Monday, January 23, 2006

Streets of London

The streets of London have inspired thousands of songs (and even the odd symphony) over the years. Far more music than has ever been written about Birmingham, Belgrade or Baltimore, that's for sure. Maybe it's the brooding history of the place, maybe it's the bustling arty culture of the city, or maybe it's just that so many musicians actually live here. Whatever the case, there's certainly a lot of London music about. [Wikipedia list here]

So I've been to visit five London streets celebrated in song, and below I'll report back on what's there and whether they were actually worth singing about in the first place.

Streets of London
Electric Avenue - Eddy Grant (1983)

"We're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher"

Turn left out of Brixton tube station, walk a few paces past the Iceland supermarket and stop when you reach the dodgy geezer selling cheap fags for a couple of quid a packet. There, to your left, is the narrow market street of Electric Avenue. It curves sharply round towards the railway viaduct, hemmed in between tall Victorian terraces like a deep urban canyon. It's not a long street, barely a couple of minutes' walk from end to end, but you'd be hard-pushed to walk that fast when the market's in full swing. Few streets in London have quite so much character compressed into such a short space.

Electric Avenue is so named because, back in the 1860s, it was the first street in the South London area to be lit by new-fangled electricity. The shops in their tall terraces were erected in 1888, and Electric Avenue rapidly became the fashionable retail centre of Victorian Brixton. Gents in top hats and ladies in crinolines came to buy daily comestibles from the butcher's counter or the baker's van. Well-scrubbed shops lined up along both sides of the street, with the pavements covered by a continuous row of elegant iron canopies. And so the good life continued, until wartime bomb damage wiped out the southwestern terrace, and the buildings' remaining ironwork fell gradually into disrepair and was removed. Electric Avenue is still very much a shopping street, but its importance and prestige are long gone.
Full pictorial history of Electric Avenue (from urban75)

"Working so hard like a soldier
Can't afford a thing on TV
Deep in my heart I abhor ya
Can't get food for them kid, good God"

Can't afford a thing on TV? No problem, because nobody down Electric Avenue sells anything that might have been advertised on TV anyway. And you'd have to be in dire financial difficulties not to be able to afford the food on sale here either. Fruit and vegetables appear to be the top seller, many of them with a Caribbean flavour, reflecting the area's post-Windrush population. Stalls and shopfronts are piled high with plantains (five for a quid), pineapples and coco yams, as well as boxes full of mysterious, white, knobbly globes (which I still can't identify). Several butchers shops remain, most of them advertising halal meat, and each staffed by a crowd of eager young men in blood-stained aprons. Here scrawny plucked chickens hang limply from rails above the counter - this is 'best boiling chicken', apparently, and a real bargain at three birds for a fiver.

Other stalls sell West Indian sauces and Rasta-themed clothing, as well as the usual market mix of mobile phone covers, cheap cleaning products and suspiciously counterfeit DVDs. A multi-ethnic mix of shoppers throng the narrow pavements, with blue plastic carrier bags and tartan trolleys their receptacles of choice. Pensive pensioners pick patiently through piles of peaches, or else search out a nice bit of fish for their supper. An old man in a tall woolly hat stands smiling in front of an nail salon, the portable hi-fi hanging from his left hand pumping out muffled reggae into the busy street. And it's not difficult to scratch the surface and spot the illicit black market trading going on here, particularly every time some anonymous bloke approaches you muttering "skunk, weed, skunk, weed" under his breath.

"Now in the street there is violence
And a lots of work to be done
No place to hang out our washing
And I can't blame all on the sun, oh no"

The most violent incident in the history of Electric Avenue occured in April 1999. Extremist loner David Copeland kicked off a fortnight of terror in the capital by leaving a bag containing a homemade nailbomb beside a busy bus stop in Brixton High Street. Market traders were suspicious and moved the sports holdall into Electric Avenue, where it suddenly exploded seconds later injuring 39 people. A plaque on the wall of the Iceland supermarket commemorates the victims, and the united strength of the local community. During my visit I was a little perturbed to be targeted by earnest churchfolk standing on the very spot where the explosion took place. Presumably they thought my soul might be suffering from "disapointments", "panic attacks" and "inner emptyness", and that their miraculous tales of healing might motivate me to join their chain of prayer. Also no. Shady deals and petty crime may be rife down Electric Avenue, but the street's not that depressing. But Eddy Grant was right about one thing - whatever you do don't try to hang out your washing, because the pigeons will almost certainly spoil it.

Streets of London
'A' Bomb in Wardour Street - The Jam (1978)

"'A' bomb in Wardour Street, it's blown up the City
Now it's spreading through the country"

You get the feeling listening to this angry anthem that Paul Weller and pals weren't particular fans of late 70s Wardour Street. This was the heart of London clubland, home to the Wag and the Marquee, and also the epicentre of the burgeoning punk rock movement. Alas the new wave scene was in danger of being overtaken by violent racist thugs, so the Jam penned this retaliatory two-finger salute in unbridled defiance. Much of the street has since fallen victim to stifling commercial dullness, but certain buildings stand out as more odious than the rest. I took a walk from Leicester Square to Oxford Street to see which three sites still deserve to be nuked. With a very small, target-specific, people-friendly 'A' bomb, of course. Here's my choice of three ground zeros:

'A' Bomb 1: The Swiss Centre
"Where the streets are paved with blood,
with cataclysmic overtones"

In 1962 the Swiss tourist board erected this plastic palace as their London showcase. You probably remember the Swiss Centre as the building with the chiming cowherd clock. Every hour, on the hour, passers by assembled in mass amazement beneath this mechanical marvel to gawp at a few Alpine marionettes jerking along to a cowbell symphony. As musical spectacles go it was semi-charming the first time you saw it, and downright irritating on all subsequent occasions. But time has not been kind (who is this 'Switzerlad', for example - some kind of teenage lout in lederhosen?). Many of the Centre's more exclusive businesses have moved out to be replaced by cheap souvenir shops, and the stilted musical milkmaids no longer perform. But it looks like my desire to see this building demolished is about to come true, and within the next few months. An Irish property company recently snapped up the freehold and plan to build a new hotel on the site with penthouse apartments and "ground and first floor brand retailing, bars & restaurants." This new development may give Leicester Square a valuable facelift, but I fear I might just prefer the building the way it used to be.

'A' Bomb 2: Scotch Steak House
"Fear and hate linger in the air,
A strictly no-go deadly zone"

These garish restaurants lie in wait on every other street corner in the West End, alternating with the disturbingly similar Aberdeen and Angus Steak Houses. The 'traditional' menu ensnares passing tourists and theatregoers who probably believe they're about to experience genuine Highland cooking. Alas not. Indeed one sure sign of Scottish culinary excellence is that there are no Scotch Steak Houses north of the border. Potential diners are likely to be ushered into one of the restaurant's nauseatingly plush red-green booths (probably designed by a colour-blind vegetarian). Here they risk ordering bland sirloin and damp French fries, served up by disinterested Eastern European waitresses who've never been anywhere near Aberdeen in their lives, then picking the watery tomato out of their limp salad and vowing never to return. Americans be warned. Next time be brave enough to cross Shaftesbury Avenue and sample some genuine Chinatown cuisine instead.

'A' Bomb 3: Ann Summers
"Through the haze I can see my girl,
15 geezers got her pinned to the door"

When I was about ten years old, my Mum had to accompany me to visit an upstanding musical instrument shop located just off Wardour Street. I'd never ventured this far into deepest, darkest Soho before, and I couldn't understand why I was being led so cautiously, and yet so quickly through these narrow streets. Little did I know at the time how many dodgy establishments existed in the vicinity, peddling lurid literature and latex accessories of a dubious nature. I'm rather older now, but I'm still somewhat shocked every time I see a full-on display of sexual accoutrements in a Soho sex shop window. I know very well what lurks inside without having it thrust in my face, so to speak, but I still fear for the continued innocence of any passing ten year-olds. "Mummy, why is that nurse's uniform so short?" "Mummy, what's a pussy pouch?" "Mummy, can I have a rampant rabbit?" Hell, even mainstream Oxford Street contains an upfront Ann Summers pornmart these days. OK, maybe this backstreet branch doesn't need an 'A' bomb, just a carefully whitewashed window. But thanks Mum, all the same.

Streets of London
Baker Street - Gerry Rafferty (1978)

I'm sure most people who've never been to Baker Street have a very romantic view of Sherlock Holmes' home patch. Perhaps an imposing terrace of Victorian townhouses, with hansom cabs parked up outside and street urchins playfully wheeling hoops over the cobblestones. Or maybe a wide tree-lined boulevard of gas-lit Georgian villas, barely visible through the all-enveloping fog. I hate to disappoint you, but it's not like that at all.

"Winding your way down on Baker Street
Light in your head, and dead on your feet"

Gerry Rafferty was right. You can only wind your way 'down' on Baker Street these days, not up. This key London thoroughfare has become a one-way three-lane arterial highway, complete with partial bus lane and eight sets of traffic lights. Not the best road to cross if you're light in your head, because you do indeed risk ending up dead on your feet. It's as characterless as it sounds, and I really wouldn't bother visiting.

"Well another crazy day, you drink the night away
And forget about everything"

You might expect there'd be several watering holes down a mile-long Central London street but no, there's only the one. That'd be The Volunteer, located right up at the northern tip of Baker Street, close to Regent's Park. I thought the pub's spacious interior looked cosy and welcoming (in a leathery yet homely way), but I bravely resisted the temptation to go inside for a foaming pint. Alcoholics further down the street have to make do with off-licence wine or tinned Tesco lager instead, or perhaps a fine vintage to accompany their meal at one of the elaborate middle-Eastern restaurants.

"This city desert makes you feel so cold,
It's got so many people but its got no soul"

The majority of Baker Street sums up all that's wrong with uninspiring urban development. Imagine the architectural merits, or otherwise, of a postwar office block called 'Accurist House'. Imagine glass-fronted shops selling conservatories and carpets. Imagine identikit banks with beds of flattened cardboard boxes spread outside their entrances. Imagine Marks & Spencer's imposing corporate HQ being systematically demolished to make way for a "450,000 sq ft mixed-use development". And imagine the corporate smothering which is a KFC nextdoor to a Starbucks nextdoor to a Costa nextdoor to a McDonalds nextdoor to a Pret A Manger. In fact the only stretch of road with a modicum of soul is the short section immediately alongside Baker Street tube station, which may just be why HG Wells once lived here.

"Way down the street there's a light in his place
He opens the door, he's got that look on his face"

The most famous address in Baker Street is 221B, the fictional home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's deerstalkered detective. Sightseers attempting to visit the site of Sherlock Holmes' London residence will have been disappointed in the past to find nothing more than a feeble display of cardboard cutout characters in an Abbey building society window. Today they'll probably be even more disappointed to discover no building at all, because the whole of Abbey House has been demolished (bar the the very top tower) and currently awaits a total rebuild. Never mind, because enterprising entrepreneurs have set up a Sherlock Holmes museum-cum-shop just up the road, complete with jolly policeman standing outside the entrance for the benefit of happy-snapping tourists. But be warned. The gold lettering on the lamplit window above the door may read '221B', but the fact that the shop is located immediately between '237 Baker Street' and '241 Baker Street' should suggest that this mock-Victorian emporium is really a bit of a fiddle.
Read 48 (out-of-copyright) Sherlock Holmes stories, for free

Streets of London
Rossmore Road - Barry Andrews (1980)

This week I'm visiting five London streets celebrated in song. Today's song is desperately obscure, which is kind of appropriate because it's about a totally insignificant north London street - Rossmore Road. But this obscurity has one major drawback, which is that only a tiny handful of you will ever have heard this utterly charming song before. And that's a shame, because today's post won't make much sense otherwise.

"Rossmore Road" was written by Barry Andrews (the founder keyboard player with XTC, and later one of the geniuses behind Shriekback) during his brief solo period. For inspiration Barry paid a visit to this minor Marylebone backroad, looked around at the local street furniture and then composed this modest ballad about what he saw. I've loved the song for years, so I went on a pilgrimage to see what's changed down Rossmore Road over the last quarter century. Does Barry's "fine proto-Psychogeographical anthem" still hold true, or not?

"The 159 runs along it" Not any more it doesn't. The 139 took over in 1992. Which is a shame, because I'd liked to have seen London's last Routemaster down Rossmore Road.
"Around the corner from Baker Street" Yes, only a five minute walk from yesterday's location.
"There's a dolls house shop on the corner of Lisson Grove and Rossmore Road" Alas, the miniature furniture emporium on the corner has closed down, replaced by the very ordinary Food Fayre mini-market (pictured). And all because newspapers and samosas are rather more useful to local residents than tiny four-poster beds and replica Welsh dressers.

"Turn left at the DHSS in Lisson Grove, you find yourself in Rossmore Road" No you don't Barry, you find yourself in Hayes Place or Shroton Street. I can't believe you've been lying to me all these years. Rossmore Road's a good 150 yards further north.
"And there's a number of public buildings" A right mixture of public buildings in fact. There's the Fourth Feathers youth and community centre (a 70s brick fortress secured behind unwelcoming steel gates). There are a couple of churches (one offering repentance to ungodly sinners, the other offering line dancing and short mat bowls). And there's also the very marvellous Sylvia Young Theatre School (in a converted Victorian building, complete with hanging baskets) whose previous students include Denise Van Outen, Billie Piper, Emma Bunton and three quarters of All Saints. Bravo.
"And a safety barrier down the middle of the road, in Rossmore Road" No Barry, you're lying to me again. There's a safety barrier along the edge of the road, to stop pedestrians accidentally falling several feet onto Taunton Place or the Chiltern railway, but nothing down the middle.

"In Rossmore Road...
white and yellow lines"
Several, although the yellow lines all look rather thin and distinctly amateur. [photo]
"and street signs" Several, mostly parking-related. [photo]
"and public phones" Two, painted black [photo], up at the eastern end opposite the drive-thru florist. [photo]
"and traffic cones" Several, with flashing lamps on top, but only because they're currently doing building work on the railway bridge. [photo]
"and belisha beacons on the central reservation" There is no central reservation, Barry. And any old fashioned flashing yellow globes are long gone. [photo]

"To the north: the Grand Canal" It's hardly Venice, Barry, but the Regent's Canal (about which I wrote tons last summer) runs nearby.
"Round the corner: Regent's Park" True, and much more worthy of a visit.
"Next stop on the tube: Marylebone Road" There is no tube station called Marylebone Road, nor has there ever been, but the platforms of elegant Marylebone station extend almost to within touching distance. [photo]
"And you can see Balcombe Street from Rossmore Road" You can indeed see Balcombe Street, if you look through the blue iron railings just to the right of the London Business School [photo]. Balcombe Street is the kind of glorious London terrace which barristers aspire to live in and English Heritage rush to protect. It's also a notorious street where, back in the 1970s, four IRA gunmen holed up with two hostages for a week long siege. In fact Balcombe Street is far far more characterful and interesting than poor old Rossmore Road, and Barry might well have chosen to write his song about it instead. But I'm glad he didn't.

"All humming now, all humming now, all humming now..."

www.flickr.com : Rossmore Road gallery
(possibly the dullest flickr gallery ever in the history of the world)

Streets of London
The Road To Hell - Chris Rea (1989)

And finally to the very outskirts of London, to the orbital motorway notorious for gridlock and misery. The M25 usefully bypasses the centre of town, but combines this convenience with considerable congestion. Here long-distance lorry drivers jam together with suburban commuters in a never-ending crawl of traffic, and stress levels spiral ever upwards. It's enough to drive any sane motorist to distraction. Chris Rea very sensibly expressed all his road rage in song and made a fortune out of the experience.

"Well I’m standing by a river but the water doesn’t flow
It boils with every poison you can think of...
This ain't no upwardly mobile freeway
Oh no, this is the road to hell"

25 (highly clickable) M25 facts:
The M25 is approximately 118 miles long (and slightly longer clockwise than anti-clockwise).
The M25 isn't a complete circle. The six mile section across the Thames from Thurrock to Dartford is designated the A282 (so that non-motorway traffic can cross the river).
The M25 interchanges with nine other motorways - the M20, M26, M23, M3, M4, M40, M1, A1(M) and M11.
Keep an eye on M25 motorway jams here.
Today's photograph comes from Jag over at Route 79. He normally goes out of his way to avoid the M25, but decided to risk it for the first time in ten years on his way to a wedding reception last summer. Alas the journey from Slough to the M11 took 2½ hours (causing foot-ache, shoulder-ache, neck-ache and severe driving-nowhere-stress) and he arrived both shattered and late. I'm sure most local readers have similar stories, don't you?

The M25 has 31 junctions, from J1 (south of the Dartford Tunnel) clockwise round to J31 (north of the Dartford Tunnel). [full exit list here]
Most of the motorway has six lanes (three each way), but road widening means there are now ten lanes between junctions 12 and 14 and twelve lanes between junctions 14 and 15.
At junction 5 near Sevenoaks drivers have to follow the slip roads to stay on the M25, or else they end up on the M26 or A21 instead.
Five key destinations are used on all the direction signs round the M25 - Dartford Tunnel, Gatwick, Heathrow, Watford and Harlow.
My brother and I would like to apologise to my Mum for 'accidentally' directing her onto the M25 a few days after passing her driving test.

Pre-war planners proposed four concentric ringroads around London. Much of Ringway 2 became the North and South Circular Roads, while the M25 is based on parts of Ringway 3 and Ringway 4. [read a very full history here]
39 different public enquiries were held before the M25 was completed. Several extra junctions were added to appease local residents, which is one of the reasons why congestion on the motorway is far worse than originally planned.
The motorway north of the Thames was originally going to be called the M16 [here's a map], but planners later decided that the loop should be called the M25 all the way round.
The M25 finally was built in several short stages between 1975 to 1986. The first section, between South Mimms and Potters Bar, was just three miles long. [here's a map]
Margaret Thatcher officially opened the final stretch of the M25 (again at South Mimms) in October 1986 by cutting a ribbon across the tarmac. "I must say I can't stand those who carp and criticise when they ought to be congratulating Britain on a magnificent achievement."

Only J14 (Heathrow), J25 (A10), J28 (A12) and J29 (A127) fall inside Greater London. All the other junctions are outside.
The M25 is at its closest to Central London near Potters Bar (12 miles) and at its furthest near Byfleet, Surrey (20 miles).
The tiny village of North Ockendon is the only settlement in Greater London outside the M25.
Watford (population 80000) is the largest town outside Greater London to lie inside the M25.
Author Iain Sinclair describes his walk all the way round the M25 in the book London Orbital. I so wanted to enjoy it, but I found his prose over-treacly and pretty much unreadable.

Approximately 200,000 vehicles use the section near Heathrow Airport each weekday (double the total of 20 years ago).
There are only three service stations on the M25 - at Clacket Lane (J5-6), South Mimms (J23) and Thurrock (J30-31). A fourth at Iver (J15-16) was planned but has never been built.
I once tried to drive off the M25 to stop at South Mimms service station. Instead I kept ending up in the wrong lane and, after three circuits of the giant roundabout, gave up and returned to the motorway.
The M25's construction costs averaged £7.5m per mile, making it the most expensive motorway ever built in Britain.
Far too much detail about the construction of the M25 can be found here.

Waterloo Sunset - The Kinks (1967)

"Terry and Julie cross over the river
Where they feel safe and sound
And they don't need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset
They are in paradise"

 Sunday, January 22, 2006

Streets of London (music, if not words, by Ralph McTell)

Have you seen the young men every hundred metres
Selling the Big Issue in their worn out shoes?
Two quid a time in pity, to survive our winter city,
Then off to sleep in doorways under yesterday's news.

    So how can you tell me London’s lovely
    And say the pavements here are made of gold?
    Let me take you by the hand and lead you through a sea of litter
    I'll show you something to make your blood run cold.

Have you seen the charity workers lurking with their clipboards?
"Can you spare a minute for leukaemia or the blind?"
Whenever they start talking, you just keep right on walking,
Sometimes it's much better to be cruel to be kind.

Have you seen the tourists outside the Trocadero,
Blocking up the pavement with a camera in their hand?
They make you slow your pace, shove a rucksack in your face,
The Mayor should pass a law to get their wheelie cases banned.

Have you seen the young girls along the streets of Mayfair
Heads all facing downward, made up older than their years?
They came here seeking fame, but now they’re on the game,
London's fascination isn't all that it appears.

 Saturday, January 21, 2006

LONDON - a tourist guide for Whales

London has always welcomed visitors from around the world. Visitors from every continent, every race and creed. And now, with the appearance of a bottlenosed whale in the River Thames, London welcomes its very first non-human tourist. I suppose it was only a matter of time before higher-order mammals recognised our city's cultural heritage, lively nightlife and period charm. There's certainly plenty in our capital for a highly intelligent sea creature to enjoy. Here are the top ten Thames-side tourist attractions for whales:

1) Thames Cruise: Join thousands of other tourists and take a trip up the meandering river past countless famous landmarks. It's the best way to see the capital (and, if you're a whale, also the only way). Try to avoid the boats full of TV crews, port officials, cameramen and marine experts.
2) London Aquarium: London's only 5-star hotel for whales, dolphins and other fishy life. Unfortunately most residents don't seem to have the option of checking out.
3) Houses of Parliament: This riverside Gothic palace is more well known for its sharks than its whales. And whatever you do don't swim too close, because the over-twitchy inhabitants have set up an exclusion zone (which extends out even into the river).
4) Billingsgate Fish Market: Where better to dine out than at this fine fish restaurant (turn right at West India Dock).
5) Tower of London: Come swim in the historic waters beside Traitor's Gate, the riverside entrance to London's medieval fortress. And if you could blow your spout in the waters beneath Tower Bridge, that would make the perfect photo opportunity for the thousands of whale watchers lining the riverbanks. Thanks.
6) Chelsea Harbour: Larger-than-life Russian émigrés are always welcome here (and at the football club just up Battersea Creek).
7) Windsor Castle: If you've swum upstream as far as Windsor then you're probably in big trouble. But please note - the Prince of Whales doesn't actually live here.
8) Pool of London: Why not rest awhile on a luxurious pebbly Thames-side beach? Just try not to look sick or ill, otherwise boatloads of 'caring' animal rescue workers will be along like a shot to give you a lethal injection.
9) National Maritime Museum: This Greenwich treasurehouse tells the story of how Britain once ruled the oceans. It carefully ignores the fact that whales ruled the oceans for several millennia before that.
10) Greenland Dock: Don't mention it out loud, but this huge man-made harbour used to be the home of London's 17th century whaling industry. Big ships would sail to the Arctic, harpoon a few lovable mammals and then bring them home to Rotherhithe to be cut open and sold. Sssh, we all love whales now.

 Friday, January 20, 2006

What if... station names on the London Underground were renamed after multinational corporate sponsors?
(Come on, it could happen)

Heinz Park CornerNestlé Hill GateToblerone Court Road
Colgate GardenMornington CrestElastoplast & Castile
Walkers-looOxo-ford CircusBlack & Decker Friars
Canon StreetKitkat St PancrasBasildon Bond Street
Vicks-toriaPaddington Pro-VPanasonic Circus
Maxwell HouseL’Oreal StreetSeven Up Sisters
Cock FostersCanada Dry WaterGreat Potnoodle Street
Vauxhall AstraSt Arbuck’s WoodCharing Cross & Blackwell

Wednesday 9pm update:
PimmslicoSwissair CottagePizzaHutty Circus
IKEAnhamBrooke Bond StreetDyna-Roding Valley
Angel DelightStrong-bow RoadArm & Hammersmith
Oval-tineOld Spice StreetBrillo Paddington
Alpen-tonFindusbury ParkLambert & Butler North
Archers-wayLadbrokes GroveRussell Hobbs Square
IBM-bankmentNetwork-Q GardensBethnal Greene King
Argos GroveGoogle StreetAlliance & Leicester Square

Can you think up any more?
(Here's a map if you need one, and here's a list of stations)

 Sunday, January 15, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 4: The British Museum

Location: Great Russell Street, WC1B 3DG [map]
Open: 10am - 5:30pm (late opening Thur & Fri)
Admission: free
5-word summary: ancient booty plundered from abroad
Website: www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk
Time to set aside: a couple of days

If ever a museum had an inappropriate name, this is it. You might expect this vast Bloomsbury treasure house to be given over to celebrating Britain's historic achievements, but no. Only one corner of the first floor presents a potted history of our nation from prehistoric times to the present day. Instead the great majority of the museum's gallery space is given over to artefacts from proper ancient civilisations, fashioned in the days when we Britons were still slapping woad on our faces and chasing wild boar round uncultivated forests. The only British thing about these exhibits is that they were shamelessly stolen, several generations later, by our bravest and most daring so-called explorers.

Take the Parthenon Marbles, for example. Lord Elgin did, back in 1802, and we've not thought fit to return them ever since. Instead the British Museum boasts a long gallery devoted solely to these classical Greek sculptures, their faces defaced, rescued from a crumbling frieze carved into the roof of one of the greatest temples in Athens. Then there's the Rosetta Stone, the chipped rock that unlocked hieroglyphics, which isn't really ours either. It was originally discovered in Egypt by the French in 1799, but was surrendered to the British shortly afterwards as part of some dodgy Napoleonic peace treaty, and we've still got it. Throw in several Sumerian murals, an Easter Island statue, an awful lot of Egyptian mummies and countless other priceless foreign artefacts, and what the British Museum contains is a unique selection of global goodies which really shouldn't be here. It's a bloody marvellous collection, of course, but I still feel a collective national guilt every time I walk round.

But there is one part of the museum that truly exhibits Britishness, and that's the Great Court. In the centre is the high circular Reading Room with its musty librarians and spiralling bookcases set beneath an striking azure dome, looking every inch the Harry Potter film set. At the rear is the Museum shop, peddling lavish exhibition catalogues, replica chess sets, hieroglyphic headscarves and Roman-style jade pendants. High above the courtyard is Norman Foster's stunning geometric glass roof, completed in 2000, whose thousands of tessellating triangles are all slightly different to one another. A door leads through to the Enlightenment gallery, where classical vases and cherubs are laid out like tacky concrete statuary in an Essex garden centre. And in the northern corners are two tasteful cafes dispensing hot drinks, posh sarnies and over-priced slices of cake to weary visitors. Harry Potter, shopping, headscarves, great architecture, gardening and tea - what greater celebration of British life could you wish to experience?
by tube: Holborn  by bus: 7

 Sunday, January 08, 2006

Random borough 8: Hackney

Yesterday I ended up in northeast London wandering the streets of the randomly selected borough of Hackney. It's not one of London's most alluring boroughs, so the cold sleety weather was perfectly in keeping with the general atmosphere of the place. Hackney may be home to the poor, the displaced and the unwanted, but it's also affordable, accessible(ish) and full of character. And it's not far from where I live, which made getting there fortuitously simple. Zero marks to the council's official website for being wholly uninformative for tourists, but thankfully certain other websites provided several suggestions for interesting places to visit and sights to see. So much so that I'm splitting my report into three - first part today, the rest to follow.

But first, some photos. They're not of anything or anywhere special, they're just things and objects and street furniture, but they are very Hackney.

www.flickr.com : Hackney gallery

Somewhere famous: Hoxton
There are two Hoxtons. One is the über-cool epicentre of hipness, circa 1996, home to artists, blaggers and the generally trendy. And the other is a piss-poor neighbourhood of rundown hovels, home to pensioners, mums in trackies and families scraping below the poverty line. I visited both.

Hip Hoxton is, or was, based around Hoxton Square. The area's long been known for culture and hedonism, ever since Richard Burbage opened his Theatre just outside the City boundaries more than 400 years ago. Faddish bars (and Banksy murals) have grown up along Curtain Road to entertain today's party-goers, with just a well-hidden plaque to mark the site of Shakespeare's East End debut. Head north across narrow twisting Old Street, go round the back of the once-great 333, walk past the chic restaurants and trainer emporia, and you'll find yourself in Hoxton Square. Unfortunately half past ten on a sleety Saturday morning wasn't the best time to see this area at its best. The square's central grassy lawn stood empty. Lonely waitresses could be seen rearranging the tables inside various glass-fronted eateries. A Hackney dustcart circled the square collecting the detritus of Friday night's drinking session. But at least the White Cube gallery (pictured) was already open, welcoming the occasional early-rising couple to its intimate (for which read 'tiny') exhibition space. It was all too quiet, a hint that the square's heyday has undoubtedly passed, although few other Hackney backwaters can claim to have launched a finny haircut and an artistic movement.

Hovel Hoxton lies only a few hundred yards to the north. No self-respecting trendsetter would be seen dead here, queueing for benefits in the post office, buying brightly-coloured plastic brooms in the pound shop or popping into the bookies to put two quid down on a better future. This is Hoxton Street, an underprivileged artery hemmed in between tightly-packed council blocks, where Tracey Emin's work remains either unknown or out of reach. Saturday's street market attracts only locals, rifling through trays of cheap garments for something unfashionable but inexpensive, or haggling for a few pence off a bag of fake cleaning products, or buying non-label trainers from the hoop-earringed girl sat on an upturned crate. Poverty is not a new problem round here - indeed, one of today's market stalls was set out in front of the elegant facade of Shoreditch's 1863 'Offices For The Relief Of The Poor'. But it's a stark reminder that Hackney remains one of the very poorest boroughs in the country, no matter how many Nathan Barley wannabes neck vodkas and pop pills in one small atypical corner.
by tube: Old Street  by bus: 55, 243, 394

I SPY LONDON (3) & somewhere historic: Geffrye Museum
Location: Kingsland Road, Shoreditch E2 8EA [map]
Open: 10am - 5pm (opens noon Sundays, closed Mondays)
Admission: free
5-word summary: middle class interior style cavalcade
Website: www.geffrye-museum.org.uk
Time to set aside: a couple of hours

One of London's most delightful museums is hidden off the tourist trail up the Kingsland Road, just round the corner from Hoxton Street. Think of it as a 400-year version of IKEA, showcasing period designer style in a series of exquisitely laid-out rooms tracking from late Elizabethan oak panelling to present day loft living. The museum is housed in a row of converted almshouses and so is long and thin, allowing you to walk through history on your journey to the shop and restaurant at the other end. It's fascinating watching tastes change, from simple to ornate to puritan to gaudy to austere to smart, but always functional. The mid 1800s reminded me how flamboyant Victorian design could be, while the 1930s living room evoked deep-seated memories of my grandparents' crockery and glassware. Over Christmas all the rooms are draped with appropriate Christmas decorations, which gives the exhibits a fine festive touch and helps explain how the importance of celebrating the season has fluctuated over the centuries. During the summer months a complementary series of historical gardens is open to the rear of the museum - not especially well looked after but the intention is good. And on the first Saturday of the month (which was perfect timing yesterday) one of the original almshouses is opened to the public as part of a special £2 tour. I was able to see how Shoreditch's more fortunate pensioners would have lived out their final years in dignified independence and dimly lit respectability. All in far better than spending the weekend enduring the IKEA experience. Geffrye - historical solutions for better living.
by tube: Hoxton (opening 2010)  by bus: 67, 149, 242, 243

Somewhere pretty: Clissold Park
Hackney's not a borough renowned for its beauty. But tucked in amongst the ubiquitous Victorian terraces are occasional expanses of green - none of them large, but each a welcome respite from the surrounding urban sprawl. I chose to head north to Clissold Park, 54 acres of tree-lined communal space on the edge of Stoke Newington. I imagine that in the summer the park's grassy lawns are covered by sunbathing locals, teenagers kicking footballs and hyperactive kids. On Saturday, however, the grey skies and churning mud proved far less alluring. There are two ponds (one named Beckmere and the other Runtzmere in honour of the park's founders) where a frozen mother and her well-wrapped toddler were busy throwing scraps of bread at an ever increasing crowd of waterfowl. There's a brightly painted paddling pool (currently resolutely locked for the winter) and a 'dog-free' rose garden (very definitely also human-free when I strolled by). The central mansion houses both a stylish cafe and, round the back near the toilets, a Park Ranger's office. A short stretch of London's New River curves through the grounds, once used to supply water to the well-to-do folk of Islington and the City, but now just a scenic algae-covered channel. Beyond the river is an enclosure stocked with goats, rabbits and some extremely tame fallow deer, while close by stands one of those nasty iron aviaries whose bedraggled parrots and cockatiels look like they'd rather be anywhere else rather than trapped in municipal captivity. But the most abundant midwinter wildlife in Clissold Park appears to be the humble grey squirrel. Look, there's one scampering across the path, and there's one hanging from a wire fence, and there's one peering inquisitively out of a litter bin, and there's another walking expectantly towards my camera and begging meerkat-like for attention. Quite charming, but I suspect far lovelier in the summer.
by bus: 141, 341, 393

Other pretty places nearby (all visitable on this fine Stoke Newington walk):
The Castle: Astonishingly out-of-place Gothic turrety building, formerly a water pumping staion, now an indoor rock climbing centre.
Clissold Leisure Centre: Hackney's flagship swimming pool complex which, due to staggering design incompetence, closed two years ago and may never reopen. (campaign)
Church Street: Stoke Newington's quaint wiggly high street, once home to Daniel Defoe but now (so anna says) the "pram-alley, organic-booming chi-chi corner of Hackney".
Abney Park Cemetery: One of London's 'Magnificent Seven' cemeteries, final resting place of Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth.

Somewhere sporty: Hackney Marshes
On the banks of the River Lea, just north of the A12 Eastway, lies a vast expanse of reclaimed marshland. Dotted across this remote flat landscape are a record-breaking 87 pairs of white metal goalposts, a visual hint that these Hackney Marshes are the Mecca of East London's amateur footballers. For most of the week the area lies quiet and undisturbed, except by wildlife, a few exercising dogs and the occasional kite flier. But on Sunday mornings everything changes. The tea van arrives at 7am, followed by a steady torrent of lads and geezers in their revved up Kas and Corsas. And by 10:30am the car parks are rammed full, the changing rooms are emptied and the mass kickabout begins. The more important cup and league games are always played on the East Marsh, with the remainder of the matches on the more extensive South Marsh. For a couple of hours the riverside floodplain throngs with rainbow-stripped players, clustered into the middle distance. And from every pitch and touchline comes the sound of grown men taking the whole thing far far too seriously...
"Come on blues, challenge!" "Perry! Where are you?" "Watch him, watch him!" "Handball innit?" "Step up Jason!" "Ref-er-EE!!" "Keefy! Starting position thankyou!" "Stay with him!" "Solid!" "Deep breath! Deep breath!" "Yours for the taking lads!" "Get up there" "Come inside son!" "Well done Fordy!"
But part of this grassroots field of dreams is under threat from another sporting event. Hackney is justly proud of its status as an Olympic borough, with the 2012 volleyball, basketball and handball due to be staged on industrial land just to the south. But officials have kept rather quiet about the fact that planning permission already exists to cover the entire East Marsh with tarmac. In a strange readjustment of environmental priorities, this grassy recreation ground is scheduled to become a giant coach park with space for 400 vehicles. Sunday football matches will be shifted elsewhere for a couple of years and the land will, they assure us, be restored as part of the post-Olympic legacy plans. But I'd much prefer to have seen the Olympic soccer finals staged right here on the Hackney Marshes, on muddy pitches between not-quite upright goalposts, like proper football should be.
by train: Hackney Wick  by bus: 308, W15

Somewhere retail: Broadway Market
For several centuries Broadway Market was a thriving street market on an ancient road through the heart of Hackney. But that was several decades ago, before the inexorable advance of supermarkets and convenience stores, and gradually the old market slipped into decline. What hope was there for a rundown canalside shopping street in one of the poorest parts of town? But back in 2004 the council established a Farmers Market here every Saturday and, what do you know, suddenly the shoppers are flocking back. They're enticed by 120 stalls selling everything an Observer reader might want to store in their larder or wardrobe, from locally sourced foodstuffs to hand-crafted jewellery. If it's organic or at the very least home-made, somebody will be attempting to sell it. There's a stall selling multi-coloured chunky knitwear (of the kind being worn by several of the eco-friendly shoppers). There's a stall selling solely mushrooms (proper big ones for cooking, not the wacky fungi the local students ingest). There's a stall selling bread (or at least something dough-like with herbal bits in it). There are stalls selling proper crusty cheese with veins, and unprocessed meat, and speckled free range eggs, and even bottles of olive oil to stir-fry the whole lot in. Personally I couldn't resist a Northfield Farm burger made from succulent Rutland beef, far tastier than a Big Mac and competitively priced too. There's no doubt about it, this market has been completely reborn.

But with rebirth comes fresh problems. Broadway Market is on the up, and property down the street is getting just a bit too desirable. Everything's come to a head over Francesca's Cafe at number 34, a traditional greasy spoon which the new leaseholder suddenly wants to turn into luxury flats and an arts centre. There's more money in yuppie rent than Tony's cooked breakfasts, and nouveaux residents aren't going to want fry-ups when there's falafel and fromage frais to be had instead. Just before Christmas 'evil' new owner Dr Wratten sent the bailiffs in, only for the Health and Safety executive to intervene and halt the demolition partway. On Boxing Day Tony's supporters broke back in and reclaimed the cafe, making a stand for the old Broadway Market, the way it ought to be. And on Saturday they were still squatting in there, behind a barred door which opened only to a secret knock. The front of the cafe was plastered with banners, posters, and messages of support, and there was even a TV camera outside taking an interest in this heartfelt campaign. Next up for eviction is the Nutritious Food Galley at number 71, where long-term proprietor Spirit is lined up to be the next sacrifice on the property developer's altar. If the council don't see sense soon, this gentrified locale risks losing all the character (and characters) that made the street special in the first place. Read the full story here and here (with update here), and join the campaign against rampant commercialisation here. Go for it, Tony!
by train: London Fields  by bus: 236, 394

Somewhere round and about: In search of the real Hackney, I followed this 3¾ mile walk round the Mare Street area. The route followed backstreets as well as main roads, and was a great way to see the many architectural and social layers lurking beneath the urban surface. Here are just four of the highlights...
Hackney Empire: Opened in 1901, the boards of this fine old music hall were once trodden by Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Marie Lloyd (she lived just round the corner in Graham Road). Broadcasters ATV took over for a while in the 50s, closely followed by Mecca Bingo, until a long period of restoration culminated with a major relaunch in 2004. And today the building is as eye-catching as the repertoire. It's good to have the place back.
Hackney Museum: Who'd have thought that Hackney had a half-decent museum? It's nothing big, just a ground floor gallery in the new Hackney Technology Learning Centre (beside the Town Hall), but it's extremely well done. The theme is immigration, given that the great majority of the borough's residents have their roots elsewhere, but the displays inform and entertain rather than preach. Who'd have thought?
Sutton House: The National Trust owns surprisingly few properties in London, but one of these is this old Tudor building in Homerton High Street - the oldest surviving house in East London. It's closed to the public until mid-January, but last year BW and I flashed our NT membership cards to take a tour of the ricketty staircases and lopsided oak-panelled rooms. We explored the old cellars and the Elizabethan kitchen, avoided the cafe, and guffawed at a completely barking local arts project. Not bad, but I don't think Blenheim has anything to worry about.
Burberry Factory Store: I wonder how many toffs and chavs realise that their favourite beige plaid is manufactured in distinctly downmarket Hackney. I was flabbergasted to stumble upon the Burberry Factory Store down a sidestreet in E9, so I forced myself inside to see if there were any bargains to be had. And there were, but only if you had no taste. The shop stretched on for what seemed like miles, with rack upon rack of scary garments and accessories. Five quid for a stripy hanky, rather more than that for a brown bathrobe, and a scary amount for a tacky tan golf bag. There were tweed jackets, and sensible shirts, and corduroy trousers in bright shades I can best describe as cider orange and Slush Puppy blue. Not for me thanks but, if flowery plastic clutch bags are your thing, get down here quick.
by train: Hackney Central

Hackney's social history (fantastically detailed)
Hackney Life in Tudor Times
Hackney Walks (four really well researched perambulations)
Hackney Environment Forum (with more great walks)
Hackney Marshes vintage bus event (Easter 2006)
The Hackney Society (conserving the built environment)
My Hackney flickr photo collection

 Thursday, January 05, 2006

from this week's Time Out - page 10, top left (reproduced below with clicky links)
London website of the week
Diamond Geezer

Probably the best London-biased blogger about, the main strengths of diamondgeezer.blogspot.com are that he posts daily, knows a lot about London and is very funny. There's a good blend of secret history and personal anecdotes. Particularly good are his recent posts on the latest modifications at his local tube station: 'It seems that a big tube sign on a stick is just what Bow Road station has been missing for the last 100 years'. Shame that he's an Arsenal fan though.
(Woohoo! The rest of the magazine's as fascinating as ever, of course)

 Wednesday, January 04, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 2: The Museum in Docklands

Location: West India Quay, E14 4AL [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm
Admission: £5 (ticket valid for one year)
5-word summary: Docklands, from dockers to yuppies
Website: www.museumindocklands.org.uk
Time to set aside: an afternoon

The Museum in Docklands is the (much) younger sibling of the Museum of London, opened to the public in the summer of 2003. It's housed in a rather impressive Georgian warehouse, used formerly for the storage of molasses, tea, spices and other exotic cargoes but now home to an extensive collection of wharf-related exhibits. Wander along the cafe-strewn quayside and you'll find the entrance to the museum hidden between two lost buoys. The staff at the admissions desk welcome you with bubbling enthusiasm, as if every visitor were a rare delight, then direct you towards the lift up to the third floor. You can either cope with Tony Robinson or you can't - if not, don't hang around for the opening film, just step through into the first gallery. The Thames's prehistoric and medieval past is dealt with pretty quickly, although there is a marvellous double-sided scale model of London Bridge (complete with the centre-span chapel where Thomas a Becket was baptised). Round the corner is the astonishingly detailed Rhinebeck panorama, a balloon's-eye view across the Pool of London as it might have appeared two hundred years ago. Downstairs the dark riverside alleyways of Sailortown have been lovingly recreated (even the smell is worryingly authentic). The next series of exhibits celebrates the Empire-driven expansion of the Victorian docks and the increasingly tough lives of the local dockers. It was at this stage on my walkabout that several nearby toddlers had to be removed to the rather more interactive refuge of the Mudlarks Gallery by despairing parents. I continued to the final displays providing extensive coverage of the dockland war effort and the area's rather more recent economic renaissance. There are several reminders that local residents in the 1980s were less than impressed to find a new capitalist hub foisted on their neighbourhood, although whether later prosperity changed their minds is not recorded. Still, at least the 'new' DLR makes it dead easy to visit this unexpectedly fascinating museum.
by DLR: West India Quay  by tube: Canary Wharf  by bus: 277, D3, D7, D8

 Tuesday, January 03, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 1: The Museum of London (part 2 free tomorrow)

Location: London Wall, Barbican EC2Y 5HN [map]
Open: 10am - 5:50pm (opens 12 noon Sundays)
Admission: free
5-word summary: London, from prehistory to Empire
Website: www.museumoflondon.org.uk
Time to set aside: an afternoon

It may be London's museum, but I bet only a tiny minority of Londoners have ever visited. Maybe that's because it's not an easy building to find, tucked away above a roundabout in one of the bleaker corners of the City. But negotiate the secluded escalators in the shadow of the Barbican and you'll discover a fascinating slice of London's history. It's all here, from artefacts thrown into the prehistoric Thames to a Suffragette thrown in front of the King's horse, and several centuries of ephemera inbetween. Highlights of the collection include marble sculptures from a Roman temple, hoards of medieval jewellery and the Lord Mayor's coach, and if you're lucky you might even get to watch archaeologists at work. Children (when not being force-fed hands-on history by well-meaning parents) will lap up Victorian Walk, a full scale recreation of period shop fronts with well-stocked windows and authentic sounds. Along with several adult visitors I kept stopping to peer at all the historic maps scattered around the museum (look, where I live used to be a tiny village, and before that it was beneath the Thames). One of the galleries usually hosts a special capital-related exhibition, and the museum shop probably has the best selection of London-related books anywhere in the capital.
by tube: St Paul's, Barbican,  by bus: 4, 56, 100

 Sunday, January 01, 2006

Two years meet beneath the Eye
Thousands gasp as fireworks blaze
And huge explosions help London celebrate
Six years to the Olympics

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