Monday, May 29, 2006

A Farewell

Something small but significant vanishes from the streets of London this week. The letter A. Or, to be more specific, letters at the end of bus numbers. There are tons of London bus services with a letter at the beginning (nightbuses for example, and most of the buses in Hillingdon and Walthamstow) but only one bus still has a letter at the end. There used to be scores of them. Not for much longer.

60 years ago there weren't just As after bus numbers, there were Bs and Cs too. Between Stratford and Forest Gate, for example, you could have ridden aboard the 25, 25A, 25B or 25C. But travel any further east and you had to know precisely which variant to catch (the 25 to Goodmayes, the 25A to Chigwell, the 25B to Becontree Heath or the 25C to the Woolwich Ferry). No wonder they've simplified things since. Thirty years ago there was only a single C remaining (the 77C, for what it's worth), while Bs faded away in 1994 with the disappearance of the 36B.

Which just leaves the 77A. The perfect, nay the only, bus to catch if you ever need to escape Wandsworth for the centre of town. Between Clapham and Vauxhall it shares the road with its twin the 77, then heads across the Thames past Tate Britain and the Houses of Parliament on its way to Aldwych. Just another ordinary bus, but with what is now an out-of-date route number. That A has to go.

Reshuffling bus numbers isn't easy. Almost all of the possible route designations from 1 to 300 are already taken, so planners have had to be cunning in swapping round some other routes to make space. In this case they've scrapped the old 87 (which has run for years between Barking and Romford) and simply extended the 5 to Romford to make up for the loss. A two-digit number ending in 7 is now conveniently vacant, and so from Saturday morning the 77A will be rebranded as the 87. No need to worry about which 77 goes where, because there's only going to be one of them. Much easier to remember, honest.

And letters aren't all that's disappearing. Lists of destinations on the front of buses are being cleaned up too. The future is big, bold and basic. The front of this number 13 bus is fairly typical of the new order. Gone is the list of intermediate destinations...
Finchley Road  Oxford Circus
  Piccadilly Circus  Strand
replaced by just the terminus and a giant number in a font size large enough for even the most myopic passenger. Apparently there's no point in listing key intermediate stops any more because (if you don't know London at all) there's no way of knowing whether or not the bus has already passed them. To work out where the bus will be stopping you'll need to check the timetable at the bus stop instead, assuming it's not been vandalised. It's getting more like taking the tube, really. The front of a Piccadilly line tube will only read Cockfosters, for example, and then you're supposed to work out from a map that the train's heading east and will be stopping at those nice museums, Harrods, Covent Garden and that big square with all the cinemas.

It seems that, in accommodating the Disability Discrimination Act, less is more. Accessibility is about so much more than just step-free access, it's also about having a dead simple system of route numbers and destinations. We must now remove information from the front of buses in case it baffles people. We need to write everything in really big letters so that the short-sighted aren't disadvantaged. And we can't have complicated bus numbers any more, because they confuse tourists and those with an IQ below 70. No matter that generations of Londoners have coped with such complexities before. Come Friday evening, letter-suffix extinction beckons. I wonder what they'll kill off next?

 Sunday, May 28, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 9: Victoria & Albert Museum

Location: Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL [map]
Open: 10am - 5:45pm (late opening Wednesdays)
Admission: free
5-word summary: a temple to grand designs
Website: www.vam.ac.uk
Time to set aside: at least a day

Vast & Arty
Next time you're in South Kensington, if you're tired of natural history and sick of science, try art and design instead. The Victoria & Albert Museum is Britain's national repository of the decorative arts, a bit like a giant historical bazaar but without the price labels. The building dates back to 1852, built just after the Great Exhibition, and boasts an extensive network of interconnecting galleries on several levels (i.e. it's very easy to get lost). On the ground floor, for example, you can wander at length amongst artefacts from South and East Asia, or pause to ponder Renaissance religious relics, or study statues close up in the refitted long gallery. And that's just for starters.

Varied & Amazing
I was unprepared for the vast scale of the Cast Courts. Given that most of the world's great sculptural masterpieces aren't located in London, the Victorians created life-sized plaster casts of some of the best and dumped them all in two great halls so that Londoners could view them anyway. A fake Michaelangelo's David stands proud in one corner, with a keen crowd of amateur artists sat sketching on stools before him. Elsewhere are Italian monuments, a German cloister, Gaelic stone crosses and medieval tomb effigies. But most dramatic of all is the towering plaster cast of Trajan's Column, copied from the 30m-high Roman original. They've had to chop it in two so that each half fits beneath the skylights, but it's hard not to be impressed by the detailed tableaux carved in a spiral around the circumference.

Visionary & Atmospheric
One large corner of the museum is home to the British Galleries - a history of British interior design and craftsmanship from Tudor times to the end of the 19th century. The displays showcase the development of our nation's aesthetic aspiration, and it's easy to to imagine modern designers coming along for inspiration. Exhibits include original William Morris block-printed wallpaper, the notorious Great Bed of Ware (a Herts hostelry's oversize overnight accommodation) and some splendid Georgian Chippendales. I was particularly taken by the Bromley-by-Bow Room, a complete 1606 wood-panelled interior rescued from the Jacobean mansion which once stood just over the road from my house.

Valuable & Attractive
Elsewhere in the museum the emphasis shifts more towards materials and techniques. Upstairs are two long galleries devoted to silver (think 'Sothebys') and to ironwork (think 'garden centre'). There are semi-deserted rear chambers given over to tapestries (think 'Bayeux-ish') and to textiles (think 'Whitechapel market'). There are shelves packed with glassware (think 'John Lewis') and rooms full of 20th century design classics (think 'car boot sale'). There's even a room full of shiny, gaudy, over-priced, over-styled trinkets and accoutrements (think 'museum shop'), but there's so much else to see you probably won't have time to explore it.

Visit & Admire
by tube: South Kensington  by bus: 14, 74, 414, C1

 Monday, May 15, 2006

A brief history of London

150000 BC: Three passing woolly mammoths become London's first foreign tourists.
43 AD: The Romans invade Britain, build a fort on the Thames and call it Londinium, little realising that one day this new settlement will be at the centre of a great world empire (much like their own).
61: Boadicea pops down from East Anglia on a weekend break and burns the city to the ground.
407: The curtain goes down on 'Romans in Britain' after a record-breaking West End run.
457: The Saxons invade, only to be kicked out by the Viking invasion of 851, only to be kicked out by the Britons under King Alfred in 886, only to be kicked out by the Danish invasion of 1013, only to be kicked out by William the Conqueror invading in 1066. I told you this was a brief history.
1078: With classic medieval simplicity, William builds a white tower called the White Tower.
1209: The first stone London Bridge is completed, and is promptly decorated with the severed heads of those who've failed to pay their Congestion Charge.
1397: Dick Whittington is elected Mayor, narrowly beating Ken Livingstone in the second ballot.
1599: Verily doth William Shakespeare establish ye Globe Theatre in fair Southwark.
1665: The Plague kills 70000 people but leaves buildings standing.
1666: The Great Fire of London lays waste 13000 buildings but leaves only six people not standing.
1814: Global warming kicks in as the last ever Frost Fair is held on the frozen Thames.
1829: The Metropolitan Police Force start to fight their losing battle.
1863: The world's first underground railway is built, with much of the signalling still in use today.
1907: The last public flogging of a Londoner convicted for failing to wear a hat in a built-up area.
1940: During the Blitz the Queen Mother single-handedly protects the East End from destruction by batting bombs away using her handbag.
1952: Lethal smog descends on the capital, leading to the discovery of asthma.
1986: The completion of the M25 - merely the latest city wall to protect the capital from invaders.
2053: Rising sea levels cause the permanent innundation of the capital, which reopens shortly afterwards as a watersports centre and underwater theme park.

 Sunday, May 14, 2006


The FA Cup's not come to East London for years, not since West Ham won it back in 1980. Yesterday afternoon, just for a couple of hours, it looked like it might be coming back.

For those West Ham supporters who weren't able to make the trip to Cardiff (which would be most of them), the next best option was to head down to Upton Park and drink themselves silly in front of a big screen. And so they came, by the trainful, thronging down Green Street and the Barking Road to enjoy their moment in the limelight. The claret and blue army were here well before kick-off, gorging on pie and chips, downing several pre-match pints or just wandering down the street with big grins on their faces. The strains of "I'm forever blowing bubbles" could be heard blaring out from at least three pubs in the local area, usually with drunken accompaniment. Kerbside stalls were busy selling possibly-genuine purply-blue clothing to passers by, while hawkers flogged long fluffy coloured things on sticks to younger supporters for 50p. Some children had the team's logo painted on their face - good preparation for a few years' time when they get those hammers tattooed into their forearm just like Dad.

We'd not have won the World Cup in 1966 without West Ham, and a bronze statue at the foot of Green Street remembers key players from that legendary team. That's England captain Bobby Moore up there holding the Jules Rimet trophy, himself being held aloft by Ray Wilson, Martin Peters and hat-trick scorer Geoff Hurst. The statue's become a favourite meeting point for fans, or just somewhere to sit down with a fag and a can or three of lager. It's a charming addition to the area, and a reminder of the football club's importance to the local neighbourhood over the last 100 years.

Upton Park's seen many changes since 1966. Green Street has become the heart of Newham's thriving Asian community, its shops and cafes offering much more than just a taste of the East. On non-match days elegant saris are more popular than football scarves, and spicy samosas outsell jellied eels several times over. The street's also famous for its jewellery, more handmade class than bling, and the Boleyn Cinema screens all the latest Bollywood hits. For many (but not all) of today's local residents, football exists only in some alien non-intersecting universe. I suspect a large proportion of yesterday's claret and blue crowds had travelled in from boroughs further east, and from southern Essex, summoned back to their footballing roots like spawning salmon.

I left the fans to their drinking and boundless optimism before the Cup Final kicked off. How they must have cheered when West Ham took what looked like an unassailable lead. How they must have shuddered when Liverpool came back to equalise, twice. How they must have despaired as both teams limped feebly into extra time deadlock. And how utterly utterly dejected they must have felt to lose out in a desperate penalty shootout. West Ham should have won, obviously, as every fan will have been telling the bottom of a glass ever since Liverpool's final lucky save. Football's like that, it's a bloody unfair game unless you win. And there's always next time.

FA Cup Winners: 1964, 1975, 1980
Runners-up: 1923, 2006

 Saturday, May 13, 2006

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 8: Thames Barrier Visitor Centre

Location: Unity Way, Woolwich, SE18 5NJ [map]
Open: 10:30am - 4pm (11am - 3:30pm in Winter)
Admission: £1.50
5-word summary: mini exhibition beside engineering marvel
Website: here
Time to set aside: ½hr indoors, ½hr outdoors

The Thames Barrier is a marvellous sight. Its gleaming aerofoil piers span the river at Woolwich Reach, protecting large swathes of the capital against the threat of innundation. Admittedly Beckton and Belvedere are still in for a soaking, but the residents of Chelsea and Camberwell have good reason to thank the GLC for their foresight. Designed as long ago as the early 1970s, the Thames Barrier was engineered to withstand even a once-in-a-millennium storm surge. When the call comes, and it comes more frequently with each passing decade, six hidden gates rise up out of the water to block the incoming tide. The mechanism's based on gas-tap technology, you know. I know, I saw it at the exhibition.

Visitors aren't allowed inside the main Thames Barrier buildings. Instead there's a small 'official' café built atop the flood defences on the south bank where you can rest awhile after taking in the awe and majesty of the barrier gates. Maybe you fancy a nice cup of tea and a jam-topped scone, or perhaps you have a sudden urge for a cheap souvenir pencil or tacky fridge magnet. But offer the lady at the till a handful of coins and she'll buzz you through a side door down into the basement where an exhibition reveals the barrier's secrets. It's not a very large basement, indeed on entering you'll wonder if there aren't several other rooms and galleries tucked away out of sight, but what you see is what you get. Display boards recount past floods, most notably the disastrous storm of 1953. Learn too about the ecology of the Thames and the estuary's other flood defences. Flick through some of the designs which lost out to Charles Draper's rotating underwater gates. Look, there's a murky fishtank complete with murky fish. And over here is a big model of the barrier in a glass case which whirrs into action so you can see how everything works. Maybe you'd like to watch it go through its paces a couple of times, just to stretch your visit out to fifteen minutes.

For your second fifteen minutes, enter the mini-cinema with its mini-video. If you've ever watched Tomorrow's World or seen one of those terribly worthy public information films, you'll know what to expect. Lots of shots of engineers standing around holding clipboards; a succession of workmen moving things with cranes and pouring concrete into moulds; a strip of dull white text speeding across the screen outlining a list of dry facts and figures; some BBC-type bloke reading out an earnest commentary in proper Queen's English; a burbling synthesiser playing over-dramatic tinkly muzak in the background. Yes, nobody's replaced the video at the visitor's centre since the barrier was opened in 1984, and it shows. Still, the film kept the attention of a visiting toddler without him running around and screaming, which was more than the rest of the exhibition had managed.

Back outside a far more impressive attraction is the barrier itself. The nine silver piers poke out of the water like a row of submerged skyscrapers. Red crosses or green arrows glow beside each gate like giant traffic lights. The harbour police scud aimlessly down the river. Passing couples linger at the water's edge to take awestruck photographs. Toddlers play happily, and noisily, on the climbing frame. You could do worse than come visit for yourself, if you have nothing better to do. But, all things considered, you might prefer the view from Thames Barrier Park on the northern banks instead.
by bus: 161, 177, 180, 472  by train: Charlton, Woolwich Dockyard

 Monday, May 08, 2006

The Sultan's Elephant: I told you it was brilliant. Throughout the weekend spectators descended on Central London in greater and greater numbers to watch the continuing adventures of the the sultan, his mega-elephant and a 16-foot toddler. On Saturday Trafalgar Square was packed with people to see London's Deputy Mayor welcome the sultan to the capital. Sadly most of them couldn't hear anything because the loudspeaker system was inadequate, but the grand spectacle made up for it. Yesterday grinning crowds followed the elephant to and from lunch in Piccadilly, while lucky children queued to take a rocking ride on the giant girl's arms in St James' Park. And now they've departed, the girl into her wooden spaceship and the elephant into our imagination. London will miss them all. And next weekend's looking awfully empty already.

my photos from Friday
better photographs from Friday
lots more interesting photographs from lots of other people
you don't expect a puppet to urinate in the street

The next station is... Gillespie Road
Well that's what Arsenal station used to be called, at least until 1932. This was the high point of Arsenal's inter-war success under legendary team manager Herbert Chapman, and also the year when the West Stand opened. But, now that's Highbury's closed for business forever, maybe the tube station should go back to being called Gillespie Road again. Especially given that the original name is still clearly spelt out in the tiling on the platform walls, so it really wouldn't take much effort to change it back.

But no, don't worry, the name's staying. Drayton Park station may be rather closer to the new Ashburton Grove stadium, but TfL have decided against upgrading it, or even opening it on matchdays. Visiting fans will have to walk rather further to get home, with officials recommending long overland treks to Finsbury Park and Highbury & Islington. But the tube station closest to Ashburton Grove, just across the big new white footbridge and a short route-march up the street, is in Gillespie Road. And it'll still be called Arsenal station. Some things never change.

The last ten Underground stations to change their name
1) Surrey Docks → Surrey Quays (1989)
2) Heathrow Central → Heathrow Central Terminals 1, 2, 3 (1983) → Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 (1986)
3/4) Trafalgar Square / Strand → Charing Cross (1979)
5) Charing Cross → Charing Cross Embankment (1974) → Embankment (1976)
6) Brent → Brent Cross (1976)
7) Bushey & Oxhey → Bushey (1974)
8) West Ham (Manor Road) → West Ham (1969)
9) Aldersgate → Barbican (1968)
10) Bromley → Bromley-by-Bow (1967)

 Sunday, May 07, 2006

Highbury pilgrimage

This afternoon Arsenal play their last ever home match at Highbury. 93 years of history come to an end with a key end-of-season decider against, er, Wigan Athletic, which will either be a stonking victorious finale or a miserable withering disappointment. And then, after the doors close and the supporters head home, the business of turning this fabled stadium into exclusive housing starts in earnest. The North Bank and Clock End stands will be demolished and replaced by mews, while the more characterful East and West Stands will be transformed (sympathetically, one hopes) into yet more apartments. Meanwhile the pitch will end up as some landscaped memorial garden with gushing water features, no doubt accessible only to residents. Moan as much as you like about the price of a Highbury season ticket but it's still peanuts compared to spending half a million on a two bedroom apartment without even any football to watch.

I headed over to Highbury yesterday afternoon for one last look. I thought the area would be pretty quiet, what with the final match still being 24 hours away and the ground tucked well off the beaten track in the middle of a quiet estate of terraced houses. But no, it seems I wasn't the only fan with a desire to capture sporting history before it vanishes. All around the stadium, in Avenall Road, Gillespie Road and Highbury Hill, Gooners young and old were out with their cameras. Spotty teenagers in redcurrant strip stood in reverence before the glorious Art Deco facade of the East Stand. A patient wife trailed her over-eager husband as he insisted on having his photograph taken in front of every gate and entrance. A succession of avid supporters waited patiently for the opportunity to stand right up close to the front doors and peer through into the marble entrance hall. Two bored brothers sat in the back of their 4x4 while Dad hopped out to take some final photographs. A group of students aimed their camcorder at a local resident and asked for her matchday memories. And I was even forced to pause three times while exiting Arsenal tube station to allow a succession of Nick Hornby types to flash away at the 50m-long 'Final Salute' mural.

There were also long queues in the Arsenal Shop as keen fans waited to snap up a souvenir of the old stadium. I hope they were buying the tasteful polo shirts (£33) and t-shirts (£12), and not the rather dodgy-looking cushions (£10), red leather filofaxes (£25) and crystal decanters (£50). And all around the stadium local residents continued with their everyday lives, no doubt delighted that they face only one more afternoon of noise, congestion and drunken away fans pissing in their front garden.

Come July, following a lengthy planning battle and several years of construction, the new Arsenal stadium opens less than half a mile away on Ashburton Grove. This is no quaint pre-war antique, this is a modern bowl-shaped arena with 50% greater seating capacity. It has everything a modern football stadium needs, like a tier of executive boxes, several luxury restaurants, a merchandising megastore and heaven knows, maybe even some character. The new stadium is taller and broader than Highbury, and towers over the surrounding area in the same way that the old stadium doesn't. It's been squeezed in on reclaimed industrial land between two railway lines and, to be honest, the view out from the main entrance is pretty grim. Departing supporters will pour down a series of gleaming parallel staircases onto a bleak mini-roundabout surrounded by billboards, rundown buildings and a railway viaduct. A neighbouring row of tumbledown warehouses and small factories has been compulsorily purchased so that it can be torn down to build some snazzy apartment blocks. And, despite the bleating of the Arsenal PR department, public transport connections aren't anywhere near as good as they'd have you believe, not unless you fancy a bracing walk every time you attend a match.

It looks nearly ready, the new ground, unlike certain other national stadia I could mention. The curved glass windows gleam and the interior staircases have immaculately painted red handrails. Soon the long stack of portakabins will be carted away, the perimeter fencing will come down, and the new Emirates Stadium will be open for business. Ghastly name, and I'm not convinced that many fans will suddenly feel the urge to book a flight to Dubai as a result, but financial needs must when a football club is compelled to move on. For a new generation of Arsenal players and supporters the new state-of-the-art stadium will soon come to be called home. But my heart will still be at Highbury, no doubt buried somewhere beneath a flowerbed in a garden I shall never see again.

Take the Highbury (photo) Tour
Ashburton grove masterplan
Emirates Stadium facts & FAQ
Arseblog; Arseweb

 Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Sultan's Elephant

The best ideas are often completely bonkers. Let's bring a 16-foot marionette and a 42-tonne time-travelling mechanical elephant to the heart of London and then tell a story by walking them round the streets for three days. That's exactly what French theatre company Royal de Luxe are doing this weekend, and their concept, technical expertise and execution are quite brilliant. The spectacle was premiered in the French cities of Nantes and Amiens last year (to commemorate the centenary of Jules Verne's death) and later in the year you can catch the giant beast in Antwerp, Calais and Le Havre. But right now the Sultan's Elephant is touring central London, and it's unmissable.

On Thursday a wooden space capsule appeared overnight in Waterloo Place, just above The Mall. Steam billowed from the (utterly convincing) cracked tarmac throughout the day, and Londoners gathered around to gawp and to take photographs. Then yesterday the metal hatch opened and a small girl emerged. OK, so she was four times the size of a normal girl, and she was made of wood, and she was being operated by red-suited puppeteers using a big crane and a series of overhead wires, but she was still unmistakeably a small girl. She (and her string-pulling entourage) went for a long walk around town, stopping the traffic along the way, before finally ending up at Horseguards Parade. Here she met and greeted the Sultan and his giant elephant, like you do, before settling down for an afternoon nap in a giant deckchair. The scene was set.

I caught up with the story as Big Ben struck five. An ever-increasing crowd had gathered around the sleeping travellers, most of them families with small children or passing civil servants, fresh from a savage reshuffle. An open-topped red London bus entered the arena, and the giant girl slowly awoke. A crane hoisted her carefully onto the top deck of the bus as the elephant rose slowly, majestically to its feet. It roared, shook its head and waved its trunk in an utterly lifelike manner. The crowd were captivated, and struggled to take as many photographs as possible of the stirring beast. And then the performers headed off on a short tour of the St James's area, first the bus and then the elephant. Operators sat precariously beneath the giant head to control the trunk movements, while on the ground one man's job was to lift the elephant's feet forward one at a time to enable it to make progress. Meanwhile the sultan and his courtiers surveyed the crowd from their platform on the elephant's back, or drank tea and made small talk on the balconies to either side.

Where the elephant went, the crowd followed. They watched from the grassy lawns of St James' Park, and massed around the beast in the wider spaces of The Mall. Stewards clutching red tape helped to seal off a moveable exclusion zone both in front and to the rear as the elephant passed through. A band of musicians playing loud magical Eastern-style jazz followed on a truck behind, adding to to the very special atmosphere. Children stood in awe and wonder, while every cameraphone in the vicinity was being pressed into use. And every few minutes the elephant showed off its party trick, waving its trunk towards the onlookers and squirting them with a fine spray of water. At least I hope it was water because I got a soaking.

And that was just yesterday. The story continues today with further London sightseeing and an official civic reception in Trafalgar Square, then tomorrow there's lunch in Piccadilly and a wander through St James Park before the over-sized entourage finally departs. Do go and see the Sultan's Elephant if you can. If the look on the faces of the crowd yesterday are anything to go by, you'll leave with a big grin on your face and memories to last a lifetime.

my photographs
more photographs
more information

 Friday, May 05, 2006

A thick-skinned blundering beast, storming and moaning its way out of Whitehall followed by a crowd of cheering onlookers? It could be Charles Clarke but no, it's The Sultan's Elephant.
(photo gallery here)

 Tuesday, May 02, 2006

London-wide Public holidays

It's clear that the key to boosting England's annual quota of bank holidays is to introduce local or regional celebrations. Germany may only have nine national holidays, but live in the right state and you can get up to three more. Northern Ireland manages 25% more bank holidays than the rest of the UK by commemorating a local saint and a historic battle. Catholic regions of Austria take a 24 hour siesta more often than their Protestant counterparts. Every province in New Zealand takes an extra day off on its anniversary day. So what London needs is its own London-only public holidays. Days that we in the capital get off, and nobody else does. I've racked my brain and tried to come up with a few. Well, twelve actually. It's worth a try...

Al Fayed Monday (first Monday in January): A day off to allow you to queue 24 hours earlier for the Harrods Sale.
Multi-faith Minority Sunday (third Sunday in February): A day of festivities in Trafalgar Square for all the non-Russian, non-Chinese, non-Irish, non-English, non Sikh, non-Hindu residents of the capital not yet catered for by the Mayor's token staged events.
Vauxhall Virgin Bonfire (24th March): Age-old traditional gathering in Kennington Park during which ten innocent Lambeth damsels are burnt at the stake (subject to availability)
Buggered Tubesday (Easter Tuesday): Quick, while everyone's on holiday, let's shut down the entire tube network to allow essential engineering work to take place.
The Fertility Pole (1st May): The world's largest maypole is created by dangling coloured ribbons from the top of Nelson's Column. Prince Philip and Victoria Beckham take the lead by tying each other up in knots.
St Ken's Day (17th June): Hordes of happy Londoners flood the streets to celebrate the birthday of their glorious Mayor. There'll be face-painting, newt racing and, in Fleet Street, the ancient sport of hurling vicious insults at the press.
St Coe's Day (6th July): Merry Olympians gather at dawn on Stratford Marshes to compete in archaic contact sports such as concreting the river, demolishing the factories and evicting the locals.
Seven/Seven (7th July): Probably best to have a day off work because nobody's going to want to travel on public transport today, just in case.
Firepride Friday (first Friday in September): To commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666, a grand parade to thank the capital's three remaining firefighters for all the sterling work they do despite recent funding cutbacks.
Reclaim The Streets Tuesday (last Tuesday in September): The first day after the summer season when all children are safely back at school and almost all of the tourists have gone home. Quick, get out there and enjoy London while you have a chance.
St Arbuck's Day (16th November): Free lattes for all, and a thrilling barista-juggling competition on the South Bank (n.b. this holiday is available to the highest bidder each year. Please apply to City Hall, Marketing Department)
Blitz Day (29th December): A service of commemoration at St Paul's Cathedral for all those lost during the wartime bombing of London. A wax effigy of the Queen Mother (employing the latest electronic 'arm-waving' technology) will ride to the cathedral in the Gold State Coach.

 Monday, May 01, 2006

May Fair - Rowdyism & Vice

Across the UK the first of May has long been a day for celebrations and festivities, often with a bit of ribboned pole-dancing thrown in for good measure. London itself has a long history of springtime frolics and debauchery, often spread over several days, although the focus of these mass celebrations has shifted somewhat over the years. Up until the 17th century the capital's main spring gathering was held in the Haymarket, just up the road from Charing Cross. But as the city expanded a less central location was sought, somewhere far more suitable for lewd drunken activity, and in 1686 the May Fair moved on. You can probably guess where.

in 1686 most of the area northwest of St James's Park was green pasture alongside the babbling Tyburn brook [map]. There were no local people to complain about London's annual May Fair moving in, save the residents of a few grand houses backing onto what is now Piccadilly. The sprawling fair began each year on May Day and lasted for a full fortnight. It attracted wild revellers from all over London and the home counties, as well as countless thieves, charlatans and lewd women. Over the course of two weeks much ale was quaffed, much money was wagered, much flesh was feasted upon and much seed was sown. It's a far cry from the sanitised celebrations Mayor Ken permits in Trafalgar Square these days, with the emphasis very firmly on raucous excess rather than social responsibility.
"In the areas encompassing the market building were booths for jugglers, prize-fighters, both at cudgels and back-sword, boxing-matches, and wild beasts. The sports not under cover were mountebanks, fire-eaters, ass-racing, sausage-tables, dice-tables, up-and- downs, merry-go-rounds, bull-baiting, grinning for a hat, running for a shift, hasty-pudding eaters, eel-divers, and an infinite variety of other - similar pastimes."
As London continued to spread westward, the new inhabitants of north Piccadilly became resentful of the fair on their doorstep. They feared for the morals of their wives, servants and children, threatened by corruption in this iniquitous "nursery of vice". Rich residents petitioned the courts for the fair's removal, initially without success. Then, as the suburbanisation of the area continued, landowners moved in to erect new houses on these riverside fields. Shepherd Market (pictured) was laid out at the heart of the old fairground site in 1735, but it was not until 1764 that the Earl of Coventry successfully used legal means to force the entire revels to move elsewhere. With the May Fair's departure the area headed rapidly upmarket to become the exclusive aristocratic neighbourhood of Mayfair we know today. And Shepherd Market still survives as a charming backstreet enclave of restaurants, antiques shops and pubs, although it's never quite shaken off its reputation as a haunt for shady backhand deals and prostitutes.

The May Fair moved on, five miles eastward, re-establishing itself in a field just outside the small village of Bow [map]. Here it amalgamated with the existing Bow Fair, a long-standing bacchanalia held a few days after Whitsun.
"At Bow, the Thursday after Pentecost,
There is a fair of green geese ready rost,
Where, as a goose is ever dog cheap there
The sauce is over somewhat sharp and deare.
The crowd's behaviour here was just as atrocious, with Londoners arriving in their droves by road and river to take out their frustrations on this tiny rural backwater. But as Bow's population grew so too did the number of complaints from local residents, as before, until in 1823 the fair was banned altogether "due to rowdyism and vice".

Here's the site of Bow's 'Fair Field' today, on the corner of (where else) Fairfield Road. The striped building is Poplar Town Hall, an example of early modernist civic architecture, officially opened in 1938 by former mayor and Labour leader George Lansbury. It's no longer a town hall, having been downgraded to mere offices in the mid 60s, but it still provides an impressive (if slightly shabby) presence on Bow Road. In 1957 Fair Field's reputation for vice and criminal activity was rekindled briefly when the Kray Brothers opened their very first club, the Double R, here nextdoor to the old town hall. Nowadays only a school playground and a car hire portakabin are left to mark this doubly notorious location.

As a resident of Bow Road I'm both saddened and relieved that London's premier spring revels no longer take place so close to home. Whilst it would be really convenient to have a major fairground just a couple of hundred yards up the street, I really wouldn't want drunken merrymakers urinating on my doorstep and singing bawdy songs throughout the night. Neither would I enjoy the smell of congealed roasting meat permeating my flat, nor countless prostitutes hanging around outside the kebab shop and launderette. Not for a fortnight. Not in my backyard. Not until the Olympic circus arrives, anyway. Mayday, mayday.

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