multicultural then it was a huge success. I joined the masses flooding into Burgess Park, many no doubt from the neighbouring Aylesbury Estate, to bake in the afternoon heat. Every colour of skin was present - except white, because that had all tanned a nice shade of brown thank you very much. A huge crowd mixed around the main sound stage enjoying performances from such global superstars as Raghav, Horace Andy and (erm) Goldie Looking Chain. Elsewhere there was an Urban stage, a Mela stage, an African stage and a Cuban stage - there really was something for everyone. Alcohol became an essential tool for quenching one's thirst, while an understated police presence ignored the funny cigarette smoke wafting over certain parts of the crowd. There were the usual worthy stalls supporting downtrodden workers and communities. But most of all there were the happy smiling faces of a cohesive London community out enjoying themselves, together. London, united.
by train/tube: none, by bus: 42, 343

Somewhere retail: Borough Market
When Waitrose isn't good enough, where better to buy food of quality and distinction than underneath the railway arches beside Southwark Cathedral? There's been a market here for 250 years, but it's only recently that Borough Market has evolved into a foodie gourmand's paradise. Assuming you like scallops and camembert, that is. This is more of an open-air delicatessen than your normal fruit and veg market. The food divides subtly into traditional British fare (like game, strawberries and chutney) and fine European specialities (like chorizo, falafel and dolmades). So, every weekend, the dark arches beneath Borough Viaduct buzz with those special kind of people who love to spend all day faffing about with food. The morning's for shopping ("hmm darling, venison or partridge?"), the afternoon's for cooking ("could you chop the samphire, dear, and throw in the olives?") and the evening's for slow, glittering dining ("heavens, these quail's eggs are divine, and the smoked eel is to die for"). Personally I couldn't resist a fine steak, kidney, herb and ale pie (from Bristol bakers pieminister - highly recommended) for a bit of top quality lunch-on-the-go. But I suspect, having spotted a Sainsburys on the high street and a Lidl down the road, that very few of the Borough Market shoppers actually live locally.
by tube: London Bridge

Somewhere pretty: Dulwich Art Gallery
Like many London other suburbs Dulwich started out as a small hamlet but, unlike most other suburbs, it still retains a little rural charm. That's probably because Dulwich College (established by Edward Alleyn in 1619) owned most of the land around here, so when the railways came they were careful to restrict the impact of suburban sprawl. And now Dulwich is about as sought-after as it gets (hell, even Margaret Thatcher bought a top-notch gated pad round here). The avenues are broad, but the houses are broader. Dulwich, Common? It's nothing of the sort. So you'd expect the local art gallery to be a bit special, and it is. This is Britain's first public art gallery, opened in 1817 to house a bequest of top European paintings. The gallery is small but perfectly formed, just a handful of high-walled rooms subtly lit by overhead roof-lanterns. The collection covers the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries - a lot of portraits and landscapes, and a fair spattering of cherubs and peasants. But it's still pretty impressive to stumble across works by Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Canaletto and Rubens - here in the quiet London suburbs. At the moment four of the galleries are given over to the 20th century artist Graham Sutherland, a brief but fascinating restrospective of twisted red and yellow landscapes, and bombed streets from the 1940s. I bypassed the modern cafe on the way out and headed instead for a chocolate ice cream across the road in Dulwich Park. And I can quite see why Charles Dickens chose to retire Mr Pickwick in a Dulwich cottage, "contemplating the pictures in the Dulwich Gallery or enjoying a walk about the pleasant neighbourhood on a fine day."
by train: North Dulwich, by bus: P4

The London Olympics 1948
Somewhere sporting: Herne Hill Velodrome
Southwark is surprisingly under-endowed with top sporting venues. There may have been bear-baiting pits on the southern bank of the Thames 400 years ago but thankfully they've long gone. There is still top Ryman League action down at Dulwich Hamlet (at the foot of Dog Kennel Lane, next to a giant Sainsbury's), but they were playing a pre-season friendly in Surrey on Saturday so I didn't stop off there either. But in 1948 the cycling events at the London Olympics were held here, on the western edge of the borough at the Herne Hill Velodrome, so that's where I went. The very place where good old Reg Harris stormed to win the silver medal in the 1000m matched sprint. I knew it wasn't Olympic standard any more, and I knew there had been some serious leasehold problems here recently, but I hoped I'd be able to gain access or at least peer inside. No such luck. The velodrome lies hidden and locked away behind a veil of houses, and a smokescreen of bitterness. Southwark Council's lease expired six months ago but, with £7m needed to refurbish the stadium, the Dulwich Estate rejected their request for a five year extension. Instead they have plans to develop the site as a "leisure facility", which might mean more cycling or it might mean a casino, you never know. There's certainly no love lost in this bickering bureaucratic row, with the unfortunate two-wheeler brigade left watching impotently from the sidelines. Further details at the Velodrome's official site, or get your cycle clips on and pedal over to onionbagblogger. [July 19 update: Velodrome reopens Aug 5!]
by train: North Dulwich, by bus: 37

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Two minute silence bomb scare: With a little judicious juggling of work commitments, I conspired to be passing through Piccadilly Circus just before 12 noon today. Londoners and tourists alike were emerging from shops and hotels to stand respectfully around the perimeter of the Circus, in readiness for the two minute silence being observed across the capital this lunchtime. I thought I'd join the crowds standing around Eros but, as I reached Lillywhites, I noticed that everyone was being kept back away from the area immediately surrounding the world-famous statue. I edged as close as I could, taking up position beside a stall of 'I love London' t-shirts, only to discover that a policemen ahead of me was attempting, without much success, to move everybody backwards. The assembled crowd, intent on remembering London's dead, couldn't quite work out why they were suddenly being asked to leave the area at one minute to twelve, the only clue being the roll of red and white sticky tape in the policeman's hand. "It's a bomb scare," said the stallholder, although the policeman was careful never to utter those particular words. You probably spent the two minute silence remembering the appalling loss of human life brought about by last Thursday's terrorist outrage. I spent the two minute 'silence' being ushered slowly away from a central London tourist location, hoping that this wasn't the continuation of a terrible nightmare. It's not the way I'd have chosen to remember but, believe me, it was very effective.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The London Olympics 2012

Olympic snapshots: Olympic Stadium
Last Wednesday now seems a very long time ago, but July 2012 is considerably more distant. 367 weeks away to be precise, during which period the bland industrial trading estate in this photo will be resurrected as the world's top athletics stadium. Really, precisely, exactly, here. As you can see, there's an awful lot of work to be done first.

Marshgate Lane runs across the very bottom of this photograph. The road up the centre of the photo is a side-turning about the length of a 200m sprint, ending at a metal fence beneath a raised bank of earth a short distance in front of the City Mill River. At the far end on the right is Arnell House, home since 1988 to the Tyrone Group, specialists in the manufacture and distribution of lace and voile window furnishings. Not for much longer though. Look, here are photographs of the happy smiling (pre-Olympic) staff - whose jobs at the company head office are now more than just threatened, they're doomed. I'm sure the LDA will offer the company money to set up elsewhere, but whether that money will be enough to afford a new showroom even vaguely nearby is another matter. The Mercedes after-sales centre nextdoor has got to shift, as has the adjacent Bywaters 'special waste' depot and all the surrounding warehouses too. It can't be too many months before the compulsory purchase orders start rolling in.

But it was business as usual here when I visited last week. I've wandered up this road several times before but last Wednesday afternoon was different - this was no longer the site of a potential Olympic Stadium, it was the real thing. You could tell something had changed because there was one neighbourhood feature I'd never seen before - film crews. Up on the Greenway, the great Victorian sewer that crosses the Lower Lea Valley, two feral kids on BMX bikes asked me if I was looking for 'the filmers'. Beyond the bushes I spotted the media pointing a big black camera at the bleakest industrial landscape they could find, while a second group wandered (tripod in hand) towards the doomed businesses below in search of a choice quote for the evening news. In a second sideroad, adjacent to Forman's salmon-coloured fish-smoking plant, I spotted this big skip adrift on the pavement beneath a long grey warehouse wall. The tower of waste piled up inside was prophetically symbolic of the fate of many of those who currently work down Marshgate Lane.

But in seven years time this very spot will be the most famous location on the planet, beamed live into the homes of billions of people around the world. Relay finishes, high jump finals, world record-breaking performances, wheelchair sprints and medal ceremonies - they'll all be happening within a javelin's throw of this skip. A couple of weeks of inspirational athletic performances surrounded by a golden halo of cheering spectators, right here where they currently distribute net curtains. And, somewhere high up in the sky where grey pylons now dominate, the Olympic flame will shine down a message of hope and friendship across a revitalised East London. Standing last Wednesday in the centre of the future Olympic arena I struggled in vain to picture the all-transforming reality that 2012 will bring but, at last, I felt as if anything was possible. This trading estate cul-de-sac is no longer a dead end.

Monday, July 11, 2005

London future: There's so much to look forward to in London in July.

Monday 11th July 2005: Open for business - normal life continues.
Tuesday 12th July 2005: Bloc Party (Somerset House, 8pm) The penultimate in the annual series of summer concerts.
until Wednesday 13th July 2005: City of London Arts Festival (but you've missed the concert at the top of the gherkin)
Friday 15th July 2005: Queen (Hyde Park) Supported by Peter Kay and Razorlight, but without Freddie.
Friday 15th July 2005: The First Night of the Proms (Albert Hall, 7pm) Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Elgar and Tippett [until 10th Sept]
Saturday 16th July 2005: Rise Festival (Burgess Park, Camberwell, 12 noon) "London's top free music and dance festival, celebrating the capital's diversity and promoting anti-racism in a day-long festival."
Saturday 16th July 2005: Renaissance (Three Mills Green, E3, 9:30pm) "Audiences will be surrounded by towering architectural imagery, choreographed JCBs, aerial performance and pyrotechnics as a city of dreams takes shape around them." [Part of the Greenwich and Docklands Festival]
Sunday 17th July 2005: The Big Day Out (Hackney Town Hall Square, 12 noon) "Hackney Council has let the Spice Festival use the two adjoining squares for an open day of cultural multrilism (sic)." [part of the Spice Festival]
Thursday 21st July 2005: First Ashes test (Lord's) England v Australia - time for a good thrashing
Friday 22nd July 2005: Sprite Urban Games (Clapham Common) "See the world’s best skateboarders, BMXers, Freestyle Motor Cross riders and B-boys." [until Sunday 24th]
Saturday 23rd July 2005: Drako (Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, 9:30pm) "A dragon awakens and sets off on a terrifying journey through the streets of Woolwich accompanied by a foolhardy circus impressario." [Part of the Greenwich and Docklands Festival]
Friday 27th July 2012: The Olympic Games (down the end of my road, 7pm-ish) Open to the world - abnormal life continues.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Victoria Park, E3
lay a towel on the grass
shades on, stretch out, relax
a low roar on the eastern horizon
sunworshippers stir and look upwards
procession of planes flying in formation
biplanes, Dakotas, Flying Fortresses
Lancaster, Hurricane and Spitfire
buzzing into the western sky
the East End remembers
back to the suntan

The Living Museum

There's been an enormous military presence in central London this week. Scores of army personnel have seen been rounding up civilians, searching their hand luggage and then corralling them behind makeshift barriers in the Royal Parks. Don't worry, it's all been in a good cause, and it's had absolutely nothing to do with 'the other' events of the week. A Living Museum opened in St James Park on Monday, organised by the Ministry of Defence as part of the 60th anniversary commemoration of the end of World War 2. It's a great idea - a series of 1940s exhibits with the focus on people, not on instruments of death - and a welcome opportunity for war veterans to remember and be remembered.

So, while the Queen was busy yesterday afternoon unveiling the new Women of World War II memorial in Whitehall, I went and queued up in the Mall for a trip back in time instead. I'll say one thing for the armed forces - they organise a damned efficient bag search. We then snaked into the main exhibition area through an unnecessary chicane of metal barriers - two easy minutes for me but walking hell for a few of the 80-year olds hobbling behind me. Never mind, there were ham and piccalilli sandwiches available in the veterans catering area at one end, although I hope they weren't original NAAFI rations.

By the entrance I saw an old soldier in full regimental uniform and medals standing chatting to a young modern recruit with a celtic tattoo poking out beneath his khaki sleeves. A significant number of attendees looked like they'd seen active service fifty or sixty years ago, but they'd also brought along their grandchildren to pass on unforgettable wartime experiences to a new generation. Look kids, there's a German tank, and listen, that's the sound of the All Clear, and hey, let's give you a rifle and show you how to handle it. Several re-enactments brought the past nostalgically back to life. I cowered as ack ack guns and searchlights spun round to fight off an air raid, I watched uniformed pilots scramble into the cockpit of a Spitfire and I listened to the old music hall songs that kept the nation entertained back on the Home Front.

It was good to see several displays devoted to the often forgotten war in the Far East where so many soldiers fought and perished. And every level of wartime contribution was remembered, from the vegetable growers of the Land Army to the essential work of the Medical Corps, and from an evacuee support network to the codebreakers at Bletchley Park. Rather more up to date, I discovered GCHQ recruiting at the back of one tent, and the MoD were running a deviously interactive scratchcard competition in another (yay, I won a free wallet and an illuminated pen). So many people were smiling and enjoying the day, it's a pity that such an impressive participatory event will almost certainly never happen again.

Today is National Commemoration Day, the culmination of this week's events. You can still get into the Living Museum until 1pm this afternoon (and if you can, do), and then there's a show on Horseguards and a parade and flypast on the Mall. The aircraft taking part in the flypast are due to gather over Victoria Park in East London later this afternoon, so I'll be down there to see the sky filled with airpower as it might have been back in the days of the Blitz that wreaked such terrible devastation on this part of the capital.

I must admit I'd originally been surprised and disappointed when I first heard that Britain's end-of-the-war commemoration would take place in early July - a meaningless date of no chronological significance halfway between VE Day and VJ Day. Alas the atrocities of recent days have given this week's celebrations an extra resonance. No matter what the generation, it appears that there are some people to whom you can never say thank you often enough.

(Inspector Sands also visited)

WW2 museum links
Imperial War Museum, the Holocaust Centre
National Army Museum, Museum of Army Flying
Royal Naval Museum, RN Submarines Museum
RAF Museum, Fleet Air Arm Museum
The Tank Museum, Royal Signals Museum
Bletchley Park, Royal Marines Museum

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Journey back to reality (ish)

After Thursday's golden dawn, Friday's grey skies echoed the previous day's bleaker sunset. As I headed down the Bow Road on my way to work it was clear that the streets were rather quieter than usual. Certainly far quieter than twelve hours previously when I'd been part of the steady trickle of displaced humanity walking in the opposite direction, making its weary exodus away from the paralysed capital. And unnervingly quieter than 24 hours earlier when a joyful London had still been basking in the heady afterglow of Olympic success.

The first bus to pass me yesterday morning was half empty. Normally there are passengers rammed into every doorway of every passing bendy bus, but suddenly taking a ride up west in a fragile metal box seemed far less alluring. Another East End bus was pictured, lost and empty, on the front of the newspaper I picked up outside the station. For the first time in four years the Muslim newsagent started up a lengthy conversation with me which stretched further than a cheery smile and a thankyou. He was concerned to hear how I'd managed to get home the previous evening and proceeded to relate how a member of his family had been unnervingly close to Aldgate when the first bomb exploded. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell.

Bow Road station was also much quieter than normal - no queues at the ticket office, no waiting at the barriers, no jostling down the stairs. Personally I was just glad that the station was still open, and still standing. A succession of regular recorded announcements advised us to keep hold of our luggage and to watch out for unattended packages - not that anybody really needed any prompting. While a handful of us waited, the tannoy recited a litany of suspended lines and closed stations. I think we were all impressed that the list wasn't longer. We stood around on the platform for five long minutes, after which gap the next train to arrive would normally be absolutely packed. But not on this particular morning. The doors opened and then, with an invisible one-fingered salute directed towards a gang of shadowy bloodied terrorists, we stepped on board and continued with our normal lives.

The Central line train I switched to at Mile End was even more unusual - there were several spare seats. Normally I get to stand squashed into my own tiny patch of space somewhere beside the far door, my newspaper clutched unopened beneath my arm, but yesterday for once I got the chance to sit down and open it. Reading about the tragic events across central London helped me to ignore the fact that I was doing precisely what so many of the slaughtered had been doing so innocently the day before. My fellow travellers (unusually for a Friday morning) were all wide awake and alert, surreptitiously scanning the floor of the half-empty carriage for suspect packages that obviously weren't there. There was absolutely no sign of alarm or panic, not even when we stopped briefly in a tunnel because of a security alert on the train behind us. Neither did we flinch at Liverpool Street where, 23 hours earlier, such tragic events had played out in the Circle line tunnel almost directly over our heads. Life continued.

I disembarked at a semi-deserted Holborn station. In the rush hour traffic above the surface central London appeared to be getting back to normal, but half a bus half a mile up the road told a different story. However bravely life goes on, however resilient the travelling public, a lot of patching up still has to happen before London feels wholly safe and safely whole. And there are some scars that will never heal.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Repost: Tuesday 16th March 2004
London Prepared?

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 07, 2005

After the day when London's dreams came true came the day the city had so long dreaded. Millions of commuters travelled to work by bus and train as normal, unwitting participants in a lottery of death. At the end of the day us lucky winners merely had to walk all the way home - the unlucky ones will never make it home again. But London won't be defeated by such evil and cowardly acts - it never has been and it never will be. See you all on the tube again tomorrow?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The London Olympics: 2012

I must confess, I was expecting to be writing about Paris this morning. Hell, I even went to the effort of visiting the city three months ago to grab some tasty shots of the Stade de France. Seems I needn't have bothered. Fabulous, isn't it?

Olympic snapshots: Trafalgar Square
I didn't think Trafalgar Square would be very full yesterday. I was wrong - it was rammed. Thankfully I'd arrived early and was able to weave my way down through the crowd into the central space, just a few rows back from the main stage. The world's media were already in place on the raised piazza in front of the National Gallery, their cameras pointed out over the seething throng below. Most people present were resigned to this being the London bid's last hurrah, a final 'Thank you' celebration for us getting this far through the shortlisting process. It had been a plucky attempt by the British underdog, although surely doomed to ultimate failure. But there was still a real air of tension in the square, especially when it was announced that the final battle was to be fought between Paris and London. And where better for a good old Anglo-French showdown than at the foot of Nelson's Column? A pointless mimed performance by popstar Rachel Stevens dampened the atmosphere somewhat, but a pair of chirpy presenters from Capital Radio rescued the situation by wheeling on a series of top class Olympic athletes. And then the big screens either side of the stage flashed over, live, to the announcement of the result in Singapore.

I have never seen anyone take so long to open an envelope. IOC president Jacques Rogge stood there building up his part for ten of the longest seconds anyone in the crowd will ever remember. 200 miles apart, two capital cities stood in expectant silence. And then, as the wholly unexpected word 'London' dripped from his lips, the crowd around me erupted in jubilant celebration. People gasped, and cheered, and leapt, and hugged, and waved flags in the air... and they carried on doing so for some considerable time. The line of Olympic greats took a second to react, but it was a joy to be close up to Kelly Holmes as she pulled another of her legendary jaw-dropping expressions. Her euphoria was infectious. After a few minutes Heather Small bounded on stage to perform 'Proud' to a delighted audience, and it all felt so right. "I step out of the ordinary, I can feel my soul ascending, I am on my way, Can't stop me now." Somehow, against all the odds, Seb Coe had pulled off one last gold medal-winning performance and the 2012 Olympics were coming here, to our city. Who'd have thought? Alas the next act lined up on stage was a jumped-up rap wannabe with a freshly-signed record contract complete with the dreaded words "and this is my new single". It was a depressing reminder of how easily big business takes priority over sporting achievement, something I suspect we'll see rather more of as 2012 approaches.

A red, white and blue flypast from the Red Arrows restored national pride somewhat, at which point (regrettably) I had to leave the square. I had to be back in the East End within the hour to rendezvous with my landlord for the first time in four years. I wondered whether he might want to evict me from my flat in favour of a foreign camera crew, or at the very least treble my rent now that I live amongst some of the most desirable real estate on the planet. But I needn't have worried. For a start, London's 'obsolete' transport system whisked me back to the Olympic Zone with plenty of time to spare. And my flat inspection went swimmingly, thank you very much (my surfaces have never been so gleaming), with eviction never even on the menu. It seems I'm safe and secure in my stadium-side home for several years to come, so I have every expectation of remaining an Olympic resident until the five-ring circus arrives here in 2012. Bring it on!

 Tuesday, June 28, 2005

I was Andrew Gilligan's anonymous source

Yes, it's true. Oh ye of little faith. You probably thought that my daily reportage from Bow Road station was mind-numbingly boring trivia of the most anorakky kind. You probably thought that nobody would ever be interested in 16 months of regular updates on the renovation of my local tube station. You were wrong.

Yesterday the Evening Standard devoted a whole double page spread to the sorry saga of Metronet's wasteful procrastination at Bow Road station, including several paragraphs lifted from this blog and a big picture showing some workmen sitting on the platform doing sod all. And all this penned by Andrew Gilligan, the former BBC journalist at the centre of the Hutton Report debacle and now writing investigate articles for the Evening Standard. I'd love to link to the article so that you can read it in full, except that the Evening Standard appear to have downsized their online news presence in favour of advertising features and theatre ticket promotions so you'll have to make do with this photograph instead.

Last week Metronet's inability to complete station renovations to time finally threatened a huge £14 million financial penalty. This was big political news and, hey presto, Andrew Gilligan had the topic for his weekly investigative column in the Standard. In the course of his investigations he stumbled upon this blog, read my daily reports from the PPP's first station upgrade and sent me an email asking if I could shed further light on goings on at Bow Road. But of course. We had a 15 minute phone conversation in which I told Andrew more about what hadn't been going on, what I thought about the end results and how very little of the work had actually been of any benefit to my fellow travellers. And look, there was his full 1500 word article in the paper yesterday. Result!
The suspicion must be that Metronet chose an easy station to begin its £17 billion, 30-year spending programme. But what the company may not have realised is that Bow Road has its very own beady-eyed resident blogger. Every move Metronet made, or rather did not make, was to be chronicled for ever on the blog kept by one Diamond Geezer, who travelled to or through the station twice a day for the entire duration of the works.
As well as quotations from the blog ("Tuesday 10 February: A blue wall has appeared in front of the four Portakabins."), Andrew's feature concentrates on the lack of visible evidence that £3.3 million at Bow Road has been well spent. He uncovers the nightmarish PPP bureaucracy that required more than 50 sign-offs before work could begin, which is probably why nothing happened much happened here for the first six months or so. He gets Metronet's stations director, Clive Coleman, to admit that "nobody quite knew how [quality] assurance and scoping worked, how you brought people on site." Andrew discovers that there are an astonishing 70 new cameras at the station, even though CCTV was already installed at the station before the work began. And he confirms that Metronet have indeed declared "practical completion" on Bow Road this month, although this doesn't mean that the work is finished. Not quite.
"I do wonder where the money has gone", says Diamond Geezer (he will not let the Standard use his real name. Perhaps he fears Metronet will come round and refurbish his flat).
All in all the saga of Bow Road has been a litany of shame and profligate waste with no particularly worthy outcome. And I'm delighted, finally, to see this written in inch-high letters across London's evening paper. Today I can be fairly certain that my Bow Road diary, which started out as an obscure daily 'spot the difference' activity, has been brought to the attention of a readership of 1 million Londoners, including the top brass at Metronet and maybe a few other political movers and shakers too. Who says that blogging changes nothing? And to my new Metronet audience today I say, "Please remember that there's still more work to be done at Bow Road, and I'm still watching you not doing it."
Indeed, Metronet's entire, much trumpeted 152-station refurbishment programme includes almost no improvements whatever in the thing that really matters on the Underground: capacity. The changes will be almost all cosmetic: new vinyl walls, new CCTV cameras, rumble-strips on platforms to help the partially-sighted. New escalators, new entrances, wider platforms or passageways are not on the menu. Given this company's difficulties to date with even quite simple tasks, perhaps from one perspective this is just as well. But it is one more example of how the PPP will fail to provide the Underground with the improvements it actually needs.

 Monday, June 27, 2005

War of the Worlds: Woking at War

Welcome to Woking, population 68000, a dormitory town just outside the M25 roughly halfway between Staines and Guildford. Woking has three claims to fame dating back to the Victorian era. Brookwood Cemetery opened here in 1854 - then the largest cemetery in the world and the destination of London's Necropolis Railway. The Shah Jehan Mosque dates from 1889 and is the oldest purpose built mosque in Britain. And in 1898 HG Wells obliterated Woking in the opening chapters of his classic novel, The War of the Worlds. Not even the mosque was safe.
"I heard a muffled detonation from the common, and immediately after a gust of firing. Close on the heels of that came a violent rattling crash, quite close to us, that shook the ground; and, starting out upon the lawn, I saw the tops of the trees about the Oriental College burst into smoky red flame, and the tower of the little church beside it slide down into ruin. The pinnacle of the mosque had vanished, and the roof line of the college itself looked as if a hundred-ton gun had been at work upon it."
I walked in the footsteps of the invading aliens from Horsell Common along the Chobham Road into the town centre. There's some seriously expensive real estate in this part of town. I passed several imposing commuter enclaves tucked away behind high leafy hedges, all seemingly so serene and secure in the scorching noonday sun. But I took some pleasure, as had HG Wells before me, in imagining the destruction of this residential stronghold beneath the crushing feet of the Martian advance force.

At the foot of Chobham Road I found the giant stainless steel sculpture erected by the local council to commemorate the centenary of HG Wells' most famous literary association with Woking. An imposing alien tripod stands seven metres tall above the pavement, right next to British Home Stores, seemingly ignored by all the passing shoppers. It's extremely photogenic, although sadly the same can't be said for the surrounding shops and office blocks. A few metres to the south some decorative brickwork represents the crashed alien cylinder, and scattered across the precinct are several arty slabs depicting the bacteria that would finally put a stop to Martian plans of conquest. All credit to the council, and to artist Michael Condron, for this impressive splash of urban art, although there is a certain irony in spending taxpayers' money on commemorating the wholesale destruction of one's home town.
"In one night the valley had become a valley of ashes. The fires had dwindled now. Where flames had been there were now streamers of smoke; but the countless ruins of shattered and gutted houses and blasted and blackened trees that the night had hidden stood out now gaunt and terrible in the pitiless light of dawn... Never before in the history of warfare had destruction been so indiscriminate and so universal. And shining with the growing light of the east, three of the metallic giants stood about the pit, their cowls rotating as though they were surveying the desolation they had made."
Before I left Woking I ventured into a local bookshop to purchase my own copy of The War of the Worlds. I'm sure I read it as a child, and I know it's available to read online, but this felt the appropriate place to acquire the genuine article. I started reading this Victorian 'scientific romance' on the train back to London. I'd forgotten what a cracking story it was, literally decades ahead of its time, and still wholly believable even today. Wells writes in a snappy tabloid style, expertly placing the abhorrent amongst the mundane, and drives the narrative forward through graphic eye witness accounts. You can also follow nigh every step of the narrator's epic adventure on a map, and it's this attention to fine geographic detail that, for me, makes the book so utterly compelling.

My train headed back over the Maybury arch (steam train combusted, chapter 11), through Weybridge (obliterated, chapter 12), past St George's Hill (scene of great battle, chapter 15) and on through Wimbledon (sixth cylinder fell, Chapter 17). Once at Waterloo I was back in the capital city whose destruction Wells also so carefully chronicled, and where the novel reaches its deadly climax. From here millions fled for their lives in the face of advancing terror and toxic smoke until, high up on Primrose Hill, a few streptococci brought the invasion to an end. We take our well-ordered lives for granted these days, as did the citizens of late Victorian society before us. But, as Wells reminds us, the cosy trappings of civilisation are held together by fragile threads which can be stripped away all too easily, and with terrible consequences. May it never happen here.
"I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body. And strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill... to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear the tumult of playing children, and to recall the time when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day."

War of the Worlds: a few choice links
the book    the author
the films [1953] [2005 blockbuster] [2005 turkey]
the radio broadcast    the TV series
the album (Top 10 last week)
the graphic novel (via Mars Times)
the sculpture    my flickr photos

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