GE 2019 : The View from Amersham & Chesham

Our constituency of Chesham & Amersham boasts the least socially deprived village in the whole of Britain, an MP who has held the seat since John Major’s leadership, a local-made bespoke gin, and a majority of constituents born outside of it.  The Conservative majority currently stands at 22,000. In the last election in 2017, Labour took second place and secured a fifth of the vote, securing 7% more of the vote than the Liberal Democrats, who are usually the party of choice for those who are a little bit cross with the Conservative Party but don’t want to be rude.  Turnout is high, always around 72% – 77%. The constituency voted 55.02% to Remain in 2016. Local house prices are very high, with large mortgages being bolstered up by predominantly London-based salaries.  In the last census, 26% of the residents identified as being in the professional & managerial classes. It’s 34 minutes to Marylebone or – if you have a good book to read – 55 minutes to Kings Cross on the Metropolitan Line.  Despite this, the town harbours a distinctly sleepy, out-of-town feel, and there are still cows in the farm at the end of our road.  A total of 38,000 people live in the constituency, which takes in Chesham, Amersham and several surrounding villages.   Unlike many market towns, Amersham actually has a market, where the high street is closed to traffic  once-weekly so the well-styled housewives of South Buckinghamshire can have their fill of Levantine street food and artisan stilton cheese.  This is not yet far enough from London to be Toby Carvery Britain, but you can smell it from here.

Or perhaps that is the cows.  People move here from London for the usual reasons : more space, a slightly slower lifestyle and excellent state schooling which includes a few outstanding grammar schools.  I have never met anyone who was born here.  I went for a flu vaccination once and the nurse said she was born in Buckinghamshire and I nearly fell off my chair.  The character of the town, the reference points of its inhabitants, as well as the way in which we move to live or work, is vastly London-centric.   Every single person my age has arrived here from North or West London: Willesden, Westbourne Grove, Wembley, Hammersmith & Hampstead – as soon as the second baby arrives they up sticks and jump on the tube until the tube stops altogether here, at the foothills of the Chiltern Hills, a EU-designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Of course, it won’t be EU-designated much longer.  It will be designated by another municipal authority which no one has quite worked out the machinations of yet.  But the General Election 2019 is a fierce battleground.  This outer-suburban area is not as straight forward as you may think.  Labour shunting into second place, beating the Liberal Democrats in 2017, was the result of a fairly long term shift: 2,900 constituents voted Labour in 2010 here, rising to nearly 7,000 in 2015, and rising again to just under 11,500 in 2017 (after the Referendum Vote).   During the same period the Liberal Democrat vote has halved. Is there a hankering after 1970s-leftist social policies at The Ladies Guild or the clubhouse of The Amersham & Chiltern Rugby Club?  Something appeared to be happening to the Labour Party appeal back in 2017.     However, since then, the landscape has completely shifted again: in The European Election of May of this year, the Liberal Democrats came out top with 10,942 votes.  Much local press focused on this.  But the victory was incredibly narrow, as they only defeated The Brexit Party by 620 votes.  (For context, The Conservatives got 4,381, and Labour 1,496).    I cannot remember a European vote (or indeed a UK one) in living memory where both the main two political parties got so trounced.  Instead, we are left with half the constituency expressing an adamant-Leave scenario, and the other half an adamant-Remain one.

The Labour Party have yet to announce their candidate for the upcoming election, and the local Amersham & Chesham Labour Party website doesn’t have this information yet.  I cannot find out who my local Labour candidate is.    This morning, the Liberal Democrats were out in force in the town, with a local candidate who lives in the constituency and who, a leaflet proffered into my hand tells us, is “married to Claire”.  His name is Dan, but his leaflet doesn’t tell me much more than that he is married to Claire, is staunchly Remain, contains vague promises of “support” to NHS and Mental Health with no statistics or information,  and that he is a successful builder.  Presumably this last fact is because if his campaign to go into parliament fails I can still book him to build a conservatory.    Dan! This an election fought on two political battle lines : Brexit and legitimate parliamentarianism, and both of those battles are being played just outside our constituency.   Man up Dan!

Down the road is Beaconsfield, where there is a big Sainsbury’s and a couple of congested roundabouts.  Until recently, this was the Conservative seat held for 22 years by Dominic Grieve, QC & MP, until they decided he couldn’t any longer.  Astonishingly, his campaign as an Independent MP is being supported by all the opposition parties, as Grieve finds himself in the peculiar position of working to overturn his own 2017 majority : https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/nov/09/dominic-grieve-campaign-trail-beaconsfield.  The local LibDem candidate has stepped aside, due to the risk of splintering the vote.   Bemused former Labour canvassers find themselves doorstepping stockbrokers to tell them to vote for a former Tory MP.   Amersham & Chesham’s Conservative MP, Dame Cheryl Gillan – known as Dame Chernobyl to frustrated locals – is putting her energy into drumming up the Conservative Beaconsfield vote, thereby blocking Grieve, an esteemed parliamentarian and a respected authority on parliamentary procedure and legislature, from ever returning to the House of Commons.  This is the topsy turvy world of General Election 2019.

Yet, these South Buckinghamshire towns seem to be places where local efforts by MPs are recognised.  Dominic Grieve’s constituents laud and admire him, speak highly of his surgeries over the years and recognise him as a politician who appears to have a moral centre.  This conventional section of the British electorate, the Tory heartland-ers of Rotary Clubs and bicycle routes; the anti-HS2 campaigners in thrall to the Buckinghamshire countryside, the affluent, educated middle classes who read their newspapers and are beginning to get cross by the bully boy tactics emerging on both sides of the House, should not be underestimated.  They are local campaigners, Womens Institute members, flower planters and freemasons, civic movers and shakers.  Dominic belongs to them.  I would not be surprised if they return him to the House.

Our MP, unlike Dominic, has not had her right to represent her party taken away from her.  She is a highly conventional, standard Conservative in both the old and the new guard.  She advocates against anything that threatens the Union, but also wants to destabilize the actual unions.  She’s pro-bedroom tax and anti-gay rights, although so far no one has suggested she marry these two beliefs and tax gay people who want to have sex in bedrooms.   She voted for making local authorities responsible for those constituents in need of financial support should they find themselves unable to make their council tax payments, and has consistently voted against raising disability payments for those unable to work through illness or disability.  She has always voted for fewer MPs in the House of Commons and against a wholly elected House of Lords.  I think she must be a medieval hologram rather than an actual person as I find it hard to believe someone is basically this mean.  If that’s not enough, she has consistently voted for higher taxes on alcohol sales and aeroplane flights,  an extremely foolhardy gesture when your ruddy-cheeked constituents are drinking lots of gin and holidaying abroad during every independent school half term holiday.  If I wanted to end it all via euthanasia, she would be no help to me at all as she has even voted against that.  She has, however, consistently voted for something called a “transparent Parliament” which may explain why her constituents can now see through her.

She has generally voted against public money to help create guaranteed jobs for young people who have been in long term unemployment, a move which seems highly at odds with the enterprise spirit of traditional one-nation Conservatism.  But then, one of the many carcasses that we have seen washed up on the Brexit Beach these last two years is that of one-Nation Conservatism.  Instead, we seem left with one-Notion Conservatism, or – as many of us jaded people name it – The Brexit Party.  This is a sort of mish-mash collection of motley people who really ought to be working on one of those TV Channels devoted to selling you gold-plated taps where they can talk shit all day.  But the problem with the front benches of both sides is they talk shit all day and we are all compelled to watch their spurious wafflings on a vast selection of news outlets.  Either it’s the bovine Shadow Front Bench, ripe with the rotten stench of institutional anti-semitism, stonewalling questions about how they are going to pay for the vastly lunatic economic promises they are flattering the electorate with, or the terrifying apparition of HM Government itself, who are so busy whipping each other, removing the whips from each other, stabbing each other in the well-tailored back, Faraging their way intricately through the sodden, dreadful moshpit of Cabinet life whilst shouting spittle over the rest of us as they tell us that “Brexit means Brexit” which does not in fact mean anything at all.  “Let’s get Brexit done!”  they chirrup from underneath Jacob Rees-Mogg’s fourth double-breasted suit of the week.  No one has a clue what they are on about.  Sadly, we deeply suspect they don’t either.

This is an election where life-long voter loyalty is breaking down; where a disaffected, frustrated Brexit-tired country is dismally depressed at being asked to vote for the third time in four years, where the positions of the two main parties have shifted so violently that many decent moderate MPs have been needlessly annihilated on both sides of the House, where Labour voters are switching to the LibDems, where anti-Brexit Conservative voters are also, where the Brexit Party stands shadily in the wings waiting for their deal to end all deals so that Nigel Farage can finally re-introduce smoking into the House of Commons bar, where a Labour Party currently under investigation by the EHRC waves their £3billion increase in adult education at a woefully, gullible youth vote as a deluded sweetener, and where pre-2015 notions of what it meant to be a Conservative voter, and what it meant to be a Labour voter have vanished.  Every MP of a seemingly safe seat may well be feeling more jittery than ever; not just because an electorate threatens to splinter away from them, but because their political systems are seismically shifting too.  It’s not impossible that we are observing the swansong of the two party system.  Dame Cheryl Gillan is the Trustee and Hon Treasurer of the Parliament Choir.  She may have to start singing for her supper.

Thrilling book reviews from Bluebird

In a bid to avoid thinking about my PhD, which I pick up next month following a 12 month extended maternity sabbatical and hope that by the start of March I have realised where I put my brain, I have read a series of modern paperback editions of various novels since birth of Son No 2.  For those of you keen to pick up a pageturner, please read on.  You’ll find the usual smattering of psychological thrillers amongst the rabble of course.  And, reader, I hope your copies of books will not be covered in lashings of Sudocreme and mashed banana as mine are.  Anyway, enough about my sex life.  Read on, Macduff.

Michelle Frances, The Girlfriend

Hugely enjoyable escapist thriller about a desperate girl from a humble background who sets cap at well-heeled Kensington chap with a large head and an equally large W11 basement extension.  Conflict appears in the shape of his adoring mother who occupies her time arranging three course family breakfasts surrounded by enormous, sad white flowers in circular bowls which appear to be the floral calling card of the urban rich. With its well-plotted series of calamitous and dramatic events (quick engagements, dire canoeing accidents, comas, mortal illnesses, sad Croydon mothers staring into empty biscuit tins, and large swimming pools in oligarch-style houses where Bad Things Happen)  and its anti-heroine intent on “marrying up” it could be straight from the pen of a Victorian sensation writer such as M E Braddon.  Rollicking read.  Take bets on who is going to end up dead in a hole by the end.

 

Sarah J Naughton, Tattle Tale

An excellently written chilling tale, about a young man killed as he fell from the bannister of the stairwell of his hostel, and his estranged sister attempting to work out what happened to him.  The dead man’s eerie fiancee cuts an interesting is-she-or-isn’t-she crazy character, and the disturbing tale of childhood abuse was succinctly and sparsely written, burning with the horror of the unsaid.   Who was the dead man really in love with? And how does this slot in with old grievances concerning disloyalty?  Told in a London of chilly orange streetlights, threat and distrust, this was a compelling read, deftly told, although it occasionally suffered from the slightly awkward structure of the flashbacks.  A recommended read, well-edited and impossible to put down. For those with a flavour for the graver and grimmer side of the mystery genre.

Lucie Whitehouse, The House at Midnight

This was a hearty, satisfying sort of read concerning five university friends who spend the best part of a year weekending at one of their number’s  (Lucas’s) inherited stately pile in deepest, darkest, squelchiest Oxfordshire.  Told in the first person by Joanna, who works as a tabloid journalist but who has aspirations to upgrade her literary work to publications where words of more than three syllables are permitted, the story really grabs you when she romantically – and disastrously –  involved with Lucas.  The dire romance provokes psychological traumas which Lucas seems intent on projecting onto everyone else, whose the decadent, poisonous inheritance the house offers hangs around like an unwanted ghost. Characterisation was particularly good, plotting was taut – even taking into account the ending which sadly spun into soap opera territory.  Evocative and atmospheric, this would suit readers who enjoy the Daphne du Maurier Creepy Houses Histories section of the local library.

Ruth Ware, The Woman in Cabin No 10

One of the joys of this reading year has been the discovery of Ruth Ware, a psychological crime thriller author who’s invaded the Top Ten lists like nobody’s business.   I loved this tense novel because the main setting for it was the location that is at the top of my (Hyacinth) Bucket List – a North Norwegian cruise to the Northern Lights.  Fresh fish, cable knit sweaters, iced vodka and bracing air.  However, my desire to go anywhere north of Oslo was quashed immediately after reading this.  A freelance female journalist (textbook female traits : damaged, thoughtful, jaded, heavy drinker and smoker) thinks covering a terribly smart five star northern lights cruise is the best way to recover from a violent break-in in her flat. (Man, balaclava, four a.m., your basic nightmare).  On her first night on the boat she realises she has forgotten her mascara (women: is this not worse than the Man, balaclava, four a.m. scenario in ALL HONESTY IS IT NOT WORSE) so she goes to the cabin next door, No 10, and borrows a mascara from the woman in the room.  She goes to enjoy a pseudo-Scandi-ish evening of warm white wine with a host of other dreadful journalists, only to witness a body being thrown from the neighbouring cabin window.  However, when she tries to alert those on board she is told no one ever checked in to Cabin No 10, no one is missing from the boat and no persons on board are missing.  Was there ever a victim?  If so, who wants to conceal her death? The claustrophobic life on board ship is described with great visceral energy, the writing taut and the plotting worthy of Agatha Christie. This is a prime A+ example of the thriller genre.  A wonderful sense of tying up the loose ends fills the last ten pages; when all the narrative strands become neatly tucked in, and you’re left with the satisfying  “there that goes, all done, and filled up…” feeling that comes from filling the tank full to the brim of petrol and driving the car off the station forecourt on a sunny day.

Ruth Ware, In A Dark, Dark Wood

A woman you went to school with, who you have not heard from in twelve years, invites you to her hen weekend in a remote, ultra-modern glass house in distant Northumberland.  You’re sitting in your Hackney pied-a-terre (predictive text : “pies and terror”) clutching you new life fondly between your cosy urban hands and wondering why this person has invited you.  Our heroine lays down her crafted Dalston macchiato in its rainforest friendly cup and heads off to a a real forest in a remote part of England where the weather takes up 90% of the landscape and there is so much space that there is nowhere to hide.  The mood and pace shift enticingly to a dark Northumberland night, a cast of five people with shared histories, a slew of drugs and booze and an accidentally loaded shotgun.  I mean, for God’s sake, what could POSSIBLY go wrong. Sounds like a lovely LastMinute hols to me.  Only it isn’t of course.   Who pulled the trigger, and why?  Her characters are vital; totally credible.    There’s also lots of blood.  Great plotting again from Ware.

Emma Cline, The Girls

Much praise has come Cline’s way for this novel; and deservedly so.  The story is told in the voice of a woman, now in her late 50s, in present day California.  Her memory tracks back to a golden time – her late teens, an endless summer, the outlandish teenager-ish belief that a unique, special destiny is carved out for her – but from the start the teenager’s world is stagnant, a clammy boredom and frustration pervades the pages as our lonely heroine gets drawn into the world of a late 1960s cult figure.  Inspired by the Manson murders, the story continues to shuttle back and forward from the present to the late 1960s, pulling the reader into the darkness and fractured logic of the cult’s activities.  This is a startling book, very beautifully written, concerned with the quicksilver way a teenager desperate for affection can slip into a murkier world, and a telling truth about the impossibility of escaping from the past in its pages.  Outstanding.

Elizabeth Buchan, The New Mrs Clifton 

Clapham, 1974.  The new owners of a house beside the common discover the body of a woman in their back garden.  Approximately 30 years old, the story sets out to discover who this woman was.  The bulk of the story is set in 1945-7, the days of fragile recovery at the end of the Second World War.  Gus returns from active service to the family house where his two sisters live.  But he has brought a bride from Berlin.  Why?  Who is this woman he has thrown his English fiancee over for?  What hold does she have over him?  How will the locals ever accept a German in their community?  What darkness have they shared in Berlin?   The dynamics of the sibling relationships shift and change in surprising directions.  Life after the war appears as reckless and hysterical as life during it, for some characters.  London remains dusty and decimated, paranoid and hopeless.  The echoes of spying and conflict still ripple through the streets.  The climax of the novel is great – if a little odd that the 1974 storyline that picked up the start of the tale is not fully completed and tied up at the end.

Cass Green, The Woman Next Door

Another discovery from the local library shelves,  this is a great yarn.  A glamorous, wealthy housewife has a dowdy, elderly neighbour called Hester, whose loneliness brings her to see her friendship with the younger woman as having much more meaning than it truly has.  Gauche and out of place at the occasional soirees she is invited to, the older, fastidious lady is a good-humoured embarrassment.  But the power base of the friendship shifts dramatically when the elderly neighbour sees something she should not have seen, and uses it as an opportunity to keep a secret – and in doing so keep the woman under her influence and control.   Clever, creepy suburban psychological thriller, with Hester as a particularly memorable, prim, dark personality.

Books I did not like

Sam Hepburn, Her Secret Life

I read this in the throes of post-partum hormone lunacy so I am so very sorry Mr (or Ms?) Hepburn but forgive me when I say that the celebrity chef character at the centre of this had a life that must have been very secret because three months on I can’t remember what it was.  I think one of the secrets centred on a buxom lady who ran one of those Oxfordshire pubs that serves nothing but warm beer and cold cream teas but to be honest I might be confusing that with a dream I once had.   The pace got stuck a lot and the scenes – particularly in kitchens or concerning lifestyle / interior design choices – felt repetitive.  However, would be somewhat perplexed if a certain Gizzi Erskine does not see a slight resemblance in the vintage hairstyle, facial features, make up and dazzling array of pastel-coloured kitchen equipment that our heroine basks in here.  Disappointing.

Rachel Hore, The Dream House

I’ve been reading Rachel Hore on and off for a couple of years, launching myself into her back catalogue when I read the very good The Silent Tide.  But the more I read her, the more formulaic I’m discovering her novels to be, the more two dimensional her characterisations and the more predictable the plots are.  It’s as if she’s discovered a recipe that works and so is determined to cook the same thing for every single dinner party she ever has.  I can see where the lines are going to fall, and I find that frustrating and sad because I really wanted to like her books.   I finally snapped and the will to live left me completely when I read “Max, who had left his terrine untouched to concentrate on Kate’s story…”   and there was no other option but the throw the book out of the window.  Hore, the honeymoon’s over. Stop writing the same book over and over again with nothing different except a winsome photograph of a stately home’s rusty wrought iron gate on the front cover, and a man with lots of dark eyebrow hair who turns up in the plot a third of the way through, wears very neat clothes, has a terribly unlucky romantic history, unravels a family secret from 1932 and, rather depressingly, “makes love” to our unsuspecting heroine 26 pages before the end, and 4 pages before it’s revealed what really happened re : family secret on / around / inspired by Second World War when someone feel into doomed love with a watercolourist. It’s a novel, not a victoria sponge.  Change the recipe. You can do better.

Metroland – the departure for 1953 leaves from Platform 4

 

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Dear Readers, I did not feel like writing a review of the Drury Lane production of 42nd Street as that day there was a terrorist attack in London, and then there was a terrible General Election and then, just at the moment I was preparing to write a review of the excellent Ray Gelato & Claire Martin at Pizza Express Dean Street, the Grenfell Tower fire happened.  Everything felt rather serious and depressed in London, and writing about musicals and jazz felt a flippant frippery so I decided to not write about it and instead I decided to make a break for the border and basically I’ve been and gone and bought a house in Zone 9.

Zone 9?

Yes.  Up until now a fictional land, it turns out that Zone 9 is an actual place and no, you do not need a passport to get there you need £7.00 from Baker Street at peak times, a strong coffee and a good book.   This is what happens when you are two adults and have two children and two bedrooms in a flat and someone turns to you and tells you to get your flat valued and you think why not and then a man comes round with a receding hairline and a red tie and gives you a valuation and your jaw drops to the (cheaply laminated) floor and you realise that in five years it nearly doubled and how could it nearly double when you’ve not replaced the bathroom or painted the kitchen and why not get a house somewhere else  with double the square footage for the same money somewhere like ZONE 9.

In Zone 9 they have flower bloom contests in the high street.  No one steals the flowers.

In Zone 9 a man raised his hat yesterday and said “Good Morning” and I nearly tipped the double buggy off the pavement in shock.

In Zone 9 you must make realistic preparations.  Remember those old friends who moved out of Highbury to Bishops Stortford and who would send faux-cheery texts to London friends exclaiming “Come and see us – we’re only 35 minutes from King Cross!” or similar, inviting you to chilly barbecues in cul-de-sacs? Then you realised it was in fact 45 minutes and it was from Liverpool Street, and you’d have to drive because the journey was too long, and that would mean drinking lime juice cordial for five hours at a barbecue with people you don’t know because you had the car.  If you move to Zone 9, don’t be like them.  It’s one of the truisms of leaving London: no one will visit you.  They’re too busy.  Don’t pretend you’re “just round the corner!”.  Your friends aren’t idiots.  They would probably not be your friends if they were.  No Londoner will visit.  EVER.  Get used to it.  In Zone 9, don’t be like those people who moved to Bishops Stortford.  Go in twice a week and drink gin until you fall over somewhere near the Old Street roundabout, because that is London at her finest.  Then return to bucolic pathways in Buckinghamshire via the 10.35 from Baker Street.  Be like that person.

In Zone 9 the tube tannoy tells you that the “train will be here in a minute ladies and gentlemen just a minute ladies and gentlemen she’s just coming out of the sidings”. In Zone 9 tube trains are gendered.

In Zone 9 kids ride bicycles up and down and up and down and up and down on the road outside our house and I fear they may be run over but then they aren’t run over because there are hardly any cars.

In Zone 9 I walk through a series of primrose covered and blackberry bush-lined tiny grassed pedestrian lanes to get to the station to get the train that is gendered.

We have stairs.  I’ve never had stairs as have lived in flats since 1994.  How do you hoover them?

But in Zone 9, they’re going backwards; the Metropolitan line runs vintage steam days on our section of the line, so patrons can suck up the air of yesteryear Metroland and eat cake on the way to Harrow-on-the-Hill on occasional Sundays.  If you don’t behave they make you listen to 1940s lady singing groups.     The past hasn’t changed, in case you were wondering.  The old locomotives don’t have access for disabled people or the blind.   You get on the train with a bowler hat on and don’t grumble.  You get all the way into Baker Street wondering whether they’ll ever invent the pill or cure smallpox.  You can live in 1953 for about 45 minutes (TFL timetable permitting).  The stock is old, brushed mahogany, British Rail red seats.  You can pretend you’re being evacuated! (Extra £5.59 inc cake).  Truly, you can.  One of the biggest jokes in our family was that Dad was evacuated in the first few days of war and didn’t even get sent anywhere off the tube map because they dumped him in Moor Park (Krap Room backwards) for 6 weeks.  Heritage trips are marvellously popular with the under-3’s, particularly as they zoom into the Thomas the Tank Engine phase.  There will be “enticing” tea and cake supplied by a lady called “Mrs Jones” and a series of costumed characters which will be worth turning up for alone as nothing is more pleasurable than seeing a modern day ticket inspector dressed up as a wartime Underground worker ferrying around gas masks and bleating out worrisome data on whether or not we’re all going to get bombed next Thursday.  The pop up shop will be selling a selection of Metropolitan Line gifts!  These will include : a bag full of rush hour halitosis, a delay in the rain due to a person under a train at Preston Road, and getting flashed at by an old fella at Croxley.  But the past – the past is what they’re really selling at modern day prices (£25 for adult ticket, including tea from the illustrious Mrs Jones ) and last time I looked luring people back to the 1950s is not advised, because the Leave Campaign tried to sell us that bunkum last summer and just look what happened.

Am I going forwards or backwards?  Do we move further into modernity the closer we get to Zone 1 or, with its plethora of young children and educational facilities and spaces, further into the future when we head out of town?  Will London be left with the children of the very rich and the very poor and not a lot in between?  30 miles from Marylebone, Metroland has a key truth ringing through it : it has consistently lived up to its social and cultural promises.  The air is cleaner, the schools better, the gardens a little slice of suburban utopia that Zone 3 flat dwellers may only dream of.  How long can we continue to say any of this of Central London?  How it has failed us; the average earners, the key workers with the shoes that need re-heeling every 3 months from walking city streets, the Pret a Manger lunchers, and their children, with scuffed knee caps running and shouting in the street. Arriving at Baker Street, one is aware of the pulse of life picking up, of the rhythms of the city strumming through us again – for many of us it is returning to our old homes and haunts, catching glimpses of our twenty-something years through the sidings and the signs.   Yet, we don’t live in the centre any more, and even if we could try to go back at £25 a pop with tea and cake on the way, wouldn’t we be remembering it wrongly? Wouldn’t we find new, convenient ways to remember an antiseptic, anodyne version of it? Almost certainly, because if one thing’s clear it’s that in Brexit Britain nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Broadway Baby?

So I have to admit, that when I had a baby removed from my uterus by Caesarian section several weeks ago, triple timesteps were the last thing on my mind.  In the operating theatre, the hospital operated a dubious policy called the “gentle Caesarian” method.  Oh goodie!  I thought, they’ve finally invented a method of C section that doesn’t involve sawing you in half like a lady in that old circus gag, cutting through the lion’s share of your innards and making your insides look like a latticed blackberry pie (my husband’s words, dear readers, not my own).  Well, it turns out that wasn’t true.  The “gentle Caesarian” method means you can bring in your own i-Pod.

The anaesthetist was an old boy of my brother’s school.  He lived in the same town as my old school.  I decided not to mention that my old school was known as the “Whorehouse on the Hill” by his old school and braced myself for an NHS spinal block paid for by the great, marvellous British taxpayer.  Much quicker than an epidural but twice as numbing, I then lay back to enjoy my first of two minor panic attacks.

“I feel like I am having difficulty breathing,” I gushed to Anaesthetist No 2, the one who hadn’t been to my brother’s alma mater and who had one of those upside down faces that, thanks to his beard, meant his head looked identical whether you were looking at it upside down or the right way up.  I was, in this instance, looking at him upside down.

“Don’t worry, you are fine,” he said in that intensely mild-mannered, slightly condescending tone that medical experts use to idiots who understand little about things. “It’s because the anaesthetic has made you unable to feel yourself breathing, that’s all.  You are fine. Would you like some more painkiller?”

“Yes please, yes please, yes please.”   The upside-down man anaesthetist rolled his over-educated eyes up over my now cut half way in half body to the young anaesthetist who went to my brother’s school. “I think we need some music”.

My husband is the King of the Playlist.  He develops playlists for every family event from school graduations to funerals.  So, unsurprisingly, he was on the ball, musically speaking.  We started with “Starman”, which meant I briefly got obsessed with Mick Ronson, and kept asking whether he was a relative of Mark Ronson, as it did seem odd to have two musicians sharing a surname who weren’t related.  I was, of course, off my tits on drugs, but I think I was intensely listening to my husband’s response (No,  Mark Ronson does not have a Hull accent) to distract from the fact my laid back surgeon had just used the “F” word : forceps.

In the middle of the second chorus of “Waterloo Sunset”, they winched out our 6 lb 9 oz son who had matching purple bruises at the bottom and top of his face thanks to the forceps and we turned the iPod off.  But it got me thinking : music is incredibly important when you have a baby.  You spend more time singing Daisy Daisy than you thought humanly possible, of course, but you constantly wind up musical toys, sing lullabies and use music as a lulling tool, much as the anaesthetists tried to do with me.  I think it’s only a matter of time before someone invents an incredibly singing dummy that gets your baby off to sleep whilst it plays the back catalogue of The Prodigy.  Plus, with a baby, you are at home all day.  We have, as attentive readers will have noted, not one baby but two, although the older is a toddler.  We spend much of our time indoors as getting out of the house takes two outfit changes, two Nurofen (for mummy), a double buggy, a raging breakdown, a nappy change, two change bags containing suit changes and juice pots and a definite loss of the will to live.  And this is to get to Tesco.  And Tesco Finchley, let me tell you, is where hope goes to die.

As our second child veers spectacularly towards his sixth week, my birthday looms.  As many of you would have realised from previous posts, my favourite thing in the world is to get mildly pissed, sit in the first twelve rows of a great theatrical musical and weep.  I am a seasoned graduate of the Teeth and Tits School of Musical Theatre, albeit it was so long ago we all still believed Tony Blair was a good idea.  But with No 10 Downing Street going back to the 1980s by harbouring it’s own, dowdy, slightly sinister Mrs Thatcher, it only seems right that The Theatre Royal Drury Lane does what it did in the 1980s and put on 42nd Street.  I saw 42nd Street there on my 10th birthday.  The lead was a young unknown called Catherine Zeta-Jones.  My memory is hazy as I was mainly obsessing about my french plait I’d got done that morning in the village hairdresser, but I do remember walking down the central aisle at the end of the matinee to peer over the top of the orchestra pit to see my brother’s godfather, the late great Lennie Bush, playing double bass, his great mop of fuzzy white hair rocking side-to-side to We’re In the Money. 

You better be in the money to see this production.  Top Stalls seats are £125.  £125!!  I’m a mum on maternity benefits, one hundred and twenty five squid can keep our house in Pampers and SMA for weeks. £125!   I can fly to Rome and back for less.  But the production is hugely expensive.  A chorus of 43 with 10 further principals puts the cast at just under 60.  That’s 120 tap shoes.  Once you add the full orchestra, team of technicians, choreographers, stagehands and directors you’re looking at nearly 100 people.  The production must cost six figures a week to run.   But it’s my cup of tea : it’s the ultimate celebration (and rumination) on vaudeville that has ever been written, with the most exhilarating opening in musical theatre history.  And I am a sucker for a shuffle ball hop.  I love tap dancing.  I used to love doing tap dancing until I lent my shoes to a friend who was appearing in We Will Rock You (makes no sense, no tap dancing in Queen) and never got them back.  I haven’t double timestepped since the late nineties.

Will it come back into fashion now?  Will people be seen, hurtling out of the Drury Lane theatre and around to the other side of Covent Garden, to Pineapple dance studios because they have seen something so uplifting, so fun, that they want to try it themselves?  Tap dancing is remarkably satisfying.  You can imagine you’re jumping and tapping on the head of your enemies – what bliss!  Plus it’s LOUD.   So, I booked the second tier of Stalls seats which wasn’t £125 a seat but was still a “credit card moment” for the matinee of my birthday.  Yes, I have become a matinee person.  You do when you’ve two small children and you want the lunch time wine to wear off by the time you return home to relieve your mother from the childcare and put your two year old in the bath.  I used to be a strictly evening theatre sort of person.  An evening at a show wasn’t an evening at a show unless it ended with a dozen Dublin Bay prawns at J Sheekey in the company of West End Wendies who would eventually fall into the gutter in Brewer Street seven gins down – but, the world changes.   Now if I had seven gins I’d have to be hospitalised.

I will of course report back after shuffle-shuffle-shuffle-hop-hop-hop-step-LUNGE-single timestep-oops-I’ve-split-my-tights has been seen.  Expect an expert breakdown of this homage of the Great White Way, seen through the misty haze of Barrafino Rioja and musical theatre nostalgia, on my birthday, and  – before you ask – no, I’m not saying how old I’ll be.   [Flounce. Step turn lunge.  Exit stage left]

 

*The writer has since confirmed that Mick Ronson and Mark Ronson are not father and son. Annoyingly for Mark Ronson, there was an internet rumour that Mick Ronson was in fact his father.  It got to the point where Mick Ronson’s widow called Mark Ronson’s mum to say, “Did you have illegitimate children by my deceased husband?”  The issue is further confused by the fact that for a while Mark Ronson’s stepfather was another musical Mick – Mick Jones from The Clash.

 

How to study part time with a full time toddler : an easy guide

Two winters ago I stood in the main hall of the British Library and caught my reflection.  For a moment, I realised, in that strange intensity that public mirrors provide you with, what I looked like and what was about to happen.  I was about seven and a half months pregnant with our first child, looking like a ship in full sail, four months into a PhD.  How, I asked myself was I going to cope with it all?  Would I cope?  Would I give up the studying?  Apparently, babies give you no time for anything else.  They also eat your brain cells when you’re not looking, and turn them into poo into their nappies, leaving you with hormonal mental whiteouts and limited intellectual capabilities.  How on earth was I going to write 100,000 words on Victorian sensation thrillers with that going on?

Two winters later.  I am standing in the same place in the British Library.  I am in the same maternity dress although it has a new stain on it of unidentifiable origin.  I am at the same stage in the pregnancy of our second child.  Only this time, I have kept my PhD going, albeit at a very slow pace, as well as running two jobs whilst supporting the family.  How do you do it?  People ask me all the time – how are you doing it?  You’re so busy!  But I’m not really.  I spend a lot of time eating cookies and sitting down.  It’s simpler than you think, and mostly it’s just discipline and honing your organisation skills.  Here’s what I’ve learned throughout the last two years.

Difficulty and complexity are not the same thing

Of course, it’s difficult being sleep-deprived, and of course the first three months are a haze of greyness, nappies, milk that won’t come out, milk that won’t go down, milk that goes down but doesn’t stay down and comes up again, mopping, white muslin washing and very very strong tea.  But it isn’t complex.  Looking after babies is, in theory, quite simple because they only do the biological basics of sleep, eat, poo and wee.  Once you hit the one year mark they become an utterly challenging species, one whose desire to be happy can only be fulfilled by slowly wiping pea and ham hock soup over the walls.  Caring for a newborn depletes your physical resources and wears you out, but – and this is a very important distinction – it doesn’t deplete your mental ones.  It’s a groundhog day of sexless bras and tiny white babygrows drying on the rack.  But it’s not mentally complex.  Your body is not your own.  But your mind is.  Bear this in mind.  Push yourself a little mentally every day, even if its only an easy crossword.  Reading and thinking is more possible than ever because you’re off work, and it’s the way to pull together the muscle that holds your brain in, which leads me to point 2….

Physical tiredness and mental tiredness are not the same thing

About fourteen years ago I went to my GP, because I kept experiencing palpitations after having a virus.  I couldn’t understand it.  I’d be sitting there watching EastEnders (not, despite what they tell you, as thrilling as all that) when suddenly my heart was beginning to beat out of whack.  The GP asked about my lifestyle which, at that point, revolved around an office, late nights, early mornings, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo in cheap Homebase wine glasses and Marlboro Lights.  I was always busy, always seemed to be on my way to somewhere.  But I couldn’t sleep.  The GP said something so laughingly obvious I can’t believe I didn’t consider it myself : I was mentally drained and emotionally exhausted, but physically I wasn’t.  I was demanding no physical exertion from my body.  He advocated regular exercise, enough to get the heart rate going three times a week, and this was the very beginning of my swimming obsession.  I swam three times a week and I loved it.  Within a fortnight the palpitations had gone and if I wasn’t sleeping like a baby then I was certainly sleeping like a ten-a-day smoking, slightly anxious city dweller in my late twenties.   Well, when you have a baby the opposite is true.  Your physical muscles are tired but your mental muscles haven’t had a workout.  The brain is a muscle, and unless you want to become one of those people who can’t string three sentences together after the second child, for God’s sake prioritise the nurturing of it.  Keep reading and turn the fucking television off.  I can’t say this enough : TURN IT OFF.  Television stimulates your optic nerve in entirely the wrong way, especially just before sleep.  It does nothing to a tired person but irritate.  “I’m just relaxing,” you say. Television is not relaxing.  “I’ve just had a hard day with the baby, I need to veg out.”  Do you? You are not a carrot.   If it’s relaxation you want, have a hot, candlelit bath.  For three nights a week : go to bed at 8.30pm with a hot chocolate and a book that really pushes the way you need to think critically, if you’re studying.  You’ll discover mental resources you thought you were too tired to possess.  For the other four nights a week I give you full permission to veg out in front of reality TV and turn into a carrot.

Paying to outsource domestic duties is far more practical than paying to outsource childcare

Childcare is expensive in Britain, and you can only do it on a half day (it’s never actually a half day rate, more like 60%) or full day basis.  When you’re a new mum and you’re struggling to remember how to spell “criticism”, you can’t think or read or write all day anyway.  What you need are 90 minute to 2 hour bursts.  That is all you really need, and all you can manage.  Every day, until your child is about two and a half, they will sleep for 90 minutes or 2 hours in the much-yearned-for- Lunchtime Nap. This may occur pre-luncheon, post-luncheon or during luncheon when they suddenly slump in their chair in front of Hey Duggie! with a spoonful of macaroni cheese half way to their faces.  But, by God, they sleep.  This is your time.  The problem is the Goddess of Housework has determined it isn’t to be your time.  She’s here to nag you that now you can clean the loo, iron the shirts, get the wash on, wipe the kitchen floor, dust and hoover.  You must get a cleaner.  A cleaner obliterates the nag of the Goddess of Housework, and four hours a week’s work for her will not only be cheaper than a childminder for one day but will be more practical for the way you work.

Keep five days a week Nap Time solely for your study and do not get drawn into anything else.  Disable Facebook and social media during this time.  For the remaining two Nap Times a week, cram in those jobs you just can’t delegate or avoid – the car tax, dental appointments, work calls, arranging your weekly crate of bespoke gin for delivery etc.  (NB If you do have a childminder (I got by using mine 8 hours a week and sharing childcare with my husband the remainder of the time) and are lucky enough to have a bit of flexibility with her/him, use them strategically.  Cram in as much as you can for those few hours.  You are, after all, paying for it. Working from home with a nanny and toddler awake and noisy in the home at the same time won’t really work).

The astute multi-tasking skills you develop as a mother are the enemy of intellectual focus

You have to become that person who stirs a bolognese whilst singing Wind The Bobbin Up, combing your little one’s hair, mentally making notes to get your shoes re-heeled and writing up a supermarket list.  Look, you just have to.  You aren’t going to get through without splitting yourself into multiple people in your own sleep-deprived mind.  But here’s the thing:  if you’re not careful you’ll forget how to concentrate on one sole thing.  If you can potty train a two year old not to shit on the floor, you can train your brain to rein itself in to single-minded vision again.  Boring as it may sound, quiet evenings without music, social media or television will be your greatest friend.  As will early nights with books about Emily Bronte’s lack of sex life (or whatever you’re studying).   But be vigilant : the multi-tasking muscle is just around the corner waiting to trip you up again, and get you thinking about whether he should have Marmite or Philadelphia on his toast in the morning.

The busy paradox : “I’ve no time!”

Busy people always have time to tell you how busy they are.  But stating “I’m busy” is like stating “I’m tired” – it’s a claim but not an undisputed fact, and if you’re not careful it will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I was much busier when I worked full time before I had a child.  When you’re at home with a child more (I worked three and a half days a week to support the family in the first 18 months) you aren’t busy.  You’re doing a hell of a lot of cleaning up and cooking and tidying, but busy isn’t the right sort of word.  You’re consumed, you’re preoccupied, you’re fixed on your child’s needs.  But that’s not really busy.  First there’s that two hours a day to yourself (no one in an office has that) and then – if you are fortunate – there is the evening time after your child has gone to sleep, which is yours again because you go out a hell of a lot less than you used to.  This is easily another 90 minutes.  So there’s three and half hours a day that you can use.  It’s just that you have to learn the art of using them properly. Again, I’m sorry, but television is your absolute enemy here.

The exhaustion paradox : “I’m so tired!” 

Don’t thump me.  I’m not calling into doubt your mind-numbing, teeth chattering, howling, espresso filtering tiredness.  I know you’re physically knackered but just think about what I said above about mental tiredness not being the same thing.  Think about how the social obsession with fatigue and exhaustion only came about after the advent of modernity.  Imagine someone in 1512 saying “Gawd I’m farking knackered!” and sitting down on a sofa for three hours every evening.  You see?  You can’t.  Exhaustion is a post-industrial invention and post-industrial society is obsessed with it and wants you to be too.  Be vigilant against the divisive way that thinking you’re tired mucks up your brain.

 

Wherever possible, walk don’t drive

Walking time with a pram is a marvellous opportunity to think.  When you drive you cannot think as you’re busy trying not to crash into things.  With cash being tight as a new mum, you won’t be able to afford gym fees.  Walking as much as you can in local parks, woods, or around the shops whilst your baby /toddler sleeps is a great time to note-take in your head, think about a project and get some much-needed fresh air.  Always carry a notebook.  When your child goes to sleep, find a nearby bench and work solidly for 20 minutes, setting the timer on your phone and putting your phone into flight mode to avoid email alerts and unwanted distractions  This is easily organised so long as you don’t fall into the trap of over-timetabling your toddler’s life into unnecessary classes and commitments which see you constantly having to battle to get a 19 month old into the car so they can pick their nose through a sing-a-long session at a playgroup which neither of you really needs to go to for the sixth week running.

Some days it won’t work – and that’s fine

It won’t.  You won’t find reading mentally stimulating and enjoyable.  You’ll want to curl up in an old tracksuit and cry because the baby threw up three times on three separate suits in one day and you can’t remember what your middle name is. You’ll be spent, feel fat and unhappy and eat 17 chocolate digestives whilst watching episodes of The Affair from the Sky planner.  That’s totally fine.  On evenings like this, make a plan for the next day which involves carving out half an hour – just half an hour – for yourself to think again.  You’ll go to bed feeling better about looming deadlines if you have a system in place that provides you with a little space the next day.

 

As I was saying….

Gosh, but it’s a been a while, eh, readers?  Over the last year I had various blog “pangs” urging me to fly back to these pages and drop down a word or seven of current thoughts and opinions, but – goodness, there’s a piano lesson to give, a PhD book to read, and a toddler toddling toddling toddling through the living room in danger of eating a polystyrene letter “W” that he has flagrantly ripped from his Toys-R-Us alphabet floor jigsaw.   Indeed, my absence from these pages since January 2015 has been felt deeply by me.  It might have been a relief for you, however,  but HERE I AM.  Betcha missed me.

Now, this not a blog about becoming a piano teacher, or becoming a parent, but it is a blog about this frustrating, beautiful, over-priced, laconic, wildly compelling city whose skies shelter us.  Clearly, I could talk to you about my caesarian scar but it wouldn’t be appropriate.  Instead I shall labour on the beauty of Aldwych, Virginia Woolf, the loneliness of the long distance PhD student and London from the view of someone pushing a rice-caked encrusted buggy through the tube.

Firstly, I remain here.  I mean, I can still live here, clutching on for dear life through the leaf-strewn outer suburbs of the metropolis.  For how long, God (or my mortgage broker) only knows, but there is a sense of sliding out – or off – from the city as our family threatens to outgrow our small patch.  Nevertheless, I see still being here as one of my greatest achievements, alongside:  1.) Being the first person ever to step onto the Somerset House Ice Rink fifteen years ago, immediately falling  down and ending up with a photo of this event in the Evening standard and 2.) Living in London for 22 years and never once going to M&M World.   Secondly, during my first 10 years in London I refused to travel by bus.  I thought that the bus was for saddos and the tube for the sexy people.  I now realise the tube is shit as our 15 month old son is frightened of it, sulks and sits in the corner kicking idly at the paintwork from the buggy and refusing to smile at his fellow commuters (can’t think where he gets it from….), and buses are Things of the Gods.  They have special doors on the back for the oldies / unemployed / disabled – and buggies.  And apparently going up the Finchley Road whilst facing sideways and staring at red brick houses and cross people standing at other bus stops makes small children deliriously happy.

You know what makes me happy?  Coming to terms with the inescapable fact that I have to read a lot of spatial theory and philosophy in order to have the tiniest clue what my PhD thesis is supposed to be about.  Yep.  Makes me delighted and delightful in equal measure.  Also makes me prone to rattiness and gin drinking in the evenings, when instead I should be reading about nineteenth century views on the developing field of psychology.  Oh, do me a favour. I just wanted to read books, do a thesis and then get an earnest and slightly fabulous job as a lecturer wearing excellent 20 denier hosiery and drinking Bar Italia house blend in my University study, salivating over the prospect of a public sector linked pension and the fact that the British State is paying me to read books.  But in order to do a literature-based thesis, I have to know so much about everything else.  Lots of everything else.  All everything else.  And for the first time in my life, I am being really, intellectually pushed.  And this is where Virginia Woolf comes in.  Because she always does.  Because we won’t let the poor cow rest.

You’d think that no one else in the Fitzroy Square area had ever written anything between the wars.  The entire sections of early twentieth century literature shelves in our best bookshops think of “Modernist” writing as four words : James Joyce Virginia Woolf.  And that’s it.  I am not one to deny these two writers their genius, but there are so many other neglected scribblers from this period.  Virginia Woolf is, sadly, not content with being dead.  She has reared up again, as an enormous, characterless building at the Aldwych end of Kingsway, and she is the new home of the Kings College Arts & Humanities department.  It is known as “VWB” – The Virginia Woolf Building.  Junior lecturers and students send emails to each other about “coffee in VWB” and “Post-Colonial Reading sessions in VWB”.  Virginia Woolf isn’t going To The Lighthouse.  She’s going to the Comparative Literature department for a supervisor update session so she can check her Facebook on the University Wifi.  An eerie waxwork of Virginia Woolf sits in the lobby area, shrouded by glass.  She appears to be sitting in a tiny, wooden train compartment, and looks like she’s desperately trying to escape in the direction of the VWB Ground Floor Coffee Station.

This is where I go every four weeks.  I love my supervisor there – I really love her.  She knows precisely how to stop me being a twat, and how to lead me in the right direction in my research, yet never tells me implicitly how to do this.  Instead, she lays a map, steers me along the library shelves and pathways, until I find myself exactly where I need to be (always a surprise, like waking up accidentally at the right tube station) and turning around amidst piles of papers and half-drunk mugs of Nescafe, suddenly proclaiming “Aha! Yes I see! Aha!” like some ghastly, mad-haired, sleep deprived Alan Partridge.   I am always asked questions in my supervisor sessions.  I never know any of the answers, but I am beginning to realise that might be the point.  I did not realise this for the first two years, however, and just thought I was being an idiot.

I was the only person who rocked up to my PhD Freshers week five months pregnant, waddling past those trays of plastic cupped wine I could not drink, in a Dorothy Perkins maternity dress thinking :”What have I done this for?”  Everyone else on my course is putting the “fresh” into fresher – young faces, bright with determined, academic clarity, just down from Oxford, each aged about 14 and three quarters.  Even though I had stilton in my fridge older than some of my contemporaries, I felt a strong mother hen influence to protect them.  “Ahh, bless”, I would think, as they took some group discussion of critical reading incredibly seriously in the first week, banging on about Russian Formalists and impressing each other by showing off that they knew how to pronounce Ferdinand de Saussure.  The mother hen instinct evaporated as soon as I moved into the third trimester, and I grew to hate them, but hey, that’s hormones!  By January I was a bus, a charabanc, a wide saloon veering majestically down High Holborn in the eighth month of pregnancy, constantly looking for somewhere to have a bitch about Wilkie Collins and a wee.

I took six months off for maternity leave.  During this time our son exclusively slept so I busied myself with knitting him cardigans rather than reading Mary Elizabeth Braddon novels.  I came back to the PhD in September, and mercifully glued the stagnant sections of my brain back together, and got the muscles up and running again, feeling as if the epidural had numbed my head instead of my spine.   And now, eight months further down the line I might actually have a plan.  I might – just might – have a first chapter for the upgrade panel – a rights of passage through which all M. Phil students must pass to become PhD students – which I need to get done by September.  And I will get it done by then – not because my supervisor says I have to but because the longer I take finishing this thesis the longer I have to pay for the bloody thing.   Knowing I had to come back to it after maternity leave plugged my brain in again.  I am so grateful I got some of it kick-started before I had a baby.  Would I have had the energy to commit to it afterwards?

So, the blog is back.  And it’s lovely to be writing it again.  I hope you will continue to read.  But, be patient with me; updates will not be at the regular time of every Thursday, as they were for three years.  They will be intermittent, and on a variety of subjects I hope you will enjoy.  The Reading List will be updated shortly with my recent reads and I’m looking to get the Bluebird Short Story Competition up and running again.   London, as I have discovered, has not gone anywhere.  Neither, dear readers, have I.

 

This train terminates at Sainsburys

A business proposal to transform the 26 “ghost” stations of the London Underground network has been proposed this week, which means that whereas people used to use stations for travel and going to work they will now be using them to access branches of Costa, Click & Collect their Ikea furniture shopping and generally attend shopping mausoleums below ground amidst diabolical overhead lighting and Take That being piped in at a friendly decibel. (It’s always a friendly Debenham’s-level volume, and it’s always Rule The World ).  Of course, there is a need to use ghost stations.  It’s not entirely fair that the ghosties should have first dibs on them.  But I’m not entirely convinced that what our metropolis needs is another ball-clenchingly orange Sainsburys shoving red pepper hummus at commuters and essentially taking business away from local shops and more money away from us.

Sainsburys have yet to recover from the lunatic shame of their Christmas commercial, whereby they inferred that wars could be won much easier and with far less bloodshed if we exchanged bars of Dairy Milk instead.   Whilst not adding war propaganda to their list of unsavoury achievements, they are now convincing us to buy their savoury and unsavoury nasties from a former ticket hall at a station that was used as an emergency replacement Cabinet War Room (when the original wasn’t available) during the War and has since been used only in James Bond films starring Daniel Craggy McCrag Face Craig.  34 sites in all have been identified, one of which may be turned into a herb garden (Hello the disused station of Clapham North!) and another a nightclub (Leinster Gardens!).  York Road will be incorporated into the Kings Cross residential and commercial development triangle, which shows little signs of stopping.  Down Street, the afore-mentioned Cabinet War Rooms stand-in for Churchill when the Germans were busy bombing his other one, is the deepest, and the one with the most potential.  But the plans are so recidivist and reductive that they are tragic : a waxwork Churchill presiding over a muddling mock-up of his war time fags, cigars, champers etc whilst offering the visitor a tour of his daily life (sleep, half bottle of Moet, ham sandwich, RULE, CAMPAIGN, snooze, port, lunch, SPEECHES, snooze, Bordeaux, cocaine lozenges etc).  Another tourist-inciting museum in the centre of what should be a working city?  Another non-station trying to convince us that what we need are waxworks, which haven’t been thrilling since 1978, and only then to 11 year olds?  In addition to that Churchillian melting pot of wax nightmare on Platform No 3, there will be a restaurant and above ground retail zone – which is brilliant obviously, because London doesn’t have enough of those.

We don’t need more waxworks.  We need real things.   We are talking about a total of 10m sq ft of land, much of which is in some of the most expensive areas on the planet.  What is it that London is beginning to lack, that these ghost stations could aid in creating?  The obvious answer would be affordable housing, but not everyone would want to live underground like eerie characters in an HG Wells story.  The plan currently is that TFL would lease the properties out to business clients, and the profits from the leasing will be fed directly back into the public purse.  Therefore the renovations of the ghost stations will cost you and I nothing, but will benefit those who use the TFL system on a daily basis as the profit will be spent there.  Yet there are practical difficulties.  Many of the sites are very close to live railways, and therefore require investment to ensure safe change of use before Waitrose rock in and open up.  Procurement law dictates that all bids for stations must be open to a series of commercial tenders.  TFL want to accept the more interesting and appropriate ideas that celebrate individual stations’ histories, but may not find themselves able to do so.  It had been hoped that Brompton Road tube would be opened as a museum to celebrate its history as one of the RAF anti-aircraft secret underground divisions in World War Two, from where V1 and V2 rocket attacks were monitored.  But then, suddenly Brompton Road was sold to luxury developers last year (presumably by TFL?).  There goes another good idea up in Russian billionaires’ cigar smoke.

So, what should happen to those 32 stations:

1.  Five of them should be turned into community resource centres, with free internet and library services.  Whilst many of London’s community centres are non-profit, independent organisations, this will include a small annual fee.  This gives book-lending rights for the library, access to printers / the internet for those seeking work, and the introduction of homework clubs for the children of working parents.

2. Five of them should provide small scale, minor ailments assistance to people, assistance that A&E departments all over London are currently struggling to provide : drop in centres for sprains, cuts, basic antibiotics dispensation and non-emergency illnesses.  Funding will be an issue, so Londoners will each pay a fee to use medical facilities and private nurses.  Central London disused stations will be particularly vital for people who have drunk themselves into vomit and bile inducing oblivion during a West End night out too.

3.  Three of them should be converted into temporary fire stations, especially in light of the raised terrorist risk to the UK (and the fact that the West End actually only has one fire station – Soho).

4. Five of them should be grant leases to local, sustainable cafes and restaurants within a 5 mile radius of that disused station to promote the growth of local, small businesses and ban the presence of all supermarket and coffee chains.

5. Five of them should house some of the permanent collections that our 240 museums cannot permanently display and which are currently languishing in archives.

6. Five of them should provide temporary homes for those business that have been silently “cleared” in Soho / Denmark Street over the last decade thanks to the development of the Crossrail project, at affordable rents.  The rents are paid directly to TFL as landlord.

7. Four of them should be granted temporary live music licences and offer affordable gigs and evening concerts to schoolchildren (and grown ups) across the capital.  The concerts and gigs will have a cover charge which will be processed into a system to ensure musical education with the possibility of several hours of free music tuition to all London children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There you go.  Do that and those stations will never be empty.  There won’t even be room for the ghosts.  You see, only two of the seven points are not directly funded by the pocket of the consumer (The Fire Brigade and the Museums).  The rest we will pay for.  My argument is, we will be happy to pay for them if they provide us with some meaningful improvement in the nature of our civic life.  I’m just not entirely sure that a Tesco Direct with a large shoe shop on top of it will offer us anything at all that we actually need.  It only offers us something that we might, from time to time, require.

London is getting beyond itself; we need to identify precisely the kinds of services – civic and retail – that we need, in a city overrun with greed, new restaurants and endless opportunities to spend money many of us feel like we don’t have. Money for vital services is far more required in a city where the numbers are growing but both wages and access to services are not.  The difficulty with over-bloating the market with retail outlets is it implies that we all have the desire to spend money on things that we only ever buy through choice.  A Tesco muffin is a Tesco muffin.  So what?  What I propose is that we are encouraged to make the choice to buy things we as a city currently need as a necessity.  If London’s empty spaces can’t create this for us, who on earth can?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is now updated intermittently, so please add yourself to the mailing list to ensure you receive updates.  Thank you!  The London Bluebird. x x x.

Alice in Wonderland

And so to 2015.  Another year where I still don’t know what those enormous bell-type things are on the pavement at the corner of Finchley Road and Circus Road, NW8.  Have you seen them?  They are like enormous giant’s earrings or houses for gremlins or garden gnomes.  I think at this time of year, if we were to hesitantly open them up they would be full of the Bastard Wishes of New Year’s Resolutions, tiny Londoners with futile expressions attending spin classes in miniature Virgin Active Gyms for they have forgotten that their bodies are only going one way, and that is wherever gravity sends them.  When it comes to moobs and flab it’s a tireless race against the inevitable. It’s down, down, down….falling through life’s rabbit hole.

So maybe, for the ageing student here, it’s a moot point that the only bit of my body I am focusing on is my brain – which is a clever tactic as its moobs are hidden inside my head.  But the problem is my brain has displaced itself into a nether hormonal region of highly strung madness as I am seven months pregnant.  Everyone else is concentrating on dieting and getting smaller, but I have the ultimate opt out and am out of the control seat here.  I just get bigger.  I see those adverts at bus stops for people to get miniature meals featuring grains delivered to their office desks at exorbitant prices and now I guffaw.  Although I’m sure I did guffaw last year.  The EAT‘s and Pret A Manger’s are overflowing with quinoa and nasty things to exercise your colon when all you want is a hearty bowel of porridge.  My hormonal craziness is almost liberating.  Today I saw a corgi outside Baker Street Station and wanted to kill it.  They don’t tell you this in the Baby and Fashionable Breastfeeding Guide from Udders.com.  I am not making up Udders.  They are a company, a company that provides terrified first time mothers with extremely bad taste shawls in which mothers can choose to feed who they breed.  Apart from killing corgis, other desires have been turning around and saying “I’m NOT your darling” to some innocent, 50-something painter and decorator type – whose stomach was at least twice the size of mine – who was offering that I go in front of him in the queue at Pret A Manger in Bond Street Station.  The bastard.  I look forward to degenerating into total mental disarray in the next 10 weeks.

At Ageing Students HQ, I met with one of my supervisors who told me, entirely unprompted, not to worry about the “adulterous dreams and sleep orgasms”.  It took me a quarter of an hour to work out she wasn’t talking about my PhD.  Two framed photographs of blonde angelic children sit perched on her bookshelf alongside The Cambridge Companion to Dickens.  She said she had a dream of such sexual lucidity at some point in her third trimester that “I can never bring myself to tell my husband about it”.  I would like to know about it, I said, so that I could go home and tell my husband. It would be a refreshing parlour game, and certainly a change from what we have been playing since Week 28 which is me, sitting on the sofa asking “Can you see my feet?  I can’t”.   She wouldn’t tell me.  However, it was reassuring.  The previous week something dreadful had occurred at night in my subconscious involving Russell Brand, and I felt cheated, because I have never once fancied Russell Brand.  He has a really cruel face, so that’s him out.  But there he was lurking in my fetid imagination, refusing to dislodge.  I’m just grateful a corgi wasn’t involved.   Of course it’s not too late for that.  I’ve got 10 weeks to go.

London is usually full of pregnant people, or at least it seemed to be when I wasn’t pregnant.  Now I feel like the only pregnant person I have seen.  I have been quietly impressed by the people who stand up for me on the tube, and buses.  But why are they always women – usually in their late 50s / 60s who, frankly, look as if they could do with a sit down?   People are kinder than I thought about standing up on the tube (I don’t go for the nonsense of one of those “Baby on Board” badges.  I don’t have to.  I am huge).  But mostly they don’t look at you with kindness.  They look at you with pure, unbridled pity.  “Oh, God, I remember that,”  their tired City eyes seem to say.  “You’ve not seen your own vagina since October have you?”  It feels churlish to reply to people when I’m having imaginary conversations with them in my head, so I keep schtum, but the pity is interesting.  I think they should save the pity for childbirth where I’ll be rolling around on a bed screaming for diamorphine and an epidural (knowing my luck Russell Brand will arrive to inject it).    Meanwhile, I lurch around London like a latter day Alice in Wonderland, who has taken a magic “drink me” bottle of potion that means I shall get bigger and bigger and bigger, until, like her I wave goodbye to my feet at the fender and end up with bits of me sticking out of the chimney.  The Londonist sends regular updates to my email box daily, reminding me of all the fabulousness of the City that I am not seeing, and shall not be likely to see for several months, as the highlight of my day seems to be perusing the daily email from Bounty and eating mammoth supplies of expensive out of season raspberries.  Sometimes I wonder how I will finish my PhD.  Sometimes, I think I will finish it because I haven’t given myself an alternative career plan so I have to.  Sometimes, I realise that I have spent precisely 1 minute and 54 seconds, and £2,500, on it, since September, and am perplexed as to how I will manage to spend as much as 1 minute 54 seconds on it in the coming year.  Sometimes I think I will rely heavily on strong coffee, like Balzac, but coffee has not passed my lips since June 2014 and may have a dramatic effect on me.  But then, as Manuel in Fawlty Towers once said “I know naathing…..”  Nothing about any of it.  Nada.  Zilch.  Nil.  Oh, I’ll pick it up along the way.

Central London has been a place I have commuted to for 12 years, five days a week.  What will London be to me when that stops becoming a characteristic of my daily life?  Will London do nothing more than allow me to shrink my life into four rooms for as many months?  I look at the view from my second floor Bond Street window and imagine the person who will take my place sitting out and looking at it instead.  The city churns and moves and pushes forward outside the window, whilst I will be out in Zone 4, working out what the best thing for cracked nipples is  (and to think this time a year or two ago I thought a Cracked Nipple was a kind of cocktail).  I got heady when I returned to Oxford Street after the Christmas / New Year hiatus.  That, dear reader, was a gap of 11 days.  It seemed overwhelmingly exciting and strange.  What will it be like when I come back to work part time after 6 months?  I shall probably have a collapse and be found hysterical and unbalanced in a gutter in Wardour Street, but then that seemed to happen most Friday nights in my 20s.  In those days we thought we were the only people in the world who had discovered mojitos.  We spent so long discovering them we drained the rum reserves dry and competed wildly for Type 2 Diabetes thanks to the sugar syrup.  I am not allowed alcohol now.  Sometimes I have a cup of Darjeeling tea, and I get somewhat off my tits.  I’ve lost the ability to process toxins and drugs, which isn’t at all helpful when you considered the smorgasbord of drugs that childbirth involves on the NHS, courtesy of the Great British Tax Payer.

What shall happen here, I hear you cry?  What shall become of The London Bluebird during this biological transition?  Well, I shall be taking a rest from the blog, and going on maternity leave in February for a few months, but I shall be back…..By February it will be, incredibly, the blog’s 5th birthday.  Please stay with me.  Please keep The London Bluebird in your bookmarks and visit again in the autumn, where I shall be again, writing happily into the ether to you, dearest unknown friend and reader, unaware who is reading and what is being read but hoping that somehow these words end up out there somewhere.  I never know where my words end up, or who you are, or what compels me to report fortnightly but something does, and the thought that you all might be enjoying it on some level is certainly up their in the Top Three Reasons to Keep Hammering Out the Articles.  I’ll be seeing you once more before I disappear, with a further update in early Feb.   As updates become less regular please sign up for our email alerts, which will tell you when I have recovered enough from sleep deprivation to write something.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog will be now updated intermittently. Please sign up for the email notification to have The London Bluebird delivered directly to your inbox in future! The London Bluebird xx

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,300 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Kiefer Sutherland as Alan Turing?

Oh dearest readers, how lapse this Christmas reindeer has been – I did not update when I said I would last time – and now it is December 18th.  I always remember December 18th because when I was 13 I memorised it as Kiefer “The Lost Boys” Sutherland’s birthday.  Therefore, every December 18th since I wake up and the first thought in my head is “How old is Kiefer Sutherland today?”  rather than “Why haven’t I completed my Christmas shopping when I work in Oxford Street?”  Today, Kiefer is 48.  Happy Birthday Kiefer.

Kiefer was born in Paddington in St Mary’s Ospedale.  That is because his father was making The Dirty Dozen here at the time.  Kiefer was not born in Paddington Bear, nor was he anything to do with Paddington Bear, though I think he should have voiced him in the film.  Yesterday I decided to not see Paddington Bear the Movie as I suspected I may not like it, so I went to see The Imitation Game instead which was all fur coat and no knickers (great cast, pretty pretty, oh-so-English sets, and a script that a 14 year old could have wrote) at the Curzon Mayfair.  I like the Curzons but they are ever so smug about their brilliance in the catering department.  “You’ve got time to grab a Berry Bros & Rudd wine before the film starts!”  the screen crows at you, two minutes after you’ve sat through the trailer for Ridley Scott’s new exodus movie (Christian Bale as Moses?  REALLY?)  Well, the screen may as well have shouted ” Look!  Look!  We have the Queen’s personal vintner on tap – they’re in St James’s you know!  This is the fucking Curzon, darling…”  Of course no one did get up to purchase a glass full of Berry Bros brilliance, mainly because they were going back to work (middle aged gents), still had shopping to do (ladies what lunch) and were just over six months pregnant (me).  So we all sat there and wept at the Waitrose ad instead, where an unpopular girl at school bakes gingerbread for a school fair and discovers people like her because they eat her biscuits.  Then we all cried at the trailer for It’s a Wonderful Life and then I looked around and realised no one else was sobbing that it was just me and my pregnancy hormones. And I don’t know why I cried because I don’t even like James Stewart.  Hormones weren’t funny to Alan Turing in the film though, because they tried to give him lots of what appeared to be HRT to stop him feeling gay and he was so upset he killed himself, so that bit wasn’t nice.

Could Kiefer Sutherland have played Alan Turing?  It would certainly have been more entertaining – and I for one would have enjoyed it hugely.  Emilio Estevez could have played Winston Churchill, and Charlie Sheen the Charles Dance, snooty Admiral character at Bletchley who thinks that Alan Turing is a twat.   I think they should let Kiefer Sutherland play Alan Turing as it’s his birthday and it’s only fair.   I mean, if a drunk-driving Canadian TV / film star can’t play a World War II code breaker at Christmas when it’s his birthday, exactly when can he?  He could growl about Bletchley with that strange jowly jaw of his, which I often think he has had some sort of corrective surgery on – either that or so many strippers have sat on his face over the years it’s sort of ironed itself out.  He could fall foul of the dastardly Official Secrets Act and invoke a car chase with M16 around rural Buckinghamshire whilst waving a shooter out of the window and screaming “You’ll never take me alive you goddamnsonofabitch…!”  whilst complaining about cheese rations.  How can I fully express that I feel my life will be incomplete until I see Kiefer Sutherland singing Roll Aht The Barrel whilst dressed in khaki green serge and talking cock-er-nee whilst trying to take some flibbertygibbert over the Siegfried Line?  It’s cinematic genius.  I shall write postcard to Mr R Scott post haste.  That’s Ridley, not Ronnie.  After all if Kiefer was born in St Mary’s, Paddington, he’s practically a died-in-the-wool, strike-a-light-guv’nor cock-er-nee – cor! It’s the Bow Bells! Londoner anyway.  All we have to do to convince audiences he’s a Englishman is coat him in grey rain for 20 years and feed him jam roly poly and bisto until he chubs up like he did in the mid-1990s.  The Brat Pack massacred the Wild West film genre with Young Guns – why not allow them to destroy the war time codebreaker blockbuster as well?  You could even hire Lou Diamond Philips.  It’s a time of year for breaking the rules.  I, for one, have been eating Percy Pig sweets for breakfast.  I like to walk on the wild side.  I may even have hummus as a late night snack.  Although I find it impossible to believe it is actually Christmas as 1. I am not drunk (see gestational state ref above) 2.  they are not yet showing Love Actually on a continuous mump-and-vomit-inducing loop on ITV2  and 3.  No one has been shot on EastEnders this week by Samantha Janus whilst Phil Mitchell runs over a nearby child, screaming.  We bought the festive Radio Times, but it has so many channels, and film watching itineraries and Picks of the Day and Picks of the Week that I can’t actually understand it, and don’t know what’s on.  And no, as you ask, dear Londoners, I have not purchased a ticket to the local pantomime as I don’t believe in pantomime and walking within a five mile radius of one brings me out in hives.

But can we take a moment to return to Paddington?  Not the Paddington of 1966 where the erstwhile Mr Sutherland emerged alongside his twin sister (I was a research-heavy child) but the Bear which has invaded our streets and our psyches and, it appears, that bastion of expensive, Christmas luxury – Selfridges department store.  They have opened an Everyman in the basement of Selfridges.  Do you understand the enormity of what I tell you?  You can go to the shop and see a film three times a day.  And it’s Paddington loopy.  Marmalade jars on every surface, and clay Paddingtons installed on plinths with the particular aim of terrorising the under 4’s. And it’s not just Paddington the movie you can go and see – you can see a whole range of other films, whilst pretending to your spouse that you are in Selfridges buying their Christmas present.  Of course I shall be there  – you’ll spot me, absconding from the office, weeping uncontrollably into my bag of Revels at the latest Tesco commercial and wishing Kiefer Sutherland was playing Moses.

Happy cool Yule to you all and may your festive holly be green, spiky and flushed through with Christmas fayre.  See you on here in 2015!  Happy New Year x x x x x

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  Or if you enjoy Kiefer Sutherland.  Or a bag of Revels.  Our next update will be on Thursday 8th January and we wish you a happy holiday.  The London Bluebird x x x

What Next for the New Era Estate?

In the last week, the press coverage of goings on at the New Era Estate in Hoxton have taken on a seasonal flavour.  Westbrook, having purchased the 93 flats, are now the Ebenezer Scrooge of our story, having now laid plans to accelerate their rent review of 2016, which will bring the tenants in this housing estate into paying market rents for their EC1 flats.  That means flats now providing homes for key workers in EC1 will rise from an average of £800 per month for a two bedroom flat to £2,000 per month.  The tenants, headed (and headlined in the press) by Russell Brand’s support, are our Bob Cratchits, hoping for Christmas philanthropy and charity before Westbrook commit public suicide.  The fact that the philanthropic owners of The New Era Estate for nearly a century sold to Westbrook at all remains a puzzler.

Westbrook is a Texan capital investment company, headed in the UK by a chap called Mark Donner.  Having a name that reminds most of us of a kebab has done little to hold Mr Donner back in life, because according to The Guardian, Donner owns a £4squillion Herefordshire country estate with room for a butler’s dry ice ski slope etc etc and makes Steph and Dom from Gogglebox look like they live in…well…a flat on the New Era Estate.  The New Era’s residents are, understandably, angry, fearful and beginning to become ill.  On Monday at 12.30pm there will be a protest at Westbrook’s Mayfair headquarters in Berkeley Square by tenants and activists alike to try to get Westbrook to behave a little less badly.  Westbrook have informed tenants they won’t be homeless by Christmas (Great!) but they don’t seem to get it.  They don’t seem to recognize toxic press coverage when they are on the receiving end of it, they don’t seem to understand (or care) about Londoner’s anxiety regarding the disappearance of affordable, social housing and they don’t seem reconciled to the concept of behaving less like a bunch of shits.  How naive.

Of course, Westbrook are under no legal obligation to give in either to the demands of Boris Johnson, who as mayor has expressed that Westbrook must do everything to keep the tenants of the New Era protected from harsh rent reviews and secure in their accommodation, nor are Westbrook bothered what the Mayor of Hackney had to say about it either.  Ownership is ownership.  The New Era is their capital investment and property and they can easily secure it to market rate rents should they wish to.  The problem with the New Era is that it is not owned by the Council.  If the Council had owned it they would have been obliged to rehouse those tenants, some of whom have lived on the New Era for 60 years, within the borough.  Social housing that is owned and facilitated by the state presents the tenants with a clear set of rights.  But the vulnerability of the New Era has always been there : it is a private estate, luckily run for many years by a philanthropic housing estate management company who were prepared to align themselves with the ethical principles of the estate.  For years, the protection of the New Era Estate residents rents has been hanging on an informal, lucky thread of charity.  Once the thread breaks, there is little legal protection for the tenant.  The owners of the property sell the estate, and the new owners have the legal and financial right to do as they wish.  It’s surprising The New Era Estate has managed to hold onto its ethical roots for as long as it has.

Tenants in private sector renting are being increasingly exploited by the property boom in London in two ways: firstly, the ludicrous rise in house prices means that most people are priced out of the market for good and have no choice but to rent, and secondly because the greed that is central to London’s forced economic growth is sucking and swallowing up social housing in areas that used to be for poor people and are now increasingly populated by the wealthy.  EC1, where the New Era Estate sits, is a prime example.  Private tenants increasingly come up against a range of problems regarding exploitative and negligent landlords, and discover their own legal protections are nil.  Social housing provided by the public sector has a promise of obligation to house people in suitable, safe, damp-free accommodation.  Urban poverty and neglect is manifest within the private sector.

This week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced its report into the changing picture of UK Poverty (you can see it at http://www.jrf.org.uk/media-centre/young-working-and-renting-uk-poverty-65931) which highlighted two worrying trends.  Firstly, more people are living in working households in poverty than before, and secondly, there are as many households in poverty in Council / social housing as there are in the private rental sector.  The crisis enveloping The New Era Estate is a choice example of all of the issues currently blighting the London social housing scene – key workers (for whom the flats were originally built in the 1930s by the Lever family), crude, greedy foreign investors, prospect of trebling of rental incomes, and the idea that the tenants who are not obliged to be rehoused by the Hackney Council, will have to leave London altogether.   But it’s easy to look at The New Era Estate as a black and white affair between the poor tenant and the greedy landowner.  Have things for the estate got worse or better in the last few weeks?  Press pressure forced Edward Benyon to sell his 10% stake in the estate – and the result of that was that the two year rent freeze that Benyon promised is now no longer in place.  Lobbyists have called for London’s various housing associations to purchase the property instead, but how can you purchase something that is not for sale?  Also, with housing associations dealing with government cuts in funding, they are going to have to glean their profit more and more from tenant based resources to survive.  Will the residents of the New Era be any better off?

It is worth bearing in mind that only a dozen of the 93 properties at New Era are protected by the 1977 Rent Act.  Private tenancies are swiftly turning into the Rachmanesque scandal of early twenty first century London.  The truth is, as we all know, we simply do not have enough social housing.  Perhaps we never did, even before the Right to Buy Act was implemented in the early 1980s, but what does one City do when its key workers have not actually got anywhere to live within the city walls?  Most private tenants have something called an assured shorthold tenancy.  Landlords can charge a market rent for properties of this type and there is little the resident can do.  There is also no protection from eviction from an assured shorthold tenancy contract.  Whilst the responsibility of protecting council tenants rests with local government legislation and the council, why should a tenant’s domestic security rest on the fragile shoulders of one philanthropic landlord?  It is the law that must be interrogated, because it is the same legal system that has so spectacularly failed to implement Acts to protect  the private individual that the residents of the New Era should be angry towards.

The London Bluebird is a blog that is updated every two weeks.  So, please come back for our next update on Thursday 4th December.  Thank you for reading!  The London Bluebird. xxx

Is Paddington only fit for the basin?

Last week, The Londonist challenged its readers to come up with alternative names for our underground stations, principally names which actually make sense.   To be honest, I’m not sure the result really helps those that aren’t familiar with what is above ground in certain places.  Olympia is renamed Exhibition (“Exhibition of what?”  the tourist may ask), and Piccadilly Circus is renamed Anteros, which sounds like a venereal disease.  Anteros isn’t even a name that makes sense – I get the “Eros” but who / what is the “Ant”?  And if there’s one station that doesn’t need further accurate clarification for where it is it is Piccadilly Circus which stands in the middle of the area called Piccadilly Circus.  And I’m not sure how helpful it is to call Lambeth North simply “Bedlam”.

The Londonist’s map really comes into its own when you step beyond Zone 2.  West End Lane / Shoot Up Hill and Walm Lane replace West Hampstead, Kilburn and Willesden Green with great sense on the Jubilee Line, whilst Woodberry Grove, Ducketts Common an Spouters Common sound far pleasanter than Manor House, Turnpike Lane and Wood Green.  But why is East Finchley called Cherry Tree Wood, when it hath no cherries and has only a bovine pedestrian crossing where cars go to have near misses by a gastropub?  My favourite is Joe Meek, who gets a whole Road named after him (Holloway Road).  Sherlock Holmes shares that honour with Baker Street.  But I’m astonished that anyone would go back 2,000 years into our history and rename Kings Cross as Battle Bridge.  This was the site of a massive Roman massacre about a trillion years ago.  I’m not sure how many people would associate Battle Bridge underground with the soya lattes and Helvetica font of the new, media enterprises of King Cross media fuckwittery above ground.   All-in-all though, it’s fairly enterprising.  What do you think?  http://londonist.com/2014/11/all-270-tube-stations-renamed.php  It’s caused quite a stir.  Already the bastion of North London culture, The Kentish Towner,  is asking its readers whether it ought to be renamed “Camden North”.

The Londonist has a strong tradition in veering off the straight and narrow with their tube maps.  They frequently come up with skewed versions of our metropolitan transport system, from geographically accurate maps of the tube to mapping ghost stations, from showing the entire tube as a map of the best independent coffee shops in each area, to a fun version based entirely on fashion puns.  My favourite is the Synaesthesia Tube Map which bases itself on what the individual tube stations may or may not taste like.  Swiss Cottage is “Jam Sponge and Minced Beef”, Kentish Town is a “Fish Finger Sandwich”, Edgware Road is “Sausage Sandwich”,  Covent Garden is “Chocolate Digestives” and Bond Street, alarmingly, apparently tastes of “Hair spray” :  http://http://londonist.com/2013/08/a-synaesthesia-tube-map.php  It’s all rather fun, but we can never change the names we have here.  We are really stuck with them.  And we can’t call Mornington Crescent “Camden South” because then a surrealist radio panel game would make no sense, capisce?

Of course, if Paddington Station was a foodstuff, it would be Paddington’s “Marmalade”.  However, I imagine Paddington wants to rename itself though, following the nasty furore that has blown up amongst people raised in the 1970s, regarding the new Paddington film.  Paddington, that connoisseur of Oxford marmalade, that bear starer of Portobello, appears to have become a nasty, nose-picking, house-flooding bastard, voiced by Ben Wishaw.  That is presumably because the casting request asked for the least bear-like, mannish man in Equity to voice him.  But I saw the trailer for this film and I became incensed, and it takes a lot these days to make me become incensed – it takes a good argument with my bank, or a cretinous stream of correspondence from HMRC, it takes top state figures to wind me up.  But that new Paddington is a little shit.  And he must be stopped.  You see, Paddington is a mentsch.  Paddington has chutzpah, yes, but he is something of a sweet dude.  He goes to see Mr Gruber in the Portobello Road and discusses his worries over cocoa.  He is indignant in the face of injustice, rudeness and people who don’t like the fact he is a bear.  The bear stare is the very lowest of insults that can be projected upon you.    He is inclusive and progressive (I remember his first visit to a supermarket in Ladbroke Grove in the 1970s, it was, to Paddington, a delightful taste of the future).  He carries a suitcase and a spare sandwich under his hat.  But the Twitterati are agog and aghast and aggrieved by the new Paddington, and all of these people are born between the first Ted Heath government and the first Margaret Thatcher one.  Paddington is our childhood.  And they’ve fucked with it.  Utterly.

So as a response, we just have to rename Paddington Bear or Paddington Station.  Clearly the bear is more culturally important.  So the station has to get the chop, kids.  Eastern Little Venice?  North Queensway?  East Edgware Road?  Or perhaps for ultimate bear revenge, Darkest Peru?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this, unless you are the producer of the new Paddington Bear film, in which you probably won’t want to come back.  This blog is updated every other Thursday so we look forward to seeing you on November 20th.  Many thanks for reading, and if you like what you see here, please tell others. 

Why I’m saying goodbye to my Kindle

Yesterday, The New York Times covered the US arrival of the Amazon Voyage (yours for $199), another e-reader to add to the list of increasingly obsolete e-readers, which possesses a high-resolution display to closely mimic the printed page.  Text on its screen is 300 pixels an inch.  I don’t know what that means for the reader, but it certainly sounds quite sexy.  But the e-reader is a curious thing:  I see less of them on the public transport system around our City than I did a year ago.  Why?  Are they all protesting against Amazon’s dubious tax status?  Do they know something we don’t?  Or are they, frankly, bored with reading erotic fiction at 7.20am in the morning in size 28 font on the Northern Line, where their neighbours cannot help but catch the words off the electric page?

To keep track of the characters, Kindle X-Ray gives you a summary of characters which you can refer to throughout the book so you can remember who is who.  How, though, does this work with murder mysteries?  Does X-Ray only filter through the characters as far as you’ve followed them through the narrative, or does it clumsily reveal that Miss Oakshott is not a local God-fearing nun, but is in fact the murderer?    The Kindle Voyage is coyly proud of the fact that it is Amazon’s thinnest Kindle, almost as if e-reader devices were in semi-bulimic competition with each other.  But this misses the whole point of what readers miss when they don’t pick up a book, but do pick up a Kindley-Windle.

I’ve been carrying out some rudimentary research amongst my contemporaries (chatting on Facebook when I should be doing the office filing).  The overwhelming majority resent the fact their reading habit has dwindled to Kindle.  They use Kindle, but they would prefer not to.  They travel and cannot pack all their books.  They can read shorter novels on them, but have difficulty immersing themselves in a longer read.  They read but don’t like the light.  The going-to-bed for a gentle read before sleep is disrupted (the backlight disrupts melatonin production in the brain), they don’t like Kindles, but they feel they more or less should hang on in there for those long haul flights, the ease and lightness of the device, and the fact that they’ve already shelled out for them, thank you very much.  But there is no surprise that this is the human response.

Our brains aren’t actually designed to read.  But they can be conditioned and trained to read on paper.  Scientists have now found out this highly conditioned “paper reading brain” is not the same as our “digital reading one”, which may explain the issues people have with Kindles, as above.  So the more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards “non-linear” reading.  This is not much good if you are trying to read a book, as they are linear.  Most longer books depend on a deep reading process, which we trained ourselves to do as children and adolescents.  And the scary reality is if we don’t regularly utilise our deep reading technique, we lose it.  This may explain why, after three years of Kindl-ing, I had some difficulty adjusting to a long, paperback novel.   I was bringing out a muscle and a technique that I hadn’t been using.

I wanted to find out why – after three years of Kindle App on my iPad – I still wasn’t getting on with it.  We hadn’t become friends.  We are not going to keep in touch.  I can’t get close to the text, yet it really should work on our brains, shouldn’t it?  How much research, how many optical specialists stood about and “hmm-ed” and “haa-ed” in the mystical vaults of Amazon world before designing a backlighting system that wouldn’t put us off?   What has gone wrong?  I certainly didn’t feel this way in the shift from CDs to digital music.  I did that – and adjusted to that – in virtually one day.

The problem is the tactile disconnect to an entire world.  Art is created to make us feel connected to some universality, some narrative that reflects a truth about the human experience, and this is primarily how fiction works.  We don’t want to read a story, we want to get inside it.  And you can’t really get inside a digital projection of a story in the same way that you can with a paper book.  An Italian survey into Kindle reading gave 50 people a short story to read.  Some were on Kindles, others were reading on paperback.  They discovered the the memory’s ability to retain plot points was somehow compromised on a Kindle, whereas memory recall was sharper and easier for those who had read the paperback.   Both teams were asked to remember 14 events from the story, and the Kindle readers recall was “significantly worse”. The problem is the Kindle does not provide the proper report for mental reconstruction that a paperback does.  And this – well – this changes a lot, doesn’t it?    Not only that, but there was a more sinister reaction: when readers were given an upsetting story to read and the group was divided again – half on an iPad, half with a paperback – the iPad reading contingent reported significantly lower levels of emotional engagement and upset.  Quite literally, the device was getting in the way of their neurological response.  The absence of the sensory, tactile pressure of finger on the page was one argument given for the results.  When you read a paperback, you have a visual sense of the story unfolding as you see the pages gather when you have turned them.  With the Kindle, there is no connection to this process; your finger flips, the page turns and the ones you have read vanish into one digital, devious ether.  It may also explain why I can’t write the first draft of anything (not even this blog) on an electronic device.  I write in longhand, and when it comes to writing in fiction, I always do first draft in longhand or on my 20 year old typewriter.   And there was me thinking it was nothing but a daft habit or affectation.  It turns out it isn’t – I’m tapping into my paper-reading brain and using it as an artistic device.

Further research is being conducted to ascertain whether digital reading has a negative impact on cognitive and emotional reading responses, but it caused me to take a more conscious view of my own online reading.  Like most people in the modern world, I haven’t bought a daily newspaper since 1998.  Apart from the Sundays, everything I read is online,  but I’m not reading it : when we see digitised text, our brains simply don’t take it in the way we take in lines printed in ink on a page.  Haven’t you done the same?  Haven’t you scanned the first line of a paragraph and then flipped down to the next one?  Perhaps you’re doing it now on this blog? I zip online from Facebook, to Twitter, to here, to Google News, and I’m not understanding half of what is being pushed electronically at me.  If I sat here with a paperback book and nothing else I would have the luxury of immersion, but so florid and vapid is the constant information stream we are carried along in that immersion is virtually impossible.

There is quite a lot of talk about “digital natives”, that generation of e-readers who wander into Waterstones once a year and say “WHAT is THAT?”  and point to a paperback Raymond Chandler.  There is also quite a lot of talk that this is a load of guff as children learning to read respond readily to books they can touch and smear and deface with spittle far more effectively than their tinny, electric counterparts.   But this is a new science and requires far more research to see how it is affecting us.  The fact remains that a whole shedload of people find Kindle reading a bit of a dry hump : vastly unsatisfying, devoid of basic contact and consumed without delectation.   Even though e-book sales are rising steadily, they still only account for 20% of the books sold, according to publishers. In the UK, 36% of readers own an e-reader device, but only 4% of those exclusively  read on the e-reader.

I so wanted to love my e-reader.  I edited, curtailed and lovingly watched the prices fall on my Amazon Wish List.  I bought beautiful versions of non-fiction books before I learned my lesson (you retain zero information on e-readers when it comes to non-fiction books, and you can’t refer back to previous pages) but that was back in the times when we liked Amazon for bringing the prices down and putting everyone else out of business.  Now, with the tax avoidance issue, with the nasty exposee of the treatment of those in the Amazon delivery depots that turned up on television last year, these electronic tax-avoiding books are leaving a bad taste. Perhaps, it’s not all about saving you 34% on the latest Freya North?  Leave Amazon to the self-published novelists, I say.  God knows they need the platform.  And for a published writer – get thee to a bookshop.

It got to the point where switching the Kindle app on was depressing me.  My reading habits are reported by Amazon, thrown into a machine and vomited back at me in a hailstorm of vague suggestions of similar reads at £1.99 a pop.  I have no literary privacy.  Everything I am is filed, counter-filed, kept and recorded.  I hated this trespassing of private liberty.  I hated the backlight with such a vengeance that I tried everything to make it softer on the eye – changing the background to the alarmingly demoralising taupe, having the text as white on black rather than black on white – nothing has worked.  I suffered from visual fatigue with it, but eye tests revealed I have perfect vision.   I can’t get to the story.  The screen is getting in my way.  Then, recently, I put myself in a situation where I had to buy books again and visit old fashioned libraries.  You can’t be a student without having books; and you can’t footnote and reference something you’ve read on a Kindle.  Back to the London Library then, for the first time in four months, to select a volume of a thriller 100 years old, hard-backed, smudged-ink within, other readers’ pencil remarks lovingly erased by library staff.  And I read, and it was easy.  Like falling off a log – like meeting an old friend you’ve not seen for a while and didn’t know how much you’d missed.  Because we are tactile creatures, and we like to touch the things we have loved.  I fell back into it.  I’m more likely to do the shelf-stroll in the flat now, blinking along the shelves, finding something I haven’t read yet, or something I wish to re-read.  My curiosity has been reawakened, and so has my possibility of immersing myself in stories.

I don’t understand fully the process that got me here, but here I am – almost unable to download another book on Amazon knowing I will have to read it on Kindle.  So it’s off! It’s farewell my synced up, Table of Contents, Size 12 Times New Roman font-ed friend, it’s off to the ether with you.  Your work is done here – on me at least.  I would say it’s been nice knowing you, but I’m not sure it has because, after all, the Kindle completely fucked with my head, and my experience of reading.   There is now a movement towards the new appreciation of the book as a physical object.  There is also the slow-reading therapy movement, where people gather in chic cafes, turn off their internet access on their phones and read paperbacks for an hour in silence.   Sounds like my cup of tea.  I wonder, then, how many of you will join me?

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is updated every other Thursday, so we will be back on Thursday November 6th.  Thank you for stopping by to read and we hope to see you again soon.  The London Bluebird x x x x

Unseen London

We are overwhelmed with things to see in this capital, very often those things we don’t want to see – the fat coffee-clutching commuter who sneezes next to you on the Circle Line, and ubiquitous mice, the hostile chill of a dank November tea time – but the glamour and desire to see what remains naturally unseen in London is something in all of us.  Haven’t we had enough of things to see?  Don’t you, after a long tedious day at work, yearn for a dark room, a cool compress and some soft lighting to doze to and leave the city behind?  Haven’t we all as Londoners had just about enough?  “No” seems to be the answer.  We can’t have enough – we need more and more and more;  more artisan coffee shops spewing flat whites, more neon-lit Zone 4 Sainsburys, more mocktails for London Cocktail Week, more money, more work, more noise.  And, seemingly more of London.  But we want to find the enigma : we don’t want an ordinary walking tour that will take in the more gruesome dispatches of Jack the Ripper over pseudo late-Victorian gaslight, or the snakes of wide-waisted tourists whose gluttony is for The Houses of Parliament guided tour in seventeen languages.  We want to find hidden London, unloved London, abandoned London, terrible London, secret London.  A London that we can hold the key to and which can, for an hour or two, be ours and only ours.   The 8 million of us who grapple for space here, yearn for an individual, private and privileged subjective performance.

And so to the enigma of Unseen London.  Over at Unseen Tours (http://www.socmobevents.co.uk) tours of London are given by homeless, previously homeless and vulnerably housed Londoners.  It works as a social enterprise, and perhaps part of its pull is the lack of information on its website. However, the reviews of the walks over at Trip Advisor are outstanding.   Then there is Secret London Walks (http://www.secretlondonwalks.co.uk/), and TFL organises tours of its most famous disused station, Aldwych, at £25 a pop, but you have to get in early, otherwise they sell out.  Apparently, there are Londoners whose idea of heaven is to wander the century old tiled corridors that so fascinate modern film location scouts, gazing at 1950s adverts for Listerine (I am one of them).  In September last year, TFL organised an immersive, theatrical event featuring multimedia and film within Aldwych Station, with which they told the story of the 150 year old network.  In 2010, they dressed the station exactly as it would have looked in the Blitz – but without the bombs.  The experience sold out immediately.  Over at http://www.secret-london.co.uk there is a whole host of information, but most of it is not secret, but blindingly obvious, unless you have just arrived from another world.  But that’s the key.  Tourists arrive here and are instantly consumed by the idea that there is another London, aside from the quotidian, commerical every day horror story in which we earn our bread and sup our beer. Surely, they think, this hole, this slum – it can’t be it.  Can it??

It’s nearly embarrassing to say “Well, yes, actually.  This is it.” Seeing the grandeur and faded elegance in London seems to be a choice – I say this because some people are oblivious to it, whilst others, like cats pricking up their ears, are more attuned.  But haven’t you had a night out like this?  Inevitably, the evening starts well – a tasty dinner, a riotous round of gin-based drinks, a trickling tumble out onto a dark and busy central London street.  Most of the party have been alive to London’s rhythms and limits for some time now, but perhaps one of the party is less accustomed to a Saturday night in London, perhaps this is a rarity to that person.  And, more likely, this is the person who has whites of their eyes swilling around in various directions, and who is seeking something – unknown to even himself – secret – some other, kinkier, more expert, more dynamic, more glamourous London.    A generation ago you could have sent him into waste his money in a basqued-up Soho dry hump, but unfortunately if you head to Soho these days you’re more likely to have a vegan ice cream and fall over Prince Harry’s ex girlfriend outside the (non smoking) Hummus cafe.  These days, your friend would have to head further North or East in search of his fictional, wondrous Secret London experience, half fuelled by wine, the other half by fear.  And you might never see him again.

Your friend can’t see the London wood for the London trees.  The truth is that beauty is around us everywhere and its thrilling if you know how (not where) to look.  West London photographer Peter Dazeley has spent the last four years getting access to – and photographing –  unusual parts of London.  His book “Unseen London” is out this week, proffering never before seen images of the city.  Apparently, his original inspiration was witnessing the gradual demise of the Battersea Power Station from his flat.  (his book contains photographs of its Control Room) .  In an interview with the Daily Telegraph Dazeley  commented on the months of legal paperwork and admin that was required to gain access to some of our most neglected and disused buildings.  Amongst the gems he finally broke through the red tape to snap are Wandsworth Prison – which, when I saw a picture of it online reminded me of nothing more than the set for the slightly-maligned Musical film “Nine”, BBC TV Studio One – which as many who participate in audiences for Strictly et al can verify, is shockingly small, the interior of Aldwych Tube Station (Unused, except by location scouts for film), The Whitechapel Bell Foundry and the remains of a 16th Century Nursery.  The Bank of England bullion vaults and The Royal Opera House wouldn’t let him in, but it’s their loss.  Dazeley, it seems, is fascinated by the living history of our buildings and perhaps slightly perplexed by the city’s sometimes neglectful view of them.  If you Google him, you’ll see some wonderful pictures online.  But what you should do is buy his book.

Make no mistake : this is the closest, physically and spiritually any one of us will get to unlocking a secret London.  Because there really really is no secret network of fabulous late night nightclubs, no non-seedy yet commercial sexual transactions, no mini Casablanca wine bar waiting to be discovered by a drunk man from Guildford off High Holborn.  Look, I’m sorry about that – but London simply isn’t a film set tied up with rococo rooms in which we truly become ourselves amongst dry martinis and palm trees.  It’s a slog, it’s a ratfest, it’s sucking away our money and our freedom, but we all have a moral obligation to continue to see its grandeur.  The nearest you’ll get to a hidden London is a book of photographs of what you haven’t been bothered to look at (it may also be worth checking out V S Pritchett’s sublime London Perceived, written in 1962, with prose by Pritchett and wonderful photographs by Evelyn Hofer.   Because what Pritchett’s book shows is that there are swathes of London that he photographed now gone for ever.  1962 is a long way back in the city archives, the pace of life and shape of buildings could be from 100 years ago, in some photographs).  So get out there and have a look whilst you can.  How many of us stop to look at the strangeness of London’s history when we pass it by?  Who amongst us has the inclination, or the time?   Why have we chosen to take so much of our history for granted?  Well, because it’s there.  And there’s no rush giving it our attention, because it always will be – won’t it?

Unseen London’ by Peter Dazeley, with text by Mark Daly (Frances Lincoln £30).

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you again on Thursday 23rd October.  Thank you for stopping by and reading – and if you like what you have seen here please tell other Londoners. xx

The Ageing Student

Student

I’m back in.  They call us “mature”, those people whose heads stack up in front of me in an overheated Waterloo auditorium, and to tell the truth, that’s one word for us.  Mature studentship officially starts at 26, but there are a few smatterings of white hairs and bald heads today.  Starting a PhD is something that doesn’t necessarily happen to the mature student of course.  Yesterday there were people so wet behind the University ears as to find themselves in London for the first time, unsure, like, whether I should move up?  From Woking?  Because, like, if I do? It might save me some money, yuh?  and I might, you know, like, have a life?  This upward, Antipodean inflection is oddly accompanied by a growling tone to the voice.  Has anyone else noticed this?  The young ‘uns, I mean.  The voice sits – no, squats – oddly on the voice box and they speak in this type of half Buckinghamshire grand / half ET drawl that implies that speaking is so much effort that they let their voice bubble and flicker in an irritating purr.  Then again, I’m probably just getting old, aren’t I?  I’m just another mature student.

A PhD doesn’t start by being a doctoral student.  It actually starts by you being a Masters student all over again, and those of you with long memories may remember it wasn’t so long ago I was documenting my Diary of a Dissertation on these pages when I was a Masters Student.  You start off as an M Phil (Masters of Philosophy) and only once you’ve got through the upgrade process at the end of your first year (or 18 months if you’re part time) and pass the accompanying oral examination are you allowed to move onto D Phil status.  At that stage, you can call yourself a doctoral student.  Also, at that stage, you can start grabbing whatever teaching options the college opens up to you and face your first peachy-skinned, fresh as a daisy Undergrads.  By that stage, I might have course have given the whole thing up and taken up something more calming and gentle, like brain surgery or international diplomatic relations.  Yet, repeatedly throughout the afternoon yesterday, as I sat there as a brand new student at my brand new (very highly ranked) University of London College where only 1 in 7 of us ever had a chance of being accepted at all, I kept thinking “Yes…..but I’m not 27.  Am I too old?”

Am I too old for what?  Am I too old for Junior School?  Certainly?  Am I too old to procreate?  Not quite yet.  Am I too old to use the word “Bro” or “blood”?  (Answer : was I ever young enough?)  but really when mature students doubt whether they are too old for all this studenty commitment and enthusiasm, what they are really asking is : “Am I too old to organise my fat sorry arse and actually switch off Strictly and spent 6 weeks reading obscure Victorian literature found only half way up a ladder in Senate House?”  Obviously, the answer to that is a big, resounding NO.  It’s only when you embark on a latent career as a full time, ageing, elderly student do you realise that the art of completing study is nothing more complicated than the art of getting yourself organised.  It’s not about being the brightest button in the box.  You have to sort yourself the fuck out.  In fact, academic achievement is about finding the right way to critically view research, no prizes are awarded for being actually intelligent.   If you fail to interrogate research in the prescribed manner you aint worth sheeyit in their eyes.

BUT the good news is (if you’re lucky) you might have won funding.  And if you’ve won funding it means you have reached the dizzy heights of having the British state pay you to read books.  This is the ultimate ambition.  Alas, if you have a part time everything (part time job, part time study, part repayment part interest only mortgage, partly mad) and are not a full time student you are unlikely to get anything.  You will not know whether or not you haven’t won funding until August, which is rather late to start budgeting, so you must prepare early.  The guide for funding applications to the AHRC (Arts & Humanities Resource Council) was 64 pages long.  The verbal guide for applying to the PhD with a proposal lasted for 15 minutes. I will leave it to you to work out which process drove me round the University bend and led to my spitting swearwords at the screen.  The awfully young have an awfully good chance of winning funding because they are full time students.  They cannot afford to be full time students, because no one can in post-Blair Britain, and they will leave with massive debt under their belts, debt which has been barely dented by spending three years part time teaching undergrads Shakespeare at £12 per hour.  But of course, being young, they don’t understand that there is no rush.

There is never any rush to do anything because the academic job you want may not be around when you want it.  You will rush to the end of your 3 years PhD and submit your 100,000 word thesis and emerge for the very first time into the adult world.  Lights.  Camera. Action.  Exorbitant rents.  Sainsburys.  Annual Leave.  Car purchasing.  And then, then you might find that everyone else around you is also 26 and negotiating adult flatshares for the first time and no one can find a job.  You find there is a dearth of available academic jobs, each with tough competitive applications, each paying senior secretary salaries.  This is the problem with the young.  They are too active.  They are too much in a rush.  They have experienced so little of the world beyond the refectory window, the world outside of corduroy jackets and college-y tomfoolery.  A PhD is a process, true – one with training and professional sights in view around the 3 / 6 year corner – but a process nevertheless.  And young students often miss the scenery, in my view.  And the subtler elements of the doctoral journey that involves a terribly large amount of sitting.  And being.  And thinking.  And plotting. And tea drinking.  And ruminating.  And more reading.  And reading.  And reading.

Why does this excite me so much?  The idea of committing for 6 years of supervisory meetings, of doctoral seminars with people in bad suits, to biting the side of the on-site Costa Coffee paper cup in stress and distress, of paying £2,200 a year as a part time student to subject myself to what is 6 years of isolation?  Well, it’s a plot to unpick, a crossword puzzle to deduce, a knot to untie and the itchiest of Victorian itches to scratch.  I have this project , you see – I have my own, individual proposal and what I do with it will be unique.  I can do anything I like with it, within reason, although the freedom is in equal parts terrifying as it is liberating.   I am free.  Which is strange in education, as you don’t get taught anything by anyone.  I’ll teach myself.

Oh, and at the end of it I have to come up with something original in my field.  By this point I shall be 45.  No biggie.

I’m too old to say “no biggie”.

Yesterday the induction verged on the grotesque.  It was nothing to do with academic fervour and everything to do with bureaucratic torpor.  It was a hand-holding through the student services, the Graduate School (What? Who?  When?) and then – bizarrely – the Church of England, who conducted one of the most brazen and extraordinary recruiting drives in its 2000 year old career – the joking Dean.  Oh God preserve us from comedy Anglicans.  As if we aren’t in enough trouble.  Then there was the ignoble horror of the login system which dominates the outer crust of your consciousness and threatens to destroy you.  The library log in is not the same as your email login, which is different from the student records login (OH KILL ME NOW) and the website login for journals is open 24/7!  eh?  What website isn’t open 24/7?  If Tesco can manage it (and they can’t count to £250million) I fail to see why “one of the most prestigious” colleges in the University of London can’t manage it.  A website isn’t a shop.  They’re all open!  Hey the library is open ALL NIGHT.  You can sit in it all night.  And slowly revise your list of things under “What do I have to live for?” at 4 in the morning, surrounded by post-structural critics tomes and the college rowing society’s newsletter.

Universities are peculiar places.  They have a particular smell, and a particular abhorrent dress code.  But they are also savvy, technically-adept, ruthlessly ambitious machines for learning. There is a sense that whilst I am there I should not be anywhere else, that I might just be in the best place to fully utilise what I have.  Somewhere amongst the lecture halls and the drip-drip of the broken water cooler, is the humbling sense of intellectual rigour.  You can sit down and talk about books all day with people who are paid to sit down and talk about books all day, and that is in itself a thing of beauty.  People who undertake PhDs have to be slightly strange, but there is comfort to be sought in locating your fellow strange doctoral students. Part time higher education is still, if you are in work, affordable – certainly more affordable than it is in some other countries, and, despite the introduction of university fees an the endless lack of money of the eternal full time student, the numbers of people undertaking Doctorates in the UK have climbed by 17,000 a year in the last 15 years.  It’s remarkably within my grasp.  I just have to have a high degree of personal application and couple it with fastidious intellectual activity.  The fear is I might actually achieve it all.  I can hear all those brains whirring away from the basement graduate break out space.  Who knows, maybe one of those brains in the next 5 years might be mine.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday 9th October.  Thank you.  It’s all right, I am still going to be here.  I am not going to bury my head into a dusty pile of Wilkie Collins novels and not emerge for 5 years.

A Memorable Date

So, dear readers, we come to September 11th, 9/11 watch, the big one. Weighted down with historical significance.  How could it not be?

It has deep military significance.  After all, it was on September 11th 1297 that the Scottish defeated the English at Stirling Bridge (does this set a precedent for next week’s independence vote?), it was on September 11th 1709 that John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, was victorious against the French at Malplaquet and it was also on September 11th that George Washington and his troops were defeated by the British in 1777 at the Battle of Brandywine, where the Stars and Stripes flag was carried in battle for the first time.

I am not sure what was going on at the Battle of Brandywine but I’d imagine it was sponsored by Nurofen, and featured the American soldiers tucking into a full English and complaining about their headaches the following morning.  But then, I suppose you’d have a headache if the British had just bashed you over the ears with a selection of its finest muskets.  As for John “call me Randy” Churchill, this is the man who, his wife Sarah wrote “returned from the wars today and did pleasure me in his top boots”, so he was clearly in some rush to sort out the French sharpish on September 11th, as he was unable to contain his Ducal urges.

In other, non-military news, September 11th is the birthday of such international luminaries as Harry Connick Jr, Brian DePalma and D H Lawrence.  Harry Connick Jr was famous for writing “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and DH Lawrence was famous for providing the soundtrack to “When Harry Met Sally”.  In his version, Harry Loves Sally, and Sally Loves Harry, but she cannot be with him because she has to stay behind in Derbyshire grappling with sexual frustration whilst liberating herself by learning to use a typewriter.  Occasionally she is allowed the sheer delight of a tin bath, but mostly she eats coal and frets. Jessica Mitford was also born on September 11th and so was the short story writer O Henry (but not in the same room).

It was on September 11th 1962 that The Beatles recorded “Love Me Do”, on September 11th 1987 that Prince officially opened Paisley Park, and also, astonishingly, on September 11th 1977 that David Bowie and Bing Crosby recorded their duet of “The Little Drummer Boy”.  On September 11th 1951 Florence Chadwick became the first woman to swim the English Channel from both directions, whilst in Chile President Salvador Allende died on September 11th 1973 in revolt led by the armed forces.  It was on September 11th 2005 that the last Israeli troops left the Gaza Strip and it was on September 11th 2003 that Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh died after being stabbed in a Stockholm department store.

September 11th 1972 saw San Franciscans delight in the first day of operation of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, whilst September 11th 1978 featured the last death of a person from smallpox.  On September 11th 1802 France got so annoyed with the Kingdom of Piedmont that they annexed it, and on September 11th 1792 six men broke into a house and successfully stole the Hope Diamond and other French crown jewels.

There are many interesting things that did indeed happen on September 11th.  But perhaps two things that are especially poignant in view of the anniversary of the World Trade Centre attacks.  The first was an observation made by H M Tomlinson when he looked up into the night sky during the first year of World War One. On September 11th 1915 he was at home in the evening, when a zeppelin attack broke out in his neighbourhood. This war, the first to be held to some extent in the skies, brought home to him more than ever that aircraft production had changed the nature of war, but also the increasing power it manifested to place civilians under attack:

War now would be not only between soldiers.  In future wars the place of honour would be occupied by the infants, in their cradles.  Men will now creep up….and drop bombs on the sleepers beneath, for greater glory of some fine figment or other.”   Up until this point, notes Tomlinson, the security of Britain “…had been based on the goodwill or indifference of our fellow-creatures everywhere” and that, after the zeppelin attack in his quiet London suburb “...something had gone from it for ever.  It was not, and never could be again, as once we had known it.”

By September 1609, Henry Hudson had been at sea for 5 months.  The merchants of the Dutch East India Company had selected him to find a easterly passage to Asia.  He left Amsterdam on 4 April, sailing towards Norway and finally reaching the Grand Banks, south of Newfoundland on 2nd July.  By 4th August he was down at Cape Cod, from where he sailed south to the Chesapeake Bay.  Despite one of his crew being killed by Indians with an arrow to his neck in early September, Hudson sailed on into New York Harbour and up the Hudson River, and discovered a new island, at the edge of the new world, on the morning of September 11th.  It was called Manhattan.

 

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you again on Thursday 25th September.  

Review : Secret Cinema : Back To The Future

cinema

Oh, I KNOW what you’re going to say – where was the update last Friday, you fool?  Well, I misplaced my flux capacitor and then me Delorean went on the blink and before I knew it Mr Strickland had put me in detention for five days and so I just didn’t get an opportunity to write about going to Secret Cinema BTTF.  Plus, I was a bit concerned on the old **SPOILERS** front.  I mean, certain critics have covered elements of the show in the mainstream press, thereby defeating the whole “Secret” element of said Michael J Fox extravaganza.  Exactly how much of it could I safely write about here, without Biff Tannen hunting me down with a pitchfork and threatening me, like the disrespecting space time continuum slapper I am?  Well, it is now 28th August, and I think that most of the performances are now over, so I can mention certain elements of the production without fear of reprisal from East London hipsters (they often come at you, beards a-hoy).  I have mentioned nothing here that hasn’t already been reported in the press.  However, if you are going to any one of the next four performances, I suggest you go away and read something else.

Stratford is a place that the spiritual element of London just forgot.  It’s hard to think of a location in London that is less likely to lend itself to the imaginative cinematic realm, so as a location for picking up your mind up and depositing it in an illusory, immersive cinematic state, it’s a massive challenge.  It’s an ugly, grey monolith of a shopping centre with a 2012 hangover and a John Lewis and Basuba Eathai looking over it.  The sky here is very large and not at all vivid.  It’s always grey in Stratford, where Secret Cinema had pitched up for six weeks to recreate the town of Hill Valley, CA, and invited Londoners to immerse themselves in the world of Back To The Future at £53 a pop.   But here, indeed, the Hill Valley Town Square was, surreally deposited on a dusty corner of the Olympic Park, its iconic town hall clock visible from the crest of the hill during the walk from Hackney Wick, its American-dressed cops standing sombrely along the route to increase your sense that you were no longer in E15.  For reasons that aren’t clear they didn’t tell anyone to go Stratford station, which would have been half a mile closer.  Instead, we eeked along the mainline branch of the East London line to Hackney Wick.  The looks started at Highbury & Islington.  Secretaries put their backpacks on the platform floor and changed into 1950s plimsolls with pastel coloured cardigans.  Chaps in their mid-30s sidled up to the electronic train destination board wearing trilbys and 1950s sports jackets.  Lawyers shyly put on red lipstick and placed plastic beads of pearls around 1950s bloused-necks.  Yes, I have found my people.

The more beady eyed among you will remember that back when this blog started in 2010 one of my first ever posts was about Back To The Future.  (See https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/03/11/88-miles-per-hour/).  So long has this film been a love of mine that it has coursed through my veins and merged into my DNA.  My BTTF friend and I (she was previously referred to on these pages as Jazz Buddy) have repeated the dialogue to one another on a weekly basis since 1989.  If I ever had to go on Mastermind I would chose this fine trilogy as my specialist subject.  I defend it passionately, adore it totally and would admit that anyone hoping to take me into Hill Valley convincingly has a very hard customer to please indeed.  The thing was, there were another 2,999 people at Stratford who also felt the same sense of insane devotion.  Off the train came people in Marty McFly body warmers (very silly), hundreds of hundreds of people in Vivien of Holloway skirts or similar and – eerily – one child of 6 in a white balding wig doing an uncanny Dr Brown.

Just to prove the space time continuum has shifted, they take your mobile phone away.  This is to fully enjoy the experience of keeping 1955 in its proper place, according to the blurb, but its mainly to keep Secret Cinema as secret as its possible to be in these days of media diarrhea.  Clearly, taking mobile phones in would actually have destroyed everything – the experience would not, of course, have been experienced and the glut of selfies around Lou’s Diner would have been depressing to say the least.  However, it was very easy to lie about whether or not you had a mobile phone and smuggle one in.  I am pleased that Secret Cinema took this step, it was a key move in encouraging all of us to be a certain way in a different space.  They then throw you into a farm filled with the stench of manure and the bleating of several billy goats and some cheery looking sheep.  This is Old Man Peabody’s farm, the first arrival point of Marty McFly in 1955, and therefore our first step into 1955 too.  From there we walked through a lane (still the over-riding monolith of the Stratford shopping multiplex to our direct left doing everything in its power to sap away the BTTF illusion) which featured small 1950s houses named for each of the families that feature in the trilogy (McFly / Tannen / Baines) and the most impressive of this was Doc Brown’s 1950s home at 1640 Riverside Drive – peppered with his eccentricities, handwritten scientific notes, a water bowl for his dog Copernicus, books, vintage chairs, and even possible hand-drawn plans to include modern architectural elements of the Olympic Park into his time machine invention program.   Charlie Parker records played with the record stand filled with old sleeves, and editions of The Hill Valley Telegraph stood on his desk.  In the smaller, family houses – and my only complaint was they were walked into as if it was a house, but immediately were seen to be the size of rabbit hutches – Hill Valley High School sports teams photographs from 1954 jostled with George McFly’s science fiction story magazines, 1950s bedspreads covered 1950s beds an the local radio played in the background.   It was all very enjoyable stuff, and much has been made of the “immersive” aspect of your first three hours in Hill Valley.

Yes, three hours.  Much of the pre-event email correspondence from Secret Cinema revolved around the necessity of printing out your ID card that had been ascribed to you as a citizen of 1950s Hill Valley.  You were given a name and a place of work.  You were told to bring photographs of your family, a 1950s clock.  No one as far as I can see took much notice of this.  My “Place of work”  in realty remained empty for two and a half hours.  Some people felt a bit bossed about by the headache of having to organise props and wear identity cards – which went down particularly badly amongst those ticket holders who had gone to such trouble to do these things, only to find the whole first week of the shows were cancelled, due to health and safety concerns being raised by the council.  The difficulty with the immersion aspect of the event was there were too many of us (punters) and not enough of them (actors).  3000 to 85 does not an immersive experience make.

Picture the Town Square, for example.   Now, this was beautifully done.  Shop fronts were working shops, all taken in diligent detail from the shop fronts in the film, there was a Hill Valley radio station playing 50s hits, a fully working Lou’s Dinner (burgers supplied by Byron), a florist, a hat shop, a fairground with a big wheel and other rides, vintage cars driving around the town square, and a Hill Valley High School complete with an Enchantment Under the Sea dance hall at the back.  When the light begins to fade and the fairground lights come on, the town square really takes on a magical feel.  Modern day Stratford fades into the background as it if never existed.  We lined up for fries and burgers in Lou’s Diner and watched the cadillacs go by, actors dressed as Biff and his gang loudly driving around, annoying the traffic cops, fooling with the punters.

The film screening starts at 9pm, and places are reserved early with rugs and mats on the green at the centre of the town square.  However this really wasn’t necessary – the film could be viewed and heard well from the back of the set in the event, and people enjoyed lounging around in the diner at the back watching it too.  Now, I am not going to give away any of the spoilers about the film screening.  Those of you familiar with Secret Cinema’s modus operandi will know they merge film and live theatre together with melodramatic results but let’s just say: The pre-show immersive idea is nothing compared with what they deliver during the film screening.  It was ridiculously brilliant.

The problem was that Secret Cinema ask you to be on site by 6pm.  This means that whoever has a job must leave it early to trek across London, and that you have far too much time to kill consuming food / drink and wandering the leafy lanes of Hill Valley.  Children were encouraged to attend, but even the most excited of them were asleep before the film started.  The hour-long lead up to the screening involved a Hill Valley Town Parade, live musical performances and occasional scenes from the film being played, all of which was brilliant, but the 1980s section, which arrived during a quiet moment in the middle of it and swiftly departed again, jarred, it’s only apparent objective to be to encourage everyone to get up and dance.  But the momentum was lost at the end of this section.  The punters got colder, the light was drawing in, and the last hour before the screening begin seemed to last for twice as long.   After the screening finished, there was an option to stay for the Enchantment Under the Sea dance with live music in the school hall, until 11.30pm (thank you, local licensing laws).  The problem was the film finished at 10.55pm.  Most people at this point left, leaving those wanting to dance a mere 34 minutes to dance what was left of the local-council-approved night away.  However, before the screening, the Enchantment Under The Sea dance hall was beautifully dressed, perfectly set up in a dreamy 1950s way – and totally empty.  This was a missed opportunity : the room should have been filled with dancing actors in vintage costume, with live music.  This would have been immersive.    This would have made us feel transported into a time travel nether world, rather than standing around on our own in a damp empty hall, with three other BTTF nuts wearing anoraks to ward off the English chill.

And this made me cross, because Secret Cinema got so close to getting the immersive aspect of the screening beautifully right.  Their dedication to building the set and ensuring each shop was invested with a sense of authenticity was something I had never seen before; at no stage did you have the sense you were in a theme park.   A few more actors with a firmer sense of direction at this stage would have totally been in the icing on the time travel cake.  The film was sensational (no spoilers), and the sense of comaraderie during it from audience members was enormous fun, with boo-ing and cheering at appropriate moments of the screening, which was presented in such a superb sound system that I doubted that anyone who stayed in the Holiday Inn over the road got a wink of sleep in August.

The screening of the film absolutely made it for me – there were many moments that took your breath away and it became increasingly clear why the council raised so many concerns about signing it off.  There was a distinctly celluloid magic to it, but the evening should have begun an hour and a half later.  The pre-screening experience would have benefitted from being tighter, more choreographed and more populated by actors.  And you ask – was the screening worth it?  The massive trek out (and back) East?  the £53 price tag?  The outside weather that meant I had my anorak up for most of the movie?  The hassle of dressing up?  Oh, you bet it was.  And if you didn’t think it was worth it, you’re a butthead.  But I’m sure Doc Brown would have smirked at the irony; that the one thing Secret Cinema got wrong about their beautiful homage to this time travel movie was the timing structure of the evening.

 

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is updated every other Thursday so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday 11th September.  Thank you xx

On Your Marks, Get Set…. Review : The Great British Bake Off – Week One

Bake off Pic 1

Catnip for the middle classes?  Crack for the John Lewis cardholder?  Exactly what is the pull of The Great British Bake Off?   Yesterday’s Cherry Cake technical challenge was a covert ground cake offensive, sorting out the wholemeal wheat from the chaff, marking out the self-raising winners and losers from their ability to cradle and tilt a ladleful of Royal Icing.   It’s addictive television and – as with all cakes – it’s not just down to the recipe but the temperature of the cooking conditions.  Who wouldn’t melt milk chocolate in a bunting-strewn damp tent in Berkshire, soundtracked only by the limp throb of summer rain and the sound of fellow competitors’ brains churning through caster sugar weights?  The Daily Snail lost the plot entirely, believing the “benchmark of the Swiss roll” was the pre-packed Cadbury’s variety.  But then The Daily Snail always has been filled with a load of crackpot peasants who don’t know their flour sifters from their jellied fruit, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.

But I was disappointed that The Telegraph was as naive and cakily-stupid this morning as to call this series “Fluffy and uplifting” (vomit). Actually, it was a joy to watch Mary Berry deconstruct the physics of the icing on the cherry cake before forcing Paul Hollywood to eat it.  Last night was a bloodbath.  Someone even turned up with their own guillotine, and proceded (I think) to cheat cakes with it.  Norman, the bluff, retired Navy Scotsman, rolled up an enormous Black Forest Gateaux and squashed it, announcing it has crossed the borders of its own country and was now a Swiss roll.  Iain, the Biggest British Bake Off Beard had a grisly time trying to make a Swiss roll which incorporated apricots and basil and which, on completion, unfortunately looked like someone had hurled it down a flight of stairs.  Diana had been in the WI for 135 years.  She produced a swiss roll of unfettered, unblinking straightforwardness direct from 1965 : lemon curd.  The Berry verdict was that it was a “scrummy” and traditional offering.   Diana was in full flood, launching towards the Showstopper Challenge ” “I’m ganaching my buns!”  she screeched cheerily, before delighting Master Baker Paul with all her chocolate layers.     Luis made a Spanish Swiss roll, inspired by his mother, which was just confusing.  Martha, who is about six and a half, is coping with attending school whilst performing in Bake Off, gritted her teeth and became terribly jolly when her hands started shaking, playing havoc with her hazlenut crumbles.  Jordan, who worked in the IT department of a fruit machine company in Nottingham and who, noted Mr Bluebird, was precisely the kind of person they don’t let into London, took his job to heart and produced a Swiss roll that was “fruit trifle-y” and far too moist.  He reacted with an uncooth, vampiric grin and retreated into his ironic shirt.   Chetna succeeded with a coffee, cardamom and pistachio Swiss role that really came home, but the true victor and this week’s Star Baker, was an unprepossessing grandmother of 8 called Nancy who, when she isn’t whipping up her own chocolate and orange pastille identical 36 tea time cakes, is busy restoring a house in the South of France.  Everything she did was not only polished, but crafted in that no-nonsense, practical way that steps straight out of the Merry Mary Berry School of Getting On With It and Having a Thoroughly Nice Time.

Having a normal and thoroughly nice time is the simple secret of GBBO.  Baking is for many children, specifically for little girls, a thing that you do at home, that makes you feel safe, that promises treats, that rewards time and patience with pleasure and indulgence, that whiles away the rainy afternoons with a little alchemy.  Baking is a constant.  It never really changes.  The fashions within it mutate and shift, but the time-honoured slug of egg yolk down the wide bowl, the pfft of flour as it falls like snow through the sifter, the clackety clunk of wooden stick against bowl – these are acts which chime with cakes made yesterday, and last year and before.  There is something remarkably solid about this type of cooking that depends so much on distribution of air.  And it’s not just the alchemy of mundane ingredients whipping up together into a beautiful cake which has happened.  It’s the other kind of alchemy : the GBBO has turned things to gold.  Since the first GBBO was aired in 2010 Lakeland has experienced a 42% rise in baking goods sales. Cake stand sales rose 243 per cent at John Lewis over the same period, whilst sieves are up 31% and whisks 79%.  Indeed, the GBBO success story has not just comforted Britons during the recession, but confounded it.  There has been a revolution in cupcake production, with the number of independent bakeries increasing by 5% in the 2011/2012 tax year.

If I stand on my copy of Paul Hollywood’s “Pies & Puds”  I too can reach my Kenwood mixer, bring it down and batter my way through a chocolate Victoria Sponge that will knock you bandy.  This is not because of the GBBO, but rather that as a 14 year old I was addicted to baking, made a chocolate cake every weekend and forced family members to eat it.  I can do buttercream fucking swirls.  The lot.  Not that I’d cope for ten minutes with yesterday’s Cherry Cake technical challenge.  It brought a sweat to the brow of each of our 12 bakers.   It became a gleeful, cruel game of those who knew the winning strategies (Nancy : “Coat the cherries in flour first”) and those who didn’t (Louise : “I’m not cutting them into small pieces like Paul said.  I’m cutting them in half.  And then I’m going to be rude to Mary Berry because I KNOW BETTER”.  She was first out of the show).   Ok, so sometimes your cherry does sink to the bottom, but isn’t that life, Mary?   (I often ask Mary questions in my head.  She always has the answer to most things to do with Planet Earth as she is our oracle. Mary : “is my boiler broken? ” Mary shuffles her shoulders into something vaguely militaristic and multi-coloured from Zara.  “No, but  your pan was insufficiently greased”.   Mary, is fracking for shale gas environmentally detrimental?  Mary : “Only if your lemons aren’t de-pipped before use.”  Mary, what am I looking for in life?  Mary: “Suspended cherries.”)

The highest accolade one can received from the Oracle of Mary is “Really scrumptious”.  It shall be chiselled onto her tombstone.  There is no higher honour that can be bestowed upon the individual, except possibly receiving The Victoria (Sponge) Cross. It is only Episode 1 of this most thrilling and engaging public spectacle, but the heights of bakery – my goodness.  Could you produce 36 identical miniature cakes in three and a half hours?  Could you produce them in three and a half years?  Norman, the sea-venturing (ret.) Scotsman, produced a perfect raspberry and almond victoria sponge selection in miniature, happily dusted with icing sugar.  He didn’t even seem to get his oven gloves messy, but I suppose they teach you that sort of thing in the Royal Navy.  He will survive for a long time in this competition.  Dozy Kate of the “too dry” bakes has caused some disagreement in our house, with me betting a quid that she won’t get to the final and Mr Bluebird betting a quid that she will.  Nancy will continue to reign supreme and probably has “finalist” tattooed on her knickers. Builder Richard from North London is another one to keep your eye on, if you aren’t already staring into your oven at home wondering why your 63 individual minature sponges aren’t rising.    Mel and Sue are very very good at everything on this show (despite what some people may say) and are one of the funny reasons why it all holds together, but the true beauty is the format does not – indeed will not – change.  It’s perfect.  It’s like the ideal tarte au citron : you’ve found your recipe, you’ve developed your knack, you’ve got a suitable, slightly glamorous wobble, the heat and pace of the bake is perfect.  Why change it?

Great British Bake Off

Here are last years Bake Off contestants, most of whom were developed in a factory just outside Reading, and who have spatulas where the rest of us have hands.  But they aren’t bitter because they make some lovely scones.

Bake off Pic 2

Here is Paul’s cake den.  If you’re lucky he’ll invite you in to lick his madeleines, but if you’re unlucky, he’ll mostly cover you with his gin-laced spittle whilst screaming that it was your fault his rye bread was a disaster and his wife left him.

Bake off Pic 4

Here is last year’s winner on the far right, Frances, whilst the one who all the men fancied, and who got her own column in the Guardian, Ruby, is on the left.  Who had the last lemon drizzle laugh there then, ladies?

The London Bluebird is not, despite what may be apparent, a promotional wing of the BBC, this is simply an impartial review.  But not that you care of course, because you’re already planning world dominion through the medium of seeded loaf, aren’t you?   The Great British Bake Off is on telly every Wednesday, but this blog is updated every other week, so the next instalment will be on Friday August 22nd.  Thank you! 

Hot Enough For Ya?

1911-HEAT-WAVE

 

If you think our current, airless dance with the mercury on the thermometer is drying our throats and stopping us sleeping at night, just feel sorry for the poor people of 1911.  Not only did they have to deal with one of the hottest summers on record – and its following drought – but all the posh nobs in society where still in mourning for Edward VII, which meant flouncing around Bayswater and Kensington in heavy, black corseted clothes.  The temperature got to 98.06F in 1911, the highest ever recorded at the time.  Ladies fainted in Selfridges, chaps were forced to take their hats off in the street.  It was, more or less, anarchy.

In Kings Lynn, in July 1911, the temperature got to 92F, which was bonkers, so someone told the King, in the lunatic hope that he could do something about it. He clearly couldn’t, because in mid-September 1911 the temperature was still 92F so that shows you how useless Kings are.  One thing that the ruling classes did decide was that part of the solution lay in getting the poor out of bed earlier.  In Lancashire towns, still dominated by the quarry industry, workers were shoved out to work at 4.30am, and would finish their day at 12 noon, before the heat became overwhelming.    New-fangled motorcars being operated upon by squires from the shires suddenly found themselves grinding to a halt and getting stuck in the road.  A new road covering melted into black glue in the heat and trapped motorcars. It was crap.  No one thought much of this “asphalt” business.    Meanwhile in August, it all got a bit political, with 5000 workers at The Victoria & Albert Docks walking out as they refused to work in the heat.

Early harvests got taken in and pastures turned brown.  Soon “bush” fires broke out.  It was like Australia, but with nicer clothes. Wells ran dry, farming was disrupted and The Times ran a “Deaths by Heat” column daily, which meant you could rise from your stultifying, hot bed, retire to your morning room and have a quick read to check up on how many of your friends had died.

The next hottest summer after that was 1990, which most of us didn’t notice, because we were preoccupied in wearing day-glo scrunchies, lycra shorts and doing aerobics.  Not one person pointed out that the surefire way to add yourself to the numbers of the “Deaths in Heat” column was to do aerobics to Vanilla Ice whilst wearing lycra, the very Beezlebub of manmade fibres.   They had to close off a large section of the Peak District in case all the lycra in Britain got together and caused a nylon based fire.  At the very least, they were hoping that New Kids on The Block would be able to douse the flames by using their supply of hair gel.   Some people died, I think, but – hey – at least the Peak District was all right.

If you’re wondering what happened to 1976, it is because you were stoned.  But actually, although 1976 was the driest, drought-iest summer in the 20th century, it was not actually the hottest.   Temperatures reached 35.9C in Cheltenham, which was very exciting for Cheltenham, but still below the 1990 heatwave top heat recorded of 37.1C.  The issue with the 1976 heatwave was its longevity.  It started in June, when I was born as I had brought it with me from my mother’s womb.  Between mid-June and mid-September temperatures hung dizzily between 80F and 96F.  It was further exacerbated by a dry autumn in 1975 and a mild winter in 1975/76.  It was awful.  People didn’t know whether or not to take their flares off and jump naked into the Finchley Lido.   So, when we view the summer as a whole, through the shade of our tinted 70s specs, it comes in as the hottest, 1970s-est summer ever known, but in other summers there have been specifically hotter months.  But 1976 was, like, serious, man.  They appointed a Minister for Drought and everything,  but unfortunately they appointed Denis Howell.  His job was to go around staring at empty reservoirs whilst shaking his head and coming up with absolutely no rain at all.  Astonishingly, the only advice the government could give us was “share water, bath with a friend” which is the sort of thing you could say in the days before everyone worried about paedophiles.  Of course, they did have child abuse then, they just called it something else, like “public school”.

The 2003 heatwave was amazing.  It actually encompassed all of Europe, making it the hottest summer for Europe since the sixteenth century.  70,000 Europeans hit the “Deaths in Heat” column that summer.   It was a late bloomer of a heatwave here in England, not really getting going until early August, but when it did it the temperature pipped 98.8F in Kent, and even Scotland stopped complaining of the cold.  An unexpected benefit of the European heatwave was Hungary, who had an exceptional year for wines, due to the maturity of grapes coming earlier in the summer.  Hungarian wines from 2003 won nine gold and nine silver medals in wine awards in 2003.   Anyway, I missed most of the excitement as I sat in the garden and read War and Peace  that summer, so there’s six weeks of my life I won’t get back. Still, it could have been worse.  In Portugal, an area of forest the size of Luxembourg was destroyed by fire.

Ever since then, it seems, we have a heatwave every year, or every other year.  Each one seems to outstrip the last in terms of its Flames of Hell hotness.  2006 was a bit of a humdinger, if I remember, whiling away mornings on the Northern Line which had a humidity that made everyone go a bit loopy.  The oddest impact of 2006 on London was the power cuts, which meant that parts of Piccadilly Circus and Regents and Oxford Streets had absolutely no power at all, which we all thought was rather funny, but apparently it wasn’t funny and some people got a bit cross.  The Environment Agency stated that the drought that ensued was the worst for 100 years, which knocked all those in the 1976 camp into touch.  It was also the warmest July ever in Russia.  Kaliningrad reported a high of 70F, which is like Bognor on a bad day.   By July 2013, we were just fed up with everyone making such a fuss.  Now, we had the information that July 2013 was the third warmest on record to deal with (and still the Victoria Line did not have sufficient airflow) and there wasn’t really a point in calling it a “heat wave” if it was simply what was going to happen every July shortly after the end of Wimbledon.

If heatwaves are to be a regular feature in our lives, what do we do about having them?  Well, you can head over to the Met Office’s Heat Health Watch page where we are currently at Level 1 “Summer Preparedness”.  We are totally prepared for the possibility that we may or may not move into a weather front that promises sun until October.  Or we may not.  But basically we are “prepared”, Britons.  If you’re worried about what to do in the heat, says the Met Office, ask the NHS. Over at the NHS “Summer Health” website, you can comfortably draw a picture of the subjects that occupy the citizens of our country.  The three most searched items on the website Summer Health are :

1. Alcohol

2 Contraception

3.  Barbecues

Amongst the advice given on the website for a heatwave is “avoid tea”.  This is England.  This website shall fail.

Incidentally, in case you wondered, we are not actually in a heatwave.  Or maybe we are.  You see, the UK has no definition of what a heatwave actually is, which is helpful.  Meanwhile it’s bloody hot where I am.  Knew I shouldn’t have dressed in mourning for the King.  Stay cool, kids.

This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we will be back on Thursday August 7th.  That’s if we are still here by then, obviously.  We would probably have melted away like 1911 asphalt on the roads due to that bastard big fucker in the sky burning us to a CRISP.  The London Bluebird xx

Senseless Census

Over 85% of Londoners are happy with the health services they regularly receive and only 57% of Londoners would leave their front door key with a neighbour.  Do you know what this means? This means that statistically there are more of us willing to trust a stranger who has enough medical power to know how to kill us more than the people who we wave to over the garden hedge twice a year whilst preparing for a family barbecue.  This means that doctors, with their bizarre ejaculations of  “No, of course this steroid won’t make you fat and burn away your stomach lining, Mrs Smith” and “Yes, this contraceptive pill is not a pile of hormonal man-made cack that will make you sprout a beard when you’re 28, dear” are more trusted than the people we share common walls with.  I say we share common walls with as I am semi-detached, don’t you know, in mind and in spirit.

The reason is the class implications that come with professional standing I suppose.  That’s why the twats at the commercial bank I deal with day to day at The Job need a “professional” person to sign the back of my slightly ill looking passport photo to prove who I am.  That is because only a professional knows  who I am.  The people I see every day – the bus driver, the secretary, the waiter, the cleaner – are so mentally retarded that they do not know what the difference is between me and Rod Hull or Terry Wogan.  They are not professionally educated to know the difference.  But I’d trust half of them with my front door key and, most probably, with a kidney or two if the mood takes me.   But the labels we have chosen to apply to ourselves, solely for the purpose of earning money, are the labels we take to the grave.  And beyond.

I say beyond, because I’ve been looking at the 1881 and 1871 censuses.  How little we know of people who lived before us, beyond age, marital status, children dead, children living and profession.  Unlike birth certificates, the census forms tells us the profession of mothers all over the country.  And yet, so many of the jobs seem so remarkably archaic to us that we don’t know what class implications they imply.  “WATERMAN” – is this someone who worked on the canal, or a commission RA watercolourist painter?  “MANGLER”  Is this someone who cleans clothes, or owns a small business that does so?  Is a “NEEDLEWOMAN” her own business?  or a poverty-stricken freelancer?  Who pays her and how?  These are all professions, because the people who carry them out carry them out for money.  Yet, the people who carry them out may not be professionals.  I think to be a professional you have to be either in a 1970s cop show or someone who’s been educated : accountant, lawyer, doctor, teacher.   In these professions it helps, so I am told to be really, really bent.

I was floating about the 1881 census only to discover that the man who was employed as a Coachman in the house I was brought up was in fact a blind coachman.  Despite sounding like a rural pub, the blind coachman must have had a nerve-wracking time of it at the A41 / M25 interchange.  Who employs a blind coachman?  What is going on?  And also, what is the point of asking this professional to sign the back of your passport photo?  He can’t see it.  This blind coachman is from a long line of cottage dwellers whose sole income comes from serving the people in the big house, and the people in the big house seem like a peculiar bunch as well.  One of them made his money from shares in the Great Western Railway, so I know to write to him when complaining about the refreshment carriage.  Another was an 80 year old local woman made rich by a mill who appears to be living in the house with several random ladies.  AKA Victorian Old Age Care Home, and another family appear to be incapable of counting how many rooms the house has.  In some dwellings, you can smell the poverty.  Criteria for this is generally more children then you have habitable rooms and still more dead children than you have live ones.

There are three difficulties with the census : the first is that no one can read any of the writing on any of them before 1891, the second is that no one writes down the full address of anything until 1891 and the third is I am sure people told porkies.  How many secret sons and daughters were passed off as brothers and sisters?  And how many people who said they were indeed a professional man with a living actually had done nothing but sit in the pub and drink bitter for the last twelve years?  How many people pretended to be married whilst they lived in sin?  And how many people had accidentally mixed up their diary dates and forgot the census was being done on a particular evening and instead had arranged to shag the neighbour’s gardener, who they then had to hide in an upstairs towel cupboard when the census called and, a century later, created the reason the gardener’s grandchildren are unable to locate him on the census.  Too many truths get missed out.   The 1921 census won’t get released in 2022 and the 1931 census got burnt down in a fire in Hayes so there isn’t one.  There was no census in the war, so that’s 1941 out.  After we get the next census released to us in 2022 (1921 census) we have a 30 year gap until the next one.  That will be the 1951 census and I shall be 76 when it is released , which gives me something to look forward to.  But it will be set in the 1950s – it’ll have space age cartoons and bottles of Coca Cola to deal with and will be covered with graffiti celebrating the end of rationing and the people taking part will be boggle eyed children and older DA-hair-styled brothers, all  filled with medicine and cod liver oil looking adoringly at their new television sets and not giving the Census Man his due.

Census schmensus. It took them about 100 years to get the hang of how to do a census.  When we filled out our census forms in 2011 we had a seven or eight page document.  It asked us what we had for breakfast, whether our favourite colour for a bathroom was green or cream, whether we considered ourselves Jedi, how we worshipped, what we worshipped, how do you spell the word “worship” and what we consider to be the correct steps for a traditional foxtrot.  It’s mind-numbingly English in its dedication to the ponderous, pedantic detail.  But in 1851 a census entry looks like this:

 

Location  hedge at ende of streete

Name  sdfkjehrt dfikj.  (Could be James Smith.  Could be Bob Dylan.  Could be Lord Mendelson  Could  be anything).

In household   Head of house

Age   5

No of children living   12

No of children dead  25

Profession  Nursemaid and baiter of dogs employ. 5 men.

Blind / Idiot / Lunatic / Dumb / Deaf    Yes

I’m not joking you know.  I have reason to believe, beyond doubt, that the Head of Household in the house where I was raised in 1851 was a 5 year old male wet nurse with a professional sideline in dog cruelty who had given birth to 37 children.  The amazing thing is – this is evidence.  This may be the only historical remnants of Sdfkjehrt Dfikj’s life.   He may not exist anywhere else.   This is all I have of the house’s history at that point.   He may be a fragment of the census’s imagination.  Frankly, I’m just worried about the dogs.

Dare I go back further?  The house does, but the census does not.  What could I find out about 1745?  About 1692?  What about the massive knees up they would have had after the success of The Battle of Waterloo in 1815?  How many hogs did they roast?  How many people died of happiness the day they invented jam?  There was a secret altar in the cellar.  I’m really really not making this up.   There was, you know.  There was a  neat shelf for iconography.  There was an altar for kneeling upon and communing with the Almighty.   It must have been some Glorious Revolution nonsense when it was illegal to be a Catholic when there was an “r” in the month and a few years later illegal to be a Protestant if you’d been out and watered your garden on a Tuesday during a waning moon.  I reckon they were secret Sikhs.  History prior to 1800 in English villages is a hotch potch of hearsay, fable and faith.   Aside from the parish hatch, match and dispatch registers, all is a murky, mud-sodden, non-double glazed madhouse of Medievalness.

The census is only the surface of what goes on.  It makes life no less mysterious than what went on before it.  The census certainly doesn’t provide us with intimate knowledge.  But maybe I shouldn’t monkey with the past – and shouldn’t dig back any further.  Because before I know it I’ll discover that the inhabitant in 1712 was something awful – like a doctor.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every two weeks, so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday July 26th!  Thank you 

Only 86 homes in London deemed “affordable”

In 2001 I considered buying a flat, only for dear family and friends to tell me not to, that the market was “due” a collapse, and that 2002 would be too late to make any money in the property market.  The over-heated feeling was going to go away, and we would be dealt that pleasant euphemism: a “correction” in prices.  The word “correction” is key, suggesting that something required righting, that a wrong had been undertaken and it took some mystical fiscal action to make it right again.  But the mortgage business wasn’t listening and started ramming 105% mortgages on an interest-only basis at us (£900 commission, thank you very much) as if there was no tomorrow.

The whole premise of investing capital value in houses is that there very much is a tomorrow.  In our country, we gather security from tucking our security into bricks and mortar.  We set housing ownership very squarely and firmly on our Life “To Do” list, and part of the British psyche has been that if the aspiration to home ownership is not realised, we have in some very intrinsic and real way, failed.   Our houses are a future security, a pain-free, no-brainer investment where money makes money makes money.  This is all very well if you can release the capital, spend the cash on your grandchildren and the rest on a cruise, but the problem is you actually do need somewhere to live.  This money isn’t for you, it’s for your descendants.   For those of us who want a roof over our head, there’s only one way we’ll be leaving our houses and that’s feet first in a wooden box.

The current neglect to provide a whole generation with affordable housing will have an enormously detrimental effect.  The social and cultural depth of this won’t be fully realised for a generation.  When it is, the questions everyone will ask will be : Why didn’t control get taken and The Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee take charge?  Why didn’t more Mayoral sponsored initiatives to house frontline workers in London properties get initiated?  And,  why didn’t those property investors who did so well out of the boom and who are installed in SW10 houses, who told us that the top of the prime market “topped out” in 2014 and was beginning to drop,  live by their word, sell their properties and to take up renting instead? (I guarantee, even though I am arguing hypothetically from the future, that of the house-millionaire property investors and agents who disappoint hopeful sellers by telling them their Notting Hill house will be worth less in 2015 than it was in 2013 will actually sell up and get out of the market. Not one).

No one under the age of 30 who is not wealthy can afford to buy property  in our city; Perhaps the moment for any “correction” of the housing market already passed.  What is interesting is that no-one has questioned what the responsibilities of the property owning classes are in this crisis.  Would there have been a boom, if we had not decided to capitalise from hysterical growth for our own security?  The responsibilities do lie with Government legislation and with The Bank of England’s lack of firm decision-making, but the property-owning classes are the fuel that added to the fire, aren’t we?  How can we not be when every one of us who bought a house built the boom?

Now, I’m not saying we have all conspired to ramp up property prices to unfeasibly disgusting levels, but I do think we are all negating the role that we played to some extent, because however you dress it up, it is morally corrupt to render yourself capital asset rich and stoke the flames of your profit knowing that in the act of doing so you are pressing a sizeable number of gifted young London bloods more and more in the opposite direction – into years of rental.  I am not saying we should not have bought houses, but I find the role of the property purchaser an integral part of the whole mechanism, and one which is never focused on.  Perhaps it is too much to expect capital investment to not be morally corrupt by its very nature.

There’s only so much blame you can lay at the door of the banks who sold cheap debt to those who wanted it.  Those who wanted it – and took it – can’t blame the mortgage companies for the fact that they are now struggling to find another Lender who will take on their toxic, 95% LTV loans without pipping 2% above the deliriously low base rate.  They can only blame themselves.  It’s a bit like a child being offered sweets again and again and again and then complaining when they vomit and the sugar crash turns into a pile up.   Well, you shouldn’t have bolted down that extra bag of barley sugars, son.

Affordability has been a key issue in London for ten years.  All it has done in that space of time is worsen to the point of it becoming ludicrous.  This is a stagnant market waiting to happen.  Not a crash? I hear the naysayers standing at the sidelines with some parental cash and the long term view to watching for prices dropping No, not a crash – not in this region- but a stagnation.  The only thing keeping it at bay is a London housing market with very little “to sale” signs in it.  Interest rates will rise in 2015, very slowly, and with equal pace repossessions will bite.  But the market will hover, stagnate and get a bit boring for a bit, without a crash.  Then it will do what London always does – powers on, charges through and keeps on growing.  If it doesn’t I’ll eat my flat.

 

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  Our blog is updated every two weeks so our next update will be on July 10th.  Please come back for a read then.  Thank you 

Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud

I was warned.  I was told when I left London at the arse crack of morning last Saturday, that the Midlands were expecting monsoons, storms, tropical lightning and apocalyptic rainstorms, that the clouds would retch gun metal grey and I would be sodden to the skin, but it wasn’t as if I had a choice.

At some point in the last decade people stopped having hen nights.  The hen night was a five hour affair, bookended with hairspray and canapes at the start, and woeful regret and vomit at the end.  It’s genius was in its brevity.  It started out with glitter and champagne expectations and dovetailed neatly into self-hate and fallouts, tears and taxis, all by 2am.  Then you could go home, drink some water, sleep it off and wake up in your life again.  But then the rules changed.  Everything has got bigger.  Now, to salute a singleton as she sails on to the choppy waters of marriage, you have to spend a whole weekend doing it.  If the bill comes in at under £500 then you win a prize.  You have to leave London and go overseas or to a country town that no one has any associations with and sit wearing a fruit-based facepack with fourteen other women you don’t know.  You have to go to a series of cocktail bars in Sofia, Bulgaria and take your top off.  No one knows anyone.  There is no escape.  EasyJet scoot you in and you’re stuck in a new social life with strangers and you’re suddenly holding the ponytail of a Chartered Surveyor from Harpenden out of her way whilst she throws up following a drunken lap dancing class in Reykjavik.   How did we get to this?  It’s untenable.  48 hours is too long, dear readers, to be socially nice.  You could do this if you only went on your hen night with, say, your four best friends, but that isn’t how the hen night / weekend operates.  You clutter together all the rank & file without a thought as to who would like who and force them to spend 48hrs in a Latvian hill town being nice to one another.

To be honest, I’m surprised there wasn’t more of a body count where I went.  It was not Worcestershire ( as I had previously suspected) but Warwickshire, and it was not really a music festival so much as a bloated village fete with a bit where you could get your feet done and make an organic candle.  It was not summer, it was more like February, and the green English grass was not the green English grass we have come to know and love but rather a slippery rink of what appeared to be six inches of chicken liver pate, spread out on a forest floor, upon which Brummies in ponchos would suddenly fall down on, with their plastic glasses of local cider spinning up in the air and eventually landing on top of them.  It was a mud bath.  It was MudGate.  It was the SOMME.

Now, I am not really averse to the great outdoors.  Many people think I am allergic to the English countryside.  I am not.  I like it, but I only like it if it is prepared to be civil and humane to me.  If it is not prepared to bequeath good weather and pleasantries, I will not respond in a pleasant manner. I shall become surly, distasteful, teary and unhappy.  The problem with Friday night / Saturday day was that a month’s worth of rain fell in about ten minutes, and this is not the ideal overture to a weekend camping at a festival.  The issue with me is the older I get (she typed through rheumatic fingers) the more I become wedded to the joys of bathing, resting and  pampering as a way of life.  Only in my late 30s have I become dull enough to extol the joys of a very chilled glass of white wine in a hot bath after a turgid day in the office.  Only now do I retire for a “nap” at 2pm, to wake up at 3.30pm feeling ten years younger.  When I am stressed or unhappy I dye my hair, cover myself in expensive body creams, and tweezer the hairs out of the front of my big toe.  Feeling pampered and sleeping are my medicines.  Seriously, I can sleep for hours.  Sometimes without waking up.

Imagine my horror, dear readers, when the email arrived in my inbox.  The hen weekend originally was going to take place in Cheltenham.  I could have done Cheltenham.  We were going to have spas in this spa town – and we were going to stay in a house – which had a roof, floors, walls and windows.  I wouldn’t have wanted to cry in Cheltenham.  But I did want to cry when the jolly title of “Music Festival!!” landed with a depressing plonking sound in my mid-April inbox.  But I put a really optimistic face on it:  it was a folk festival and that was fine – I loved late 60s music.  I have loved drinking heavily in the great outdoors.  I had an image in my head : us girls, all happily and glowing with rude outdoor health, sitting around a boisterous campfire with mugs of hot chocolate and toasting marshmallows.  I could do that!  This would be great!

It wasn’t.  The worst part was that the mud operates as a glue.  If you stand still for too long in festival mud you become rooted to the ground like a tree, which means if you try to walk your top half sort of careers about for a second of its own accord and then you fall down splat into the ground.   The mud, also, has its own agenda.  It gets into your hair and under your nails and inside your ears and up your nose.  It floats in the top of plastic glasses of drink.  Eventually, after a day or two of people dropping drinks in it, themselves in it and urinating constantly in it, it starts to stink.  It smells of rotting festival corpses and rotten poo. It smells like the fourteenth century.  That is because you are basically living in the fourteenth century.

So, dear readers, just what did this Bluebird do until 2am?

I slid about on mud, and then we sat in a Shisha bar with a load of other hen parties illegally decanting boxes of wine into Evian bottles.  We ate some falafel and played hen games before buying pale blue plastic ponchos to protect us from the heavy onslaught of rain. A woman dressed as a hare gave me a broad bean coated with glitter.  Later, a folk hero came on to do a set but his songs were so slow that many people dozed off.  Ratty-haired children start getting unkempt and cross by 9pm, and the tin cans of gin and tonic, which we had illegally sneaked into the festival area, were piling up in rows by the bins.  There is a horrid sense of torpor – everyone wandering about with nowhere particular to go, standing staring at someone knitting, considering whether to have that fifth falafel and pitta combo of the festival.   I even considered going home with the two, startled looking young mums, who had to rush back to Hertfordshire and toddlers.  They said I’d want to come back with them in the car and not stay over by God, they were right, but I just felt I couldn’t do it.  I had to do my duty, stick with it and get trench foot.  The nightclubs started up at 11pm, with an Alice in Wonderland theme, where festival goers were jollying themselves up with rabbits ears and squirrels tails.  But despite aiming for Victoriana psychodelia, it felt a bit like Beatrix Potter Hour at the local One O Clock Club.  Festooned in fun-fur tails, very drunk men sidled up to you in that inherently creepy way that only men use at 1.30am pissed up in a forest and ask – with their bodies – whether your dance card is filled.  Have you ever had Squirrel Nutkin try to get off with you?  A lady with floppy rabbits ears hoisted her jumpsuited self on the DJ stage and mimed drumming out the techno beats of the music by pretending her hand was the drumstick.  The problem was she pretended the bridesmaid-to-be’s head was the drum kit, repeatedly smashing her on the skull and having such a good time before a chap dressed as a gerbil arrived on the scene and carted her away.  Most of the men who quite fancied the idea of jumping up onto the DJ stage, and thereby piggy-backing on some of the glory that belongs, rightly, to the DJ who is actually working and exhibiting a great amount of technical flourish, used the opportunity to indicate that somewhere on their bodies, beneath the woodland costume, they actually had penises.  They did this by thrusting their pelvises about, so impressed were they to have a penis that they reminded us – four times every musical bar – that it was there.  This was mildly interesting as I hadn’t realised that men had these wondrous things between their legs before.  Men aren’t obsessed with their willies so I’d never noticed.   So this was quite an insight.  Did you know men had penises?  A penis!  How clever of them to grow one.

The “glamping” element of the camping turned out to be something of an expensive farce.  One of the hens sharing my tent was a seasoned festival goer who said this certainly didn’t seem like £70 per head glamping (£280 per tent) by her Glastonbury-esque standards.  There were no lights and no power sockets and no insulation, which kind of defeated the whole point.  We did have memory foam mattresses however, but this was a shame – because anyone who had this experience would want to wipe it from their memory forever,  and it seemed unfair that the mattresses were destined to cling onto it for eternity.  There was a stained cushion and a series of very angry, unhappy looking fairy lights.  I blinked out from under my dripping pale blue plastic poncho, yearning for simplicity, warmth, a towel and food that didn’t come with organic hummus.  I unpacked pyjamas and sleeping bag on arrival and when returning to the camp site at 2am they too had turned against me : damp, cold and practically screeching at me “HOW could you bring me here?  I am  from Marks & Spencers, usually we sit together, you and I on the sofa, eating Green & Blacks and watching Mad Men.  We have always got on.  You asked so little of me – you just wore me in bed under the duvet.  And NOW you’ve brought me to here.  I SHALL NEVER FORGIVE YOU”.  It was that kind of weekend.  My mental state so fragile that I was convinced my pyjamas had an opinion.  And I wasn’t even on drugs.

The country estate which had (with an almost bovine stupidity) lent their lovely grounds to the festival was being slowly decimated.  Circus acts and Hunter wellingtons destroyed the lawns.  Pizza boxes and empty vodka bottles scattered the ground outside tents.  And this is the main problem I have : from the beginning of the booking process the festival organisers were encouraging carpooling, using public transport, advocating kindness to the environment and forcing us to care.  But from the moment you step over the wooden threshold in to this carnage of capitalism, which you have paid vast sums of money to attend, the festival make it apparent they care so very little about the environment they have been given that they destroy it.  There were no recycling services, or any reminders to take litter away with us.  Everything was dumped.  Stalls propped up in the grass now being brow-beaten out of existence by 2,000 pairs of wellington boots.  (How long will it take for the grass to recover?  Three, six months?)  How careless the whole thing felt.

The further problem is that they treat you with contempt.  You only have to look at the toilet facilities to realise this.  If I paid £200 to eat in a restaurant I would be treated with some civility and the loos would probably flush.  They probably wouldn’t consist of a floor of poo, blood, old tampons and new sick.  They probably would have loo paper.  They probably wouldn’t have no lighting, which means that if I visited a restaurant toilet at night, I would not have to grope my way to the seat, negotiating the pools of vomit, urine and menstrual blood to get to it.  But if you pay £200 for a festival ticket / camp hire etc etc you are treated like a piece of crap.  And this matters.   Because there aint no point arranging a caring, sharing sort of festival vibe with healing workshops if you’re making people shit in debasing circumstances.  You see, you can’t have it both ways.  Either you decide to treat people with humanity, whilst you kindly offer a reflexology session to support their lymphatic drainage system, or you make it clear you are a bastard organisation who is not only going to treat people like shit, but make them sit in it as well.

Of course, we got wise.  Their was a children’s farm up the road, where the animals were far more honest than the festival organisers and where they had proper loos.  Eventually we went there for a poo and a think instead.  But, it was a long walk just for a little poo.   The field we slept in was, unfortunately, next to the field where a fetid nightclub, consisting of a floor made from mud and a clientele made from pills and narcissism, banged its music out until 3.30am.  When 3.30am rolled around I was stuck in the confines of by £12 Argos sleeping bag (more nylon than a shellsuit and twice as prone to emanating electric shocks) hoping for sleep so I could wake up and go home and the whole unfortunate episode could be over, but alas, our neighbours at tent no 41 threw some kind of cocktail party soiree, that indecently went on until about 5 in the morning, which was about an hour before a cockerel crowed and some bitch lambs in the other field started bleating.  I could have wept for home.

I shall never camp again.

But my gratefulness for home and hearth brought me close to tears when I crossed over the threshold.  Hot water! Our flat has waterproof walls!  “I’m so glad to be home!”  I shouted at Mr Bluebird from inside the shower where I was shampooing my hair for the fourth time and joyously lathering up my fetid, mud-flecked self.

So, what have I learned from my glamping experience?:

1.Take your own loo paper

2. Take your own sanitiser for hands

3. Take wellington boots

4. Don’t wear jeans – they get coated with mud.  Wear skirt over bare legs.

5.  Take baby wipes / facial wipes

6. Take a camping stove

7.  Take bottled water

8.  Take a disposable camera.  They are watertight and mud-resistant and Facebook resistant (you won’t be looking your best, trust me)

9. Use a big shoulder bag or rucksack.  You do NOT want to be picking up and carrying a suitcase across an acre of land to the campsite

10. Pack all the above into aforementioned shoulder bag, then change your mind and stay at home.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is updated every other Thursday so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday 26th June. Thank you x

 

 

A Tale of Two Cities : From London to Paris

Last Thursday, on the European Election Day it was both exhilarating and troubling to realise how close we are to France.  Since 1994, the British have been astonished at the idea of getting on a train and arriving several hours later in France and, in 2014, this astonishment has not waned.  The centuries have frequently reminded us how close we are to the French – the guns of Waterloo were heard in West Hampstead in 1815 and the roar of the Somme was registered in North London some 100 years later, but it still amazes us that France is as far by rail from Kings Cross as York.

Travelling by train into France is much more exciting and dynamic than forcing your body into the pre-heated and recycled air of an aeroplane, so much so that we have sat in Eurostar seats for 20 years exclaiming : “Look!  We can get to Paris in just over two hours – it’s unbelievable!”.  In the seats opposite our own on the 0831 train, where we sat under the duck egg blue Victorian eaves of St Pancras, a woman approached two students : “I’m sorry,”  she said.  “But you’re sitting in my seats.  I’m sorry.”  That wouldn’t happen in France, but its how the British mini-break; with seat allocations, with neatness, with apologies.

“Awl this facking abaht!”  The man was bearded, standing behind me in the check in queue at the station.  Furious, he was.  Off to Europe.  Couldn’t facking believe it.  He could have been at home, gruntling his way to the Orpington poll booth and voting UKIP, but no, he was off to Lille instead.  Bleedin’ hell.

At passport check in I make the most alarming discovery.  It turns out that I CAN SPEAK FRENCH.  No one told me this before but here’s how it seems to work : you are forced to sit GCSE in a damp, uncompromising gym at a minor public school on the edge of the M25 and you detest it.  You detest having to learn this language, because all you want to do is listen to INXS CDs and smoke cigarettes on wide Italian beaches with boys.  Of course, there are some desirable things that are French : kisses, manicure, letters, pen pals, but the reality of learning irregular verbs feels like someone is hairdrying your brain, and all this comment allez vous malarkey get sur la tits.  But your sponge-like beautiful brain knows or cares nothing for your stupid short-sightedneess.  It is a beautiful brain and does what a sensible PA does : it files it away.  And then, 18 years later, you pull it out, unbeknownst to yourself, on the eve of a city mini break and before you can tell you bouche from your derriere you’re clattering around the flat, chatting about taking your parapluie  and packing the dentifrice like nobody’s business.   But it should be in my brain really, shouldn’t it?  After all that?  (What is French for “school fees”?).  On the train we hunker down through Essex countryside, our reading material all about the vingt : 20 Best Parisian Bistros, The Time Out Top 20 Paris Patisseries, 20 Ways to Kill a Euro MP etc.

At Gare du Nord it is raining.  Great, thunderous, gun metal grey lashes of the stuff.   In the waiting hall of the Metro Station there all the machines are broken.    This means we have to queue an hour for our carnet (A tube ticket giving you 10 journeys).  Old fashioned and parochial, the metro train steams into the subway platform, and it looks precisely as it did during my first trip to Paris in 1991.   It was a shock to the system : in London we pour billions into the public infrastructure that is our underground train system.  In the last 15 years the changes on the tube have been massive and, despite the apparent British addiction to queuing, no one in London would queue for an hour for a tube ticket without resorting to violence.  In Paris, no one has spent money on anything for some time, and it is beginning to show.  Would things have been any different if they had won the Olympic bid on 6th July 2005 and we had not?  Would they have been embarrassed into pouring money into their ailing transport infrastructure to host visiting torch-bearing dignitaries?  Who knows.  What I do know is that the Paris Metro is a timewarp and our trip to the Marais was not helped by a strenuously dancing busker who insisted on jumping through the train carriage with a bombastic sound system whilst rapping loudly in French.

By the time we arrive at St Paul someone has turned the sun on and Paris hits you.  The sense of light, or uniform splendour of the buildings, the pace and psychic measure of the place, the smells of carafe and croissant, the magic alchemy that justifies the hotel prices.  Unfortunately I had managed to split the crotch of my jeans whilst hovering dangerously over Eurostar’s chemical loo a couple of hours earlier.  This means I have learned one of the great pieces of wisdom of modern travel : never travel without a sewing kit.  Visits to several pharmacies result in us finally being told that pharmacies in France don’t stock things like needles and thread.  Instead we are directed by a kindly seamstress to a shop called BHV, and as soon as you walk in you’re back in John Lewis Oxford Street.  BHV have an enviable embroidery section.

We walk and walk and walk – all the way down the Rue di Rivoli before collapsing in a bundle of bags and exhaustion at a rip off cafe where we stop for lunch.  On we go, through to the Hotel di Ville, for a restorative post-lunch espresso and cake, whilst watching an ancient homeless man feeding the birds that cluster on the pedestrian streets.  Finally, almost weeping with the combination of tiredness, over-caffeinated adrenal glands and the uncompromising pink grandeur of a Parisian twilight over the beautiful Seine, we cross the Pont Neuf to take advantage of the Thursday late evening opening (until 10pm) of the Musee d’Orsay.    We do the entire thing, vaulting from Belle Epoque Art, through Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Symbolism and somewhere in the 4th Floor, in the Toulouse-Lautrec section, I make my second, disturbing discovery of the day.  It turns out I can’t just speak French, but I can DRAW.  I spend twenty minutes having a bash copying the La Danse Mauresque, and a further few minutes bashing about my pencil re Degas’s La Classe de Danse.  My outline of a Renoir lady is nothing short of diabolique, however, and I am exhausted by Monet, so we go out, back towards St Germain des Pres for the standard, sickly tourist fare in Paris : poulet et frites washed down with table wine.

We are beginning to notice differences since our last trip here in 2008 : Paris has got more expensive, but paradoxically there is less money about.  The shabbiness of the city’s infrastructure is counteracted by the €6 coffees.  We arrive at Thursday lunchtime, but by Friday afternoon, our €300 is running out.  And we are speaking strictly omelette, chips and red wine sort of fare.  The money is disappearing faster than it could in London – or even Dublin – or even, damn it, Reykjavik.   At our €70 tourist chicken and chips with wine supper, we meet our waiter.  Recently returned from a 2 year stint working in London, he sings the virtues of our native city.  He spent three months at The Ivy (hated it), four months at Cafe Boheme (loved it) and another eighteen months at Hix in Brewer Street (adored it).  He came back to Paris for family reasons but his view was clear : in his line of work London offered not only better economic conditions (the French don’t tip much) but a far more innovative and robust business environment in which restaurants could grow.  When you couple this to the fact that there is more money in London and the downturn has affected the city less seriously than it has Paris, you realise, with a growing sense of sadness that so many European cities, including Paris are fighting tooth and nail to maintain themselves.  London is not only the centre of the restaurant world, but also the queen of distillation, taking the best elements of European dining and culture and converting it into its own language.

I noticed this pattern wherever we went.  The best croissants were not at the local village bakery in many cases.  They were at Paul, (a French company now familiar to all Londoners) or Le Pain Quotidien.  The best ice creams were from Amorino, an Italian company that has two branches here in Soho.   Twenty years ago it was unthinkable to consider London a better place to get an authentic pain au chocolat than Paris.  Now, it is unavoidable.

Ears ringing, feet singing, we repair to the Marais, finding out a lovely neighbourhood bar, La Favorite, which, with it’s white tiled loos and stripped back feel would make Russell Norman salivate.  We knock back a Cote du Rhone themed nightcap and retire to the hotel to bed.

On Friday morning, I know I’ve overdone it.  I can’t wake up.   We had a somewhat late start, an 11am breakfast at La Favorite, where I enjoyed soft boiled eggs and soldiers, then through the Marais Jewish quarter (a bit like Temple Fortune but with more dogs and narrower, prettier streets) before the hulking monstrosity of hoover attachments masquerading as a building – The Pompidou Centre – loomed and leered up over us.  I am so knackered that I unfortunately can barely walk around the Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective, which is a shame, as it is alarmingly fascinating, and cannot be done in less than 2 hours.  This exhibition was our reason for timing our trip to Paris when we did, as the exhibition closes at The Pompidou in the first week of June, and the photographs were so special it would have been terrible to miss them.  But The Pompidou is an odd place.  It’s leaking for a start, and there are buckets dotted about.  The building is filthy, the escalators dusty, and the plastic hoover attachment which doubles as a five floor escalator viewing panel splattered with birdshit.  The toilets are original, ancient and stained.  It needs investment – and sharpish – not to mention a bucket and a mop, to be frank.

The exhibition is sensational – covering Cartier-Bresson’s work from the late 1920s to the 1980s – but it was so crowded that we felt permanently pushed on and cramped, much like we would on a rainy busy Saturday at The Tate.  But the Pompidou is wonderful in one way, as I finally manage to find a pencil sharpener in the shop (writing with non-sharp pencils is an irritant to me).  Okay, so the pencil sharpener is a complicated, knowing, Pompidou type of pencil sharpener in the shape of a vintage roll of film giddily unwrapping itself, but it’s still a pencil sharpener.  Unsurprisingly, whilst Mr Bluebird is still doing the rounds at the exhibition and is up to about 1950, I go to the coffee shop, eat a cake and fall asleep.  I wake up to Mr Bluebird returning from the exhibition, another coffee and a walk back through the Marais past some armed French soldiers strolling up and down outside the Pompidou.  We go to the hotel and pass out for an hour, before heading out for dinner towards L’isle de St Louis.

The guidebooks take us towards a tiny bistro where we quickly become the only diners.  We have coq au vin and share a tarte tatin before walking up and around to St Michel again, this time in the heaviest, sheeting rain, skirting between narrow alleys, avoiding the gleeful faces of the men standing outside restaurants shouting at tourists to entice them in.  We find a small wine bar and it doesn’t matter that I’m wearing open toed wedged shoes, not really because you’re in Paris, in the rain and you’re slightly drunk and you’re happy watching the world go by – and after 11pm on a Friday night it seems as if the whole world has converged upon the ancient streets of St Michel.  It’s like Dean Street but with better lighting.  We walk past Notre Dame,  head over to the Right Bank again, up back towards the Marais, and our final jolly neighbourhood nightcap at La Favorite before deciding it will be a good idea to go to Montmartre the following morning.

The following morning we sip complimentary Nescafe in the small hotel bedroom before deciding that Montmartre and the calf stretching steps of Sacre Coeur is not actually a good idea, with a slight hangover and a train back to St Pancras at 5pm.   Instead, we use the morning to explore the lovely Marais, have a brief espresso and croissant breakfast (€17) and wander the streets of this quietish, though thoroughly modish, region.  For lunch and tea, we took my brother’s recommendations, as he was in Paris last year, visiting the lovely Comptoir des Archives on Rue des Archives for a lovely lunch, before finishing up with probably the best chocolate eclair I’ve ever eaten, at the Patisserie Carette in the alarmingly beautiful Place des Vosges.  Only on this last day did something of the true essence of Paris seem to be slowly revealed to us, beyond the €8 carafes of house red and the relentless pursuit of the American tourist dollar.  Neither of us are Paris virgins, and Mr Bluebird especially has been there seven or eight times, including one three week trip where he was reduced to sleeping in telephone boxes before being taken pity on by some kindly Irish nuns who took him in (but there’s another story).  But as a trip, of course Paris is exquisite, and of course Paris has it’s individual magic, beauty and an almost infinite physical grace.  But on return to St Pancras International, London had never looked so modern, so monied, and so very clean.

Go to Paris, of course you must. Everyone should – frequently.  But take a lot of money in your pocket.  Prepare for outlandishly overpriced hotels and walk your feet off.  Try not to leave your nightdress behind (moi) or your reading glasses (mon homme), resulting in having to email the French hotel copies of your passports until they will deign to send them back.  But be prepared for a less modern city than the one you had come from.  Sadly, ashamedly, Paris is unhappier and more expensive than ever.  Economic malaise combined with over-priced cultural and tourist markets hint at a decadent city.  But then, would we want to go there if it didn’t hint at decadence?  Perhaps the most uplifting aspect of this is that its majesty is not truly affected by any of this, because Paris is unquestionably unique, having possession of that urban alchemy shared only – I believe – by two other cities – Venice and New York.  It can’t be bettered and it’s French so doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks really.  You cannot dampen Paris’s magic- because it’s magic is so defiant as to be undampen-able, even if it is raining very heavily on the Boulevard St Germain.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  Our blog is updated every other Thursday so the next update will be on Thursday 12th June.  Au revoir! x

The View From The Bikini Line

I don’t know why I missed last Thursday – I blame the profusion of bank holidays, or maybe it was the threat of yet another 48 hour tube strike that was going to go ahead and then, well, it wasn’t.  Or maybe I ovulated late.  Then we had a Monday off and now I can’t remember whether I had a wax 24 hrs ago or 48 hrs ago and subsequently whether its safe to swim.    Then I paid my salary a day early, replaced my Gelish nails three days late, forgot what date my mother was due back from exotic climes, got fined for delaying payment of my National Insurance and forgot to take the bins out.

But what I did manage to do, and even managed to do it within the prescribed deadline, was to register for postal voting for the upcoming local and Euroland elections.  I won’t be able to vote on Europe in person, as I will actually be on holiday in Euroland.  Voting is a love-hate thing with me, as I love the democratic practice of taking part in a vote and think it of optimum importance, with GCSE history book black and white pencil impressions of Emily Davison falling under that horse at the Derby looming into my mind if I so much as waiver slightly on my intention to pop the old cross in the box on the form.  But it is a hate thing as I loathe all politicians, everything they say, everything they lie about and everything about their cheap suits and estate agent faces.  I loathe myself for repeatedly believing them over the years.  It is only my fault, I say.  I mean, in my time I have been known to believe the lies of handsome men but a woman is certainly going a long way to letting herself down when she starts believing the lies of ugly ones.

But, I thought, whilst applying a hair dye colour test in the office loos when I should have been doing my dictation, what would Emily Davison have done?  Would she have refused to vote if given the chance, because she was annoyed about Stanley Baldwin or Lloyd George?  Would she have allowed Churchill’s face, like a week old Cornish pasty, leering down at her from a advertising poster (for the Liberal Party, as he was in those days) to put her off or make her lose hope?  No.  I suppose if we call Emily Davison anything we can call her the finest of the first-wave feminists.   Too precious a thing to waste, that right we all take for granted about popping along to the ballot box on election day.  Before going to work in a job.  Where we legally have to be paid if we decide to have a baby or happen to not be a man.  Where we legally have rights.

I have realised if feminism is about anything its about forgetting to say thank you.  And it was a sacrifice that Emily Davison did what she did.  You have heard of third wave feminism of course.  It’s been around since the early 1990s but no one told me I was one until the phrase abounded in the national lexicon in about 2006, when we all realised we should take notice.   We can only do it because of the second wave movements regarding sex discrimination and equal pay that the 1960s and 1970s feminists saw to so that we, rudely, get to forget to thank them.  But this is for the first V :  Voting.  But the other V, Vagina is a whole host of people telling us what to do with it, how to dress it, whether to trim it, strim it, take it on holiday to Strasbourg, wax it, don’t wax it, and not shut up about it.     The problem with bikini waxing is that it has been appropriated as subject which is about feminism, whereas in actual fact it isn’t : it is a convenient site upon which anxieties about feminism get projected.  Onto topiary.  “What should I do with it?”  “What would a second wave feminist do with it?”  “Am I buying into the patriarchal control of my body by having a Brazilian?”  “Should I do a Gwynnie and let it roam free?”  In other words, so obsessed is the media in what we’re doing with them, that we develop an anxiety about it ourselves, which depletes the whole point of being a feminist which is to actually let yourself have non-patriachal fun with it in the first place.  It’s just a vagina.  And it’s our vagina.  Did we swap male oppression in order to be told what to do by oppressive, angry Guardianistas intent on growing beards, or from irate Telegraph readers telling us to just shut up and get on with being ladies?    It didn’t ask to be politicised.  Do what you want with it.  Wax the lot off or let it grow out.  It’s yours.   Ground Rule No 1 : Feminism is about choice.

Back in the biological, rather than the political world, nothing is fun in my waxers : “My husband dissn’t like eet unliss I have everythink oeuf,” says my waxer.  I see her fortnightly.  She speaks three languages.  Unfortunately, in none of them can she tell her husband she’s tired of bikini waxes.   She then wastes no time in telling me that I am old fashioned because I only go for the trim on the sides – a.k.a. the bikini wax.  “Everyone who comes in heyear has it all oeuf”.  It took me a while to realise she wasn’t talking about eggs (“oeuf”?)  but that she was talking about regularly carrying out procedures so intimate she practically gets to see everyone else’s eggs.  Then I began to think about it.  I’ve been told you have to be careful about the standard bikini wax, because, like wearing Chanel No 5  it’s A:  a bit 1980s, and B. tends to remind men of their mothers.  Now, I’m not saying we should sleep with men who say when they first see your vagina “Oh brilliant, it’s not a bit like Mummy’s” but no one wants an old-fashioned vagina.   Also, there’s something depressingly tidy and home counties about a standard bikini wax.  “I’m just off to get my bikini done” implies you’re going swimming or competing with other ladies in an imminent Greek Islands beach holiday.  Its implication is at best, pragmatic, and at worst, sporty.  It has no overtones of either overt sensuality or “take-me-as-you-find-me-its-my-bush-and-I-love-it” third wave feminism.   I may be many things, but I don’t think I’m old fashioned.  Then, with my sole of my foot wedged around her waist whilst she tackled with the undergrowth, I realised.  I was a first-wave waxer.  Mine was the Emily Davison of bikini waxes.  It hasn’t even got to the polling station.  There’s everyone else travelling around the world (Brazilian / Hollywood) in their underpants and I’ve barely left the station.  This is not due to political implications of having it all “oeuf” but due to a cowardly and embarrassing low pain threshold.  I need to graduate into the second or third wave of waxing or else I’m totally old hat.  But then if I was very fashionable I would be doing the utterly up to the minute thing and letting it grow out, like an unhappy brillo pad.  And I don’t want to.

Emily Davison probably wouldn’t have had an intimate Brazilian, I mused, putting the hair colour behind my ears in the office loos mirror and waiting for the warm, ammonia hit of a hairdresser salon on a rainy Saturday morning to hit my nostrils.  She had no vote.  She had no wax.  She had no choice.  Waxing isn’t the issue, and voting or not voting isn’t the issue.  But our generation’s failure to say thank you for the women who fought before us remains hugely embarrassing.  So I registered for a postal vote.  Because I can’t not.  Because all of us, if we asked ourselves a few basic questions,would not hesitate in answering in the affirmative : we are all feminists now.  So, if you think it’s a good idea to put an article in Sunday Times Style supplement setting women up in binary oppositions about the Hollywood / No Wax debate, don’t bother.  We’re all over it.  We really like our vaginas and deal with the hair that grows on it the way we want to.  It’s more important to write about countries where women can’t get safe abortions or can’t get married to the person who they are in love with, or those women whose heads are battered and bruised from being repeatedly bashed against the glass ceiling.   Do Emily Davison a favour : stay out of the bikini line and write about them.

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this brief – but robust – outburst of militancy.  If you didn’t then please don’t.  Our next update will be on Thursday May 22nd!  That’s the day when you’ll all be voting, WON’T YOU?

 

 

 

Bank holiday lie in

Although this upcoming Easter Friday and Monday bank holiday was established by the 1871 Bank Holiday Act, these two holy days for England have basically existed since records began.  Or at least a little further back in the mists of time than that.  In the middle ages, boatsmen lay down their hoary oars in the April mists of early morning and failed to take any Londoner upstream on the Thames.  The City billowed itself down in dreamy quietness, for the remainder of the festivities.  I am not sure why – someone died, someone rose again – why?! – but we stopped.  And everyone loved it.  Except they got confused by the change in the Sainsburys opening times.

Not that this four day break was the most important bank holiday of the calendar way back in the Middle Ages.  You see, in those days there were a total of 33 Saints Days, so plenty of time for rest and relaxation.  These days we are de-sainted and de-sanctified and, as Blur reminded us in the mid-90s, “Bank holiday comes 6 times a year and bank holiday comes with a 6 pack of beer”.  I bet that one had Shakespeare spinning in his grave, as nothing quite captures and ruinous liberty of a four day bank holiday than Colchester mockneys scraping around on a back lawn in Adidas tracksuits pretending to be working class and salivating over the nearest greyhound.  Now, it’s no longer the 1990s, so now we are supposed to spend our bank holidays fetishizing over a grim hobby that has the word “British” in its bunting-esque title.  “Great British Bake Off Bank Holiday Victoria Sponge Fest” or “Great British Sewing Bee Knitting Festival” or “Great British Allotment Feng Shui” in which we all download our 1950s gingham dress iMac apps and pretend we live in a world where no one has invented the contraceptive pill yet and that the one thing that a lady really requires is a pair of nylons.  The way to our Great British hearts is to spend our leisure time avoiding a soggy bottom.

Soggy bottoms are one thing, but a lie in is quite another and Bank Holidays tap into the Great British Suspicion of Decadent Liberty.  We are a nation marinated in the Protestant work ethic, a needless and stinky Victorian hangover.  That is why the kind of things the Great British Bunting Lifestyle schtick would have us do revolve around healthy activity (cooking, sewing, knitting, gardening); sober, homely and hearty activities that keeps peoples hands busy and stops them doing what they really want to do on a day off which is get drunk and play with themselves.   Great television though that may be, you can’t actually broadcast a programme that sings of the virtues of getting drunk and masturbating although – if we all put down our garden trowels and gardening gloves for a moment and were honest with ourselves – that’s mainly all human beings really want to do for pleasure anyway.  Not that you can tell BBC2 that on a Tuesday night of course.

The Queen certainly won’t be doing it, because she’ll be in Blackburn Cathedral today handing out Maundy money to those precious 88 pensioners who will be in receipt of the sovereign’s gift of a red bag and a white bag filled with coins.  It’s rather War of Roses colour scheme, there, and liable to get the Lancastrians up in arms looking for a Yorkist to kill, but I take it the Queen knows what she is doing.  The amount of pensioners selected to receive Maundy money are the same number as the sovereign is old.  And they don’t get much.  But they can sell their Maundy money on Ebay for a much higher price at a later date.  Not that it makes much difference if you’re a pensioner, whether it’s Easter or not.  Once you get past 70 every day’s a bank holiday as far as I can make out, a long hazy cluster of days clad in shades of taupe and punctuated by Countdown and a lot of trips to the bathroom.

But those older people are old enough to remember when New Year’s Day wasn’t even a bank holiday (only a recent addition, started in 1974, and dedicated solely to St Crippling Headache, the Patron Saint of Hangovers).   In 1965, they moved August Bank Holiday from the first Monday in August to the last one, and also abolished the “Whitsun” and turned it into the imaginative and totally romantic title of The Late Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday of May.  In 1978 they went absolutely mental and gave us another Bank Holiday at the beginning of May, failing to realise that what we really needed was a break in the Bank Holiday drought between September and Christmas, and the nation could do with five days off in October.  The Scots manage to break this drought by cleverly arranging a Bank Holiday for November 30th every year.  The English are not so lucky.

The Cornish unofficially take St Piran’s Day off (5th March) although it isn’t recognised by royal proclamation, as a Bank Holiday by law has to be, it is a local tradition throughout the whole county.  Nothing is open in Cornwall on 5th March.  The Welsh are yet to establish St David’s Day as a proper Bank Holiday, and St Patrick’s Day has only been recognised in Northern Ireland as a Bank Holiday as recently as 2008.  The English have never been successful in their occasional calls for St George’s Day / Shakespeare’s birthday to be recognised on April 23rd, but this is mainly because it falls too close to the Easter break / May Day bank holiday glut to actually be of any benefit.  Calls for a Trafalgar Day Bank Holiday for October 21st have generally been met with a lack of enthusiasm from Parliament.    Instead Parliament ram occasional Bank Holidays at us to confuse us – we’ve had several of them in the last few years.  Royal Wedding, Queens Diamond Jubilee (two days for that) and even the day before the Millenium – 31st December 1999 – was decreed a one off bank holiday to help people prepare for their Millenium parties, missing the point that what we actually needed was a week off afterwards to clear up.

Whatever you are doing, dearest hard working people of London, enjoy this four day break by doing precisely what you want.  In London, it’s Berwick Street’s Record Store Day on Saturday for vinyl covers lovers, the Urban Food Fest opens in Shoreditch on the same day, and those of you who want to engage in drunken Christianity can join the Christathon pub crawl (biblical dress compulsory) that starts in Borough High Street.  The Moscow State Circus are here, for their last weekend, at Alexandra Palace,  and Kew Gardens has a Roald Dahl themed fortnight where you can create your own chocolate bar.  The Waterway Charity Thames21 is offering sketching classes on a Thames narrow boat (see The Londonist), and the Feast of St George will take place on Monday in Trafalgar Square, which sounds like a combination of a Monty Python sketch and an EDL day trip, or if you prefer something high-falutin’ you can heard to Shakespeare’s Globe on Monday for a family fun day of puppetry, stage craft and free drama for the kids.   If you really want to depress yourself you can have breakfast with the Easter Bunny at The Hard Rock Cafe (I kid ye not) for the bumper cost of £11.95 pre book.  Price includes one of Bill Wyman’s Sticky Fingers.    The V&A is also bringing out its puppets for children, but this usually makes the under 5s cry so I wouldn’t recommend it.

Then again, you could just stay in and listen to Blur and drink 6 packs of beer and bring yourself off to The Great Allotment Challenge.  I don’t care.  It’s your holiday.

Happy Easter.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is updated fortnightly so we will next update on Thursday May 1st.  See you then, The London Bluebird x x x

 

 

A London Particular

By the time you read this, you won’t be able to read this.  We shall all be clutching London railings, staggering around in a thick fog, muttering “damn the Sahara” and wishing we’d left the house with our buckets and spades to make use of the scorching Saharan sand that may fly our way with the dust.  Are we about to fall into an Arabian Nights smog?   I hope not.   In 1952 the “Great Smog”, as it became known, was thought to have caused around 3,500 deaths from a people suffering asthma and lung type problems. Traffic couldn’t see where it was going.  so they lit flares to guide it.  London then decided that IHHE (It Had Had Enough) so in 1956, the sparkling new  Clean Air Act of 1956 was introduced.  But that was about as much use as a milk chocolate teapot, because most of the country was still burning coal fires to stop themselves dying of ‘flu in the winter.  The air still smelt Dickensian.   Even in the 1970s some Londoners recall having to grope at railings on pavements to guide themselves along, but this was probably because that by night, people were so terrorised by the prospect of bumping into someone bedecked in orange flares, sucking “Spangles” and looming around the City in a “Mud” T shirt.

Fog off.  I mean, in this day and age.  Really.  But then it was in very recent times – 2011, in fact – that London’s air pollution rates were recorded at dangerously high levels.  In 2012, the WHO (The World Health Organisation, not the band) said that worldwide 7 million people had died due to air pollution.  And 6.5million of them were attempting to walk down the Euston Road.  So whilst our cars pump out more and more (the biggest culprits being Diesel cars) pollution, we drive less within inner London, cycle more, no longer have power stations vomiting out soot on the Thames’ riverbanks, use smokeless fuel if we’re Observer-reading wood-burning types and have given up the much loved English habit of burning witches.  “London is hit by dirty cocktail of pollutants!” Our Evening Standard shouted yesterday, forgetting the lunatic poison wheel of the M25 which circles our City like an evil planet daily, choking up our air and destroying the fabric of the universe.  No, far easier to blame the Saharans.  Blame them for everything.  We can blame the Saharans for the housing price bubble.  Blame the Saharans for the Central Line remedial weekend engineering works.  Blame the Saharans for the unexplained dip in Christian Bale’s duller-than-dishwater acting career.

Of course, European industrial emissions are floating over from Euroland, adding spice to the so-called Smog Soup we are all drinking in.  London is set to score 8 out of 10 on the Smog-o-meter this week.  I thought 8 out of 10 was good.  Well, it is if it’s a Maths test or something, but for a City’s pollution rating it is very bad.   Yet the Standard also wrote yesterday that those with “heart or lung problems were warned not to take exercise outdoors” and that this may “threaten the London Marathon preparations for some runners.”  Well, certainly if you have a lung problem the first thing you’d want to do is bolt about the City for 26 miles at an ungodly hour of a Sunday morning dressed like a Smurf because you want to DIE.   What person in their right mind enters a Marathon and dons the fetching “Flora” ball-hugging shorts when they have a heart condition?   The Standard then ran a series of 11 pictures showing us what traffic looks like in the smog, what buses look like crossing Waterloo Bridge in the smog, and what Canary Wharf looks like in the smog (if you’re interested, the same as usual but without quite so much visibility of the building that looks like a massive penis).  But the first thing that I thought when I looked at this paltry set of unhappy cars sitting in traffic around the Blackwall Tunnel in smog, was “That’s not smog.  That’s just London”, which made me then think that all these years it’s just looked that way and that we’ve been smoked out with smog for decades and no one told me.

What, then, was a London Particular?  And what caused it?  In the 1860s it was as foreign to those coming to London from the country as it is to us Londoners in 2014.  In Chapter 3 of “Bleak House”, when Esther arrives in London, she asks of the person meeting her, “whether there was a great fire anywhere? For the streets were so full of dense brown smoke that scarcely anything was to be seen. ‘O, dear no, miss,’ he said. ‘This is a London particular.’ I had never heard of such a thing. ‘A fog, miss,’ said the young gentleman.”

London Particulars were usually yellowish or greenish, prompting its association with pea soup.  A “pea-souper” was the colloquial term for a heavy London smog, and the ‘London Particular’ became a dish, a thick pea and ham soup.

Pea Souper

 

This is a pea-souped pic from the 1950s.

The worst thing about the feeling of the smog on your skin was its greasiness.  This pea souper, the Great Smog of 1952, was blacker and more damaging to the lungs of London than those that went before.  Visibility was reduced to no more than a couple of yards.  Animals suffocated in fields.  At Smithfield cattle market cows collapsed and had to be destroyed to be put out of their misery.  Traffic collisions became more common and with higher rates of mortalities.  The problem with the Great Smog of 1952, where it was said that people in the East End couldn’t actually see their own feet once they were out of the house, was that people stoked up their coal fires more and more as it was a very cold December.  This made the situation only worse.  A total of 1,000 tonnes of coal was being burned in London’s fireplaces, producing 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and the poorer you were, the cheaper and more dustier was the coal.  Dusty coal only increased the pollutants the household was producing.  When the sulphur dioxide was released from the chimneys and came into contact with the moist London air sulphuric acid was produced – which is deadly.  Sir Donald Acheson, the government’s former chief medical officer, had his work cut out for him as hospital admissions soared.  Not that the doctors were able to locate their hospitals easily, though.  Acheson said he had to feel his way through deserted streets: ‘I had to creep along the walls of the buildings, to the next corner, to read the name of the street.’

You know you are dealing with Britain’s worst peacetime catastrophe when the undertakers start running out of coffins.  That’s exactly what happened at the end of December 1952.   The hospital wards were so overrun that the Middlesex Hospital had to move some of the men who were in acute respiratory distress into the Obstetrics Ward, which must have come as a bit of shock to the women trying to give birth.    People would be surprised by returning from work to find that a layer of greasy black soot was stuck to their eyebrows, and another oily coating stuck to their hair.  Opening the windows didn’t do any good; the smog came in, gluing itself in tiny black flakes onto every surface, and blackening the curtains.

Unsurprisingly, the 1956 Clean Air Act was a direct result of the Great Smog of 1952-3, abolishing the use of certain coals and woods within designated Smoke Control Areas.  It was also the beginning of politicians recognising the public need for understanding how to protect the environment.  Whilst there had been previous clean air bills they were largely ineffective as they didn’t take a robust, scientific approach to the nature of the chemical compounds that London was producing (useless bills: The Smoke Nuisance Abatement Acts 1853 and 1856 and the Public Health (London) Act 1891).  Amended in 1968, The Clean Air Act had a huge effect on the improvement of Londoners day to day respiratory and environmental health.

So, should we really be worried about the Saharan smog?  Or, is the current media awareness on it merely a reflection of the fact that on April 1st this year, The Met Office took over the business of being the public face of air pollution from DEFRA, and the Met Office are so much more media savvy than their predecessors?  Either way, surely what we really need would be a spokesman standing up and telling everyone to stop buying diesel cars and stop to consider every time they get into a car what they are doing to the rest of us.  Yet, no one does.  Didn’t they used to say that the sign of a healthy economy was the sale rates of new cars?  Perhaps they want us to keep buying them and keep buying them. How thrillingly honest would it to tell everyone that flying short haul and driving a car is killing the atmosphere?  Now, that really would be a breath of fresh air.

 

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this week’s instalment.  The blog is updated every other Thursday, so we will be back on 17th April.  See you then!  London Bluebird xx xx xx

Memoirs of the Office Temp

Temp

There is nothing really temporary about the state of the office temporary.  It can be a permanent state of being, if you’re particularly unlucky G.A.T. (The Girl About Town) temporary.  The impermanence becomes a state of permanence; each bubbly ripple of water cooler in the ear sounding like the next,  each Pret-A Manger crumbed work station as dubiously underachieving in cheap laminate as its predecessor, each clock ticking with constipated slowness until 5pm; and yes, this is the same, mild mannered clock which has ticked in the mind of every office lackey since the first office was built in the first town on that first day.  Even the hours smell as if they, too, had been already used.  It is a never-ending twilight life, with no prospect of change which – in some ways – can be quite enchanting : the limits are set at 60 words per minute, the three week booking will eventually end, the irritation of dealing with office smugs and creeps will soon be a thing of the past.  But there are no job prospects.  There will be no raises.  You will fear getting sick and losing the two days income the headcold has stolen from you.  You won’t have a holiday this year.  In fact, you probably won’t ever have a holiday ever again, because the chances are, if you are a temp, you are not exactly on a structured, driven career path.  You are probably considering becoming a make up assistant.  You have never been able to shop in Hobbs, even though you would like to.  You are probably in the arts.  And you know what that means, oh children of the City.  It means that unless you bog off into teaching you will never have much money your entire life.  This is why you have perfected the trick of living off £18,000 a year and making your clothes, nails and make up look like you earn £30,000.  It’s a gift.

  In others’ eyes the temporary assumes the same identity, a character that doesn’t mutate beyond the small chat over the making of the 10.45am milky Nescafe, a hireling with a name that no one can quite remember and who is ineligible for her own mug.   Someone may ask where you live, someone may ask whether you live alone (usually always an agenda here), someone may ask where have you worked recently?  The joy of the three week booking is that you can make everything up and invent and cardboard cut-out fantasy temporary life.  “I live on a houseboat.  Yes,  with Charles.  My last post was at the head office of BP.”  But the question that no one will ever ask is: Why?  Why are you doing this, oh temping rudderless one?  What is your secret ambition?  Why aren’t you like me?  The word “temp” sounds vaguely like taking the measure, or the temperature of someone.  I was a temp for 7 years, and most of it wasn’t too depressing, to be honest.  The rates were £7.50 for reception (City), £6.50 for reception (West End), £7.00 – £8.00 per hour team secretary(West End ) and £9.00 – £10.00 per hour team secretary (City).   This was in the very late 1990s.  Now the rates are only a little higher (£1 or £2 in either case)  yet only about 10% higher – and in a City like ours, with its hysterically burgeoning cost of living, it is not quite clear how people can keep themselves in Oasis office skirts with it.   May was a dreadful month – and yes, I know all about its darling buds and general air of breathtaking, Richard Curtis rom-com Englishness in its sun, but it has two bank holidays.  For most of the country that’s two glorious three day weekends, coming so chirpily and happily after Easter but for the temp it’s £100 less at the end of the month as two working days have fallen out of the calendar.  

The worst boss I had was a midget.  Well, I say midget, but perhaps he was just very small.  Quite big in the world of office fitouts though, apparently.  He shall remain nameless but his predecessor was a man called Nigel who I worked for for two weeks and who never once in that time removed his uncalloused, white-collar job hands from inside his pants.  Nigel referred to his wife as “Mrs H”.  “Mrs H is under the weather today…”  or “Mrs H is out of sorts [clutches at nutsack]”.  It became so funny I moved my chair so he couldn’t see me pulling disgusted faces from behind the off-white room divider that separated the part of the room laughingly referred to as my workstation from the part of the room where Nigel’s hand was permanently wedged into his underwear.   But then I got moved upstairs to a different department.  I got moved because they worked out I wasn’t doing a thing – I was mainly floating about on the internet, booking theatre tickets and shopping.  I got moved upstairs to a very airy, white painted room with an unhealthy hum of actual activity.  I was required to do some work here which, once I got over the inconvenience, I adjusted to with moderate application.  Upstairs I’d do dictation typing for a South African architect with ginger eyelashes who was extremely serious and spent much of the day marching around the office in pale blue shirts (architects only ever wear blue shirts) tutting and blowing air out of his mouth in an irritating manner.  But his boss was the midget.  And it became clear on Day 2 that this particular chap felt it would be worthy to add “sex machine” on his CV, just under the bit that said “dwarf”.  You can tell a lot about what a man thinks of his own sexual prowess by the way he sits on a swivel chair.

“So…” swivel hipped chair swivel. “Do you like cooking?”

“Erm…well, not much actually.”  (This was before I was married and/or cohabiting, and was a slutty G.A.T who seemed to subsist entirely on cheese sandwiches, Hula hoops, £3 bottles of red wine and the occasional scurvy-defying apple.  And I was a stone lighter.  I never cooked.). 

“Yeah, well, I’m half Spanish….” hip thrust swivel swivel.  “I’m an amazing cook.”  Click click annoying end of biro in midget hand that lent on arm of odious aforementioned chair de swivel. 

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”  swivel swivel squeak squeak.  “So, does your boyfriend do all the cooking, then…..?”

“Yes.  He’s a Michelin starred chef.”

That kept him at a distance for a while, but he was on to me.  He had his revenge stored up and once, when I was in the middle of attempting to ask someone out over Hotmail, he zoomed the chair across, swivelling away and said that HR had been tracking my internet use and that I was registering 600-700 hits a day and had been flagged up.  I left soon after.

I avoided any office assignations.  I never met anyone I liked who worked anywhere I found myself anyway.  Yet, despite this, I was once asked out by a particularly determined Australian who, when I told him I wasn’t interested, spent the next two hours trying to convince me otherwise.  That is the damning shame of the reception desk.  It’s you, stuck, unable to get away, behind a cheap piece of wood from Viking Direct (I’m referring to the desk, not the Australian) and you can’t get out.  Sometimes they were even nice to you.  Once I spent two weeks arranging diaries / booking trains – oh all right – I spent two weeks doing fuck all – and got presented with a crate of wine from someone’s cellar in Rhiems to say “thank you”.  I was included in team nights out from time to time, but these could be worrying.  Sometimes they were cosy, friendly quizzes featuring fish and chip suppers in EC2 wine bars but once or twice they were people dangerously sozzled telling you about their sexual peccadilloes, and even on one occasion a previously mute, inconsequential looking accountant from Brentwood told me he actually worked for MI6.

More like MFI. The temp is the office lackey, the telephone answerer, the minutes’ typist obediently punching away at the Qwerty-board. And sometimes of course, when it all gets too dull, you have the temps way out.  The ONLY way out.  You can just fuck off.  No sooner had I started my temp career was I resurrecting already-dead grandparents and then killing them off again in virtue of going Absent Without Leave.  I had to keep a record of my trails of death though, clearly.  Once I returned to a company where five months before I’d left by rushing to the aid of a sickly and entirely non-existent Great Aunt only to be reminded when I came back in to cover for reception for three weeks by a lady in a grey suit standing there saying “I am so sorry about your Aunt’s death” whilst I gawped, not having a clue what she was  on about.   It turned out this particular woman liked to spend most of her days coming to the reception desk where I was illegally reading paperbacks and  running through the rollcall of names of everyone Ralph Fiennes had ever shagged.  I don’t know by what dastardly means she had come about this information, but it featured a fairly varied cast, if memory serves, and it all made me feel a little unwell.    She also had me on detective work : the phone bills had suddenly rocketed by £100s a month for the office.  We had an Ecuadorian cleaner and I had to go through the itemised bills with a blue highlighter pen every time an Ecuadorian number came up, which it did, every single evening.  For about two hours.  I always felt bad about having to do that.  I mean, the cleaner was a bit chatty, so what?  This company had plenty of money.   But, I did learn something because since that day I have never forgotten the international dialling code for Ecuador  (+593).

One of my first jobs was on the front desk of a City firm where, not understanding the enormous switchboard I had been put in charge of, and partly distracted by the camp security guard’s stories about when he worked for Ava Gardner, I jammed up the entire switchboard and no one got any calls for two hours.   When I did eventually pick the phone up, it was to a very important client (I did not know this) who was drunk.  I mean utterly pixellated.  Unrelentingly obliterated.  “Pu…me through to Dave…..David. JAMES I must speak to James….”  I tried to put him on hold.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  There was usually a nice lady next to me from Leytonstone who knew what to do but she’d buggered off to Marks.  I said I was putting him on hold “DON’T you fucking put me on hold, my girl….” came the Jameson fuelled growl from the other end of the phone.

Wow.  I mean – you know, Wow. I did the only reasonable thing a temp could do under the circs, and offloaded him on someone called Sandra.  The next day he sent me a bottle of brandy to say sorry.

I worked for everyone.  I worked for mental health NHS trusts (“So, how long have you worked in mental health?” someone said in the office.  “Seven minutes,” I said), for private hospitals (everyone who worked there lived in Cobham and had a bob hair style), television (worst pay, best gay friends), surveyors (excellent.  They’re out a lot salivating over highly-priced Westbourne Park bedsits.  Lots of time for standing around in the street smoking fags), hedge funds (can’t comment, don’t know what they do.  But the coffee was brilliant), architects (never encourage them to rebook you : it involves far too much standing about copy printing of A1 paper sized plans), internet start up companies (do they even still exist?  No, I doubt it.  They only really existed between March 2000 and August 2001.  They were decorated in primary colours and with office design shapes as simple as the PAs within them), Japanese construction companies (difficult to please.  Letters had to be stapled either at an exact horizontal line or an exact vertical line.  The rakish slant of a diagonal staple on a fax would drive them NUTS.  The Chief Exec used to announce his arrival each morning to me by stepping out of the lift on to the reception floor, walking forward one pace, barking his surname very loudly, turning around, and getting back in the lift again.  During this process he never removed the cigarette from his mouth), large City insurance companies (excellent pay, treated you very well, the nicest people I ever worked for.  The only sinister element being the exceedingly glamourous PA who used to come to the front desk to chat about books, and who loved Dostoevsky, and who – I noticed one day – had two matching scars on each of her inner wrists) and a party costume and corporate entertainment company (one exhaustive day in an over-heated office individually ringing up elderly people in Cricklewood to find out what they made of the new bingo hall).  Looking back, its astonishing what I used to do for £8.50 an hour.  Because most of the time I didn’t do anything.

Unlike now, of course.  Now I am very busy in my office job and have no time to write my blog (ahem).  But at least now I don’t dread May, and I have days off without worrying about the financial input.  Plus my current boss doesn’t know where my contract is filed and can’t remember what’s in it anyway.  So what has my experience taught you?  What would I advise you when it comes to how to treat a temp?

1.  Don’t come to the front desk giving her blow by blow accounts of a court case where a nanny may or may not have shaken a baby to death, when the temp clearly isn’t interested (You know who you were! EC1)

2.  Don’t blather on about your Princess Diana conspiracy theories (she isn’t in Herzegovina threatening to overthrow the Queen – office W2) or

3.  Start shouting that you don’t know exactly who the person was the police are arresting around the corner but you’d “bet he wasn’t white” (Uriah Heep look-a-likey, WC1), nor should you

4.  Assume the temp has any interest whatsoever in who you are, what you do and what your company is up to.  For example,  “WE’VE JUST SOLD ROVER!” someone shouted to me at BMW Park Lane in 2000.  I thought they meant a dog.

5. Don’t ask her out if you can tell she really really doesn’t want to go out with you.

6. Don’t be unfaithful to the permanent she has replaced by saying things such as “you’re much better than the person who usually does your job. She’s shit.”

7.  Don’t flirt with her for three weeks, make her come to the summer barbecue and stand around in a damp Tufnell Park garden and then ignore her (you know who you were, NW5).

8.  Learn her name.  Remember it.

9. If she’s an actress try not to ask “So, what have you been in?” because the answer is likely to be “lots of offices.”

10. PAY HER A LIVING WAGE.  No one who puts on a suit in London deserves to be paid less than £10 an hour.  No one.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  Obviously, if you’re a temp you will as, like, you got tons of time haven’t you?  The blog is updated every other Thursday, so we’ll be back on April 3rd.  See you then, The London Bluebird x x x x

Mind the Gap : London versus the rest

Monday night saw the first part of Evan Davis’s two parter on why London appears to be separating itself off as a separate macro economy from the rest of the UK.  In this first episode is was all about London.  Londinium.  Augusta (as the Romans called it) and the next programme will be about the rest of the UK.  Davis is a great television reporter – he is engaging, informative, economically educated and accessible.  I liked his style very much, and enjoyed the cut of his jib.  Yet, the domination of London’s economic power over the rest of the country is no new thing, when you consider history.  And perhaps, this was the problem with the programme in the first place, it’s decision to avoid much historical context.

15% of the British workforce lives here, but London generates more than a fifth of the British economy.  This calls to mind the 15 year old quote that for every £10 that the country produces, £1 is generated by the City alone – that’s just that one square mile, not the whole Greater London area.  It was no secret that throughout the 20th century, London has pulled in more workers, generated higher incomes and higher standards of living and provided more products and services than the rest of the UK.  Although the programme made a point of remembering the dominance of the cotton mills of the North in the 19th century – the economic output of which outstripped London without, perhaps, enriching the economic strengths of its working classes  – it strangely treated this London economic dominance as if it was a new thing we all work up with one day in 1984.    Why is the capital so dominant? it asked.    How is London’s strength borne out in its market structures?  This is a two centuries old question, one that began to be pertinent after the 18th century Industrial Revolution.  But, aside from this lack of historical precedence regarding the issue, this is a question that continues to demand answers.

What Davis was particularly good at was explaining the economic formula that London is wrapped up in – how businesses choose to develop next to other like minded business, how productivity is raised when workers work in spaces where they are designed to be together, and introduced me to a term I had not heard before – agglomeration economics  – and what was particularly interesting is how mutual cultural values inspire buildings to have close geographical proximity (the new Kings Cross Google UK Headquarters site, which had been chosen partly due to its close proximity to the new Central St Martins art school was used to illustrate this).    But then we cut to Boris Johnson, our Chief Fool, who, over a dyspeptic looking breakfast up the Shard, produced a metaphor regarding the London economy that seemed to be based entirely on sea anemones and jam.   Nothing he said made the remotest bit of sense.   Then we cut to a blow-dried hussy of an elderly estate agent, who was trying to sell the ugliest and most vulgar of Mayfair houses to his ugliest and most vulgar of his international clients for a whopping £40million.  It was a disgusting house – full of Grimm fairy tale gold leaf plates and sinister baths.  But it will, of course, be sold, as London has become centre of the universe for billionaire despots with little taste in soft furnishings and legions of cash stuffed in off shore accounts.  This was an anomaly of the London housing market, but not a fair representation, but it fuelled the idea that London is full of foreigners and their foreign money and, by Jove, can anything be done about it, begad?

Well of course it can’t.  Too much of London’s current wealth relies on a European single currency currently on life support and rich Greeks frightened of civil war.  London might have been a bit more down the toilet of life if it wasn’t for foreign money and oil barons using West One property as a capital asset holding mechanism in which they can store their sisters / hairdressers / aunties, whilst waiting for their own economies to become slightly less lethal and prone to imminent collapse.  Yet, when Davis spoke of the rising population of London, and the effect it would have on our City’s transport infrastructure, he failed to point out that even if the London population increases continue at their current slightly-higher-than-we-thought target, it won’t come near the high population rate of 1939.  And that was when London had less tubes, less nightbuses and more people walked about.  Now no one walks about.  If we go back even further, the average Victorian clerk, as pointed out in Judith Flanders’s lovely book “The Victorian City : Everyday Life in Dickens’s London” walked three miles to the City for work in the morning and three miles back again at night.  The city still had railways and omnibuses, but many people simply chose to walk. It was estimated that 200,000 clerks walked daily to the City by the mid-1860s.  You’ll notice if you walk anywhere, unlike the Circle Line, there is always room for everybody.

But alas, now Londoners are often living more than three miles from their local station, let alone their City desk.  You can only feel sorry for the nobly named Glyn Britton, who commutes daily to Old Street from his home in Stockport, presumably due to the rising house prices in London which mean he cannot live nearer the City.  But no mention was made of how much it was costing him per year to have a daily commute from London to Cheshire.  Astonishingly, National Rail Enquiries tell me than an annual season ticket from Stockport to London Euston would cost £13,300 per year (an average of £27.20 per journey).  So if Glyn stays in his job for ten years, he would have spent £133,000 on getting to work and back (this does not factor in the underground zone ticket he would also have to buy to get to the hip, bearded population of the Silicon Roundabout each day after his arrival at London Euston).  I’m not saying that you can buy a house here for £133,000 but in a land with such expensive rail fares as ours, you have to be earning a fair sight over the national average income to justify doing this.   I only hope his lovely Cheshire home is worth it.

Of course, earlier Londoners would have done this if something as nice as Virgin Trains had existed then,  but the question on Evan Davis’s lips was why can’t Glyn’s job be based in Manchester or Sheffield?  Why is he so limited as to have to come to London each day and no other city?  Well, that’s a bit like asking why is red red or why is green green.  It just is.  A series of accidents, unfinished planning, cultural and economic factors and educational and social circumstances have meshed themselves together in London in such a non-rational and strange way that you can’t repeat it anywhere else.  Because it has a special formula, like that creepy KFC colonel, and no one can tell you what it is.   And the more it works, the more are drawn here.  It’s the ultimate urban endless circle.  The more we decide to be seen as unique, the more unique we become.  Money pours into London because London knows what to do with it.  As anyone who disapproved of the BBC move to Salford can testify, failing to see the logic in putting London-centric jobs in a random northern town incites attacks of the “you’re a southern soft media twat from London” variety.  There were many reasons why the BBC move to Salford were illogical.  Not one of them was because of southern, supercilious London twats.  Anyway, of course the BBC move to Salford was a success!  It brought great changes to the area.  As Shaun Ryder was brilliantly quoted at the time :  “You can tell they’re all moving up to Salford because our Tesco has got a Finest range now”.

The alchemic formula that makes our City what it is has had us ruminating over its magical dynamism ever since the first Roman chariot rolled up the banks of the Thames.   They tried a bit of this guff with Birmingham, do you remember?  Britain’s second city or similar.  And then the EU began awarding various cities in Britain as that year’s City of Culture.  But an EU directive to support regionalism is nothing more than a drop in Mother Thames.  London, as Davis illustrates, is forging ahead in its hard, expensive way more than ever.  This week it was thrilling viewing, once you got over the vulgar horror of the house prices, watching Davis operate cranes in the new London Gateway development, and walk through areas of Crossrail stations we have never seen.  Will Davis present a solution for the economic disparity in the regions?   Since the demise of the cotton mill industry, hasn’t the North been waiting for its next moment in the sun?  The first episode focused on the exuberance brilliance of London. Next week, which focuses only on the provinces, should prove to be altogether far more sober and difficult viewing.   Poverty in the regions in the UK was shockingly prevalent in the Means Tested 1930s, and London’s financial glories of the 1980s was unlikely to be reflected in the ghoulish puddles on the streets of Doncaster or Leeds.  What makes Davis’s programme so disheartening for those outside of the magic circle of the M25 was that it twas ever thus.   The story of London’s current dominance is no isolated episode : history has too many examples of it – but it would have been nice to see more historical vantage points from Davis’s programme.

Right, see you in two weeks you bunch of soft Southerners.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday so our next instalment will be on Thursday March 20th.  Farewell until then, The London Bluebird xx

Teatime in Soho – or is it?

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As regular readers know, my heart beats for Soho.  There’s blood lines and personal history running through that neighbourhood which is curtailed at one end by the Piccadilly Theatre and at the other end by the mess of pavement and road diversions that is the Crossrail extension.  Of course, you do also have to be careful; there aren’t only blood lines but fault lines, slips and falls that mean you can suddenly get dumped into bits of history that, frankly, you’d rather leave lying in peace a la the sleeping dog.  But mostly, Soho always refreshes, as each evening is just pasting another layer on top of the memory of evenings out you had before.

Not at 6pm though.  Soho’s only just had it’s breakfast at 6pm.  It’s only just finished wheezing and coughing up last night’s B&H at 6pm.  I’m not talking about the Soho that is working, of…

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The Ghost of Henry Fitzroy

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My grandmother died on the morning of November 22nd 1990, her last victory being that her reign managed to outlive that of Mrs Thatcher by about two hours.   Before she managed the bitter success of outliving Mrs Thatcher, she did several things, including marrying my grandfather (somebody had to), birthing my father and spending thirty years of her life pleasantly residing in what my father termed “a notorious north London slum”.  The same week that she died, this slum was granted conservation status by Westminster City Council, in order to devise local policies to protect the unique character and architectural heritage of the area.

Conservation areas suspend time whilst causing some frustration amongst the local population, and in conserving themselves, render significant change unimaginable.  Whilst our duty to protect Georgian and Victorian sites is vital, occasionally conservation zones can end up fattening their zones up like a tourist cows ready to be…

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Death by Theatre

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I still have to remind myself that this story is true.  I sometimes tell people this story, and with every passing year and with each re-telling it becomes more and more surreal.  Every word of this is true. I suppose I could call this piece Death by Bathroom Towel, or Death by Radio Four. But no, it was theatre really. Theatre did it. An industry long suspected to be toxic was in fact once proved to be utterly fatal.

I was nineteen and home for the summer holidays, earning paltry amounts of fags and beer money selling programmes for my mother’s theatrical production company. Every year, actors would gather in the house and rehearse avidly for two weeks before a small local tour. This was unsettling. If I wanted to pop into the television room to catch up on the Wimbledon highlights, I’d be confronted with a red-faced elderly thespian…

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Rent a vid

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When I was growing up, getting a video out of the local video shop was a Saturday afternoon outing that involved going into a small 17th century building where a woman was permanently installed behind a plastic desk chainsmoking Rothmans, and creating a fug in which it would have been suitable to smoke a kipper.  You’d go up to the counter with your £2 charge (£1.50 fine for keeping it at home for the extra day, which you invariably did) and say “Can I have this please?”  Then, she would look at you with canine-like teeth, and sneer, as if she wanted to poke your eyes out, murder you and then eat your kidneys.  

Once she turned up for work with an eye patch on.  I do not know why this was, only a lent a deeply sinister slant to what was already an alarming shopping experience.

During the refreshing commercial…

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1997 called : It wants its actors back

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I ended up in a timewarp yesterday – or, as the authorities call it – White City.  It’s a gothic, Gotham-like monolith of a shit-tip, Television Centre.  It has all the flavour and allure of a municipal swimming pool, but one with cardboard cut-outs of Strictly Come Dancing presenters and participants in every corner.  Have you ever had to share a lift with a cardboard, life-size Bruce Forsyth?  I did yesterday and it was deeply sinister.  An avuncular hand tapped me on the aged shoulder yesterday and offered me a day and a half’s salary for turning up to the BBC for an hour and a half and doing some undemanding acting which involved dirty hair.  Well,  I’m not going to say No, am I?  Tapping away on here every week imparting bits of nonsense has precisely netted me £0.00 since February 2010 and the clip joint business isn’t what…

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The Bus Nutter

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He gets on around the bit of the Finchley Road that connects to Hendon Way, our Bus Nutter.  And it isn’t really Frognal and it isn’t really Cricklewood and it isn’t really West Hampstead, it’s the fuzzy weird bit in the middle where people get petrol and where they realise they are in the wrong lane for the A41.  He looks entirely ordinary (AHA!  Most of them do) and he gets on the bus very casually and normally.  He is of average height and build and just sits on the upper deck.  Then there is the catalyst.

The catalyst can be anything, really.  It could, for example, be Wednesday.  And then he will go downstairs and in his very very normal voice demand the driver to explain why it is Wednesday.  He sounds ordinary, mundane and has an authoritative voice that lurks somewhere between Phil Mitchell and that bald bloke who does

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I don’t believe what I’m hearing

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Gather round, kids.  What’s not to like in the following ensemble of wonderful-ness? :  Gene Kelly plays a movie star in a fab white trilby and hardly has his tap shoes off in the film’s 103 minutes,  Donald O’Connor is his fizzball-of-energy cohort composer, Debbie Reynolds is the charming ingenue and Jean Hagen is the woman whose voice is so harsh it could strip paint.  It’s a comic depiction of Hollywood by Hollywood, but its knowingness never turns to cynicism; it parodies film-making whilst still holding it in affection.   Singin’ In the Rain is a musical liked by people who don’t like musicals.

The infectious exuberance of its superb score, direction and tap dancing – marked by Kelly’s athletic slant as choreographer –  is the best reason for watching it.  Many nights in Bluebird Towers have been spent reclined on the sofa with a glass of red joining in by harmonising on You were Meant for…

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Get it or regret it: every Wednesday!!

THE LONDON BLUEBIRD...

And get it, we did.  Every Wednesday, for the princely sum of 65p, we would hungrily consume the periodical above, which seemed to be hot-wired into the world of the rich and famous.  “Posters! Advice! Stars! Gossip! Boys!”  it gleefully promised in its tagline at the bottom.  The last word was a bit odd- boys?!  What boys?  Surely not the boys we knew who were our age and frankly, prats.  And how rude to think that the nicest thing they can find to say about Andre Agassi was that he was less boring than Boris Becker.  Anyway, the boys Just Seventeen referred to in it pages were Ralph Macchio, Rupert Everett, the singer from Brother Beyond (please comment with name of that one, if you can remember?  I bet one of you can!), Kiefer Sutherland Mark One (the Julia Roberts years), Pat Sharp, Jason Donovan, Rob Lowe (pre scandal), George Michael, Patrick Swayze , Peter Schofield…

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Snapshot of a street : West End Lane

Yesterday evening I went out for supper in West End Lane, West Hampstead for certainly the first time in a decade, and possibly even longer than that.  In fact, I lived just off it two decades ago, and continued to live off it, on and off, for eight years.  But there is a cold feeling in the bones when you are girding yourself to rock on up to an old London district these days, and that cold feeling is solely due to the onslaught of changes that you will be forced to reckon with that are a result of the Blistering Boom.  During the Blistering Boom swathes of London have remade and remarked their territories whilst not giving a backward glance and – as if we need further reminders that we are all getting older – turning up in a neighbourhood you thought you knew is an alarming thing to do.  Great swathes of picket fence white estate agent signs illuminate previously hellish suburban streets where the homes of the Victorian lower clerk class robustly push the £1million mark and a Costa Coffee appears where before there was a local grocery store.  It’s the smooth, granite slickness of everything that sits badly.  The past, razor thin, has slipped beneath the paving slabs and everything looks as if it makes, breathes, sweats and spins money.  Well, West Hampstead has bucked the trend and seems to have missed the boat so completely I thought I’d got off the Jubilee Line in 1993.

West End Lane is a bottled up, diesel rich thoroughfare that celebrates a riot of transport networks.  You can get anywhere in London from West End Lane.  The Jubilee will take you through the West End and out to Canary Wharf, the Thameslink promises the delights of Luton Airport and Borehamwood, there is the Overground  London line that spools up from Richmond Park, out through Willesden Green and then on to Highbury and Hackney Fields, and there are about 5 bus routes, the most useful being the 328 that cuts it’s essentially useful path from Golders Green to Chelsea, which no tube line does.  Because of this, even in dire economic circumstances, the received wisdom was that any investment in this area was a good investment.  This idea held true during the last recession of the early 1990s, when this district was one of the few in London that had rising values.

So, they continue to rise – so far so normal in London – to these catastrophic heights we keep reading about on the news. But the central artery from which all the veins flow, West End Lane, remains a sluggish, despondent place.  The tarot shop next to the tube station has – bizarrely – stayed open all this time, and raven-haired women in the 40s descend upon it hoping to find hope and solace amidst the dusty silver trinkets in the window for at least twenty years now.  Caspian Travel still sits on the bridge, dispensing travel advice and booking air fares.  This in itself is bizarre : surely the one species relegated to extinction the moment the internet was founded was the travel agent?  Not in West End Lane.  Travel agents sit, perkily slurping instant coffee, arranging holidays that cost more than TripAdvisor to a generation of people who are scared of the t’internet and the ludicrously cheap holidays it promises.  The Bridge Cafe is still there, presiding over the ever weak bridge (the bridge used to be constantly closing due to efforts to strengthen it) and doling out food directly from 1985.  Travis Perkins’s soulless yard sits where it always did, next to Wickes.  The only change in the first parade of shops was the absence of Cafe Rouge which, in the 1990s, looked faintly exotic in an aspirational, Parisienne sort of a way.

The flats above the shops remain stuck in the 1980s – gruelling stairs, blackened windows, chipped paintwork and a lady, resplendent in a onesie and a towelling dressing gown, climbing out from the window onto the miniscule fire escape to smoke a fag.  The properties are long term unloved, and poignant with unrealised potential.  Someone should do them up and rent them for a song in a district like this.  Landlords are greedy and open to opportunity.  Why in the boom years has no one done this?  The smoke from the lady’s fag billows up and out until it hovers over the new gleaming Thameslink building down on the West Hampstead platform.

If the landlords ever did want to get themselves sorted out and develop these properties in this district, they’d treble their rents.  Plus they’d have no shortage of people to help because the one thing the West End Lane has bred more of in the last two decades is estate agents.  Behind the main avenue are the real deal monied flats: late 19th century red brick mansion blocks at exorbitant prices, these swoop up and over to Finchley Road in two directions – one towards West End Green and the other to South Hampstead.  They are packed, preened, painted and pretty.  West End Lane sits like a plain sister at a wedding who no one is asking to dance.  Tesco Metro has cropped up since I left (of course) and a Sainsburys Local, but the road is congested and blatantly refuses to take part in anything.  This is not simply about gentrification, this is also about things looking nice.  A shop can look nice without selling gentrified products, but it is alarming how hopeless West End Lane feels.   The restaurants are changed a little, but La Brocca remains, with its televised football bar and its mind-boggling toilet provisions.  West End Lane Books still trades – although I forgot what a small book shop it is – and whilst the cafes have changed their names, the manner of the clientele and the shabbiness of the menus appear to have defied time.

If I appear a little bit attached, its because too much of this lane – the lane that was so quiet in 1815 it was said you could hear the guns of the Battle of Waterloo whilst standing in it – runs through my blood. My grandparents met here, grandpa renting a flat at the time in West End Lane, shortly before being taken off to the war that would kill him, my parents courted off Iverson Road, my own brothers and me descended on the area like a rash in the mid-1990s and stayed until we were priced out, and our great great grandpa lived in Brondesbury Park, just down the road, in the 1870s.  So often in London we are visited by the shining gleam of the new rich, the mindless pursuit of money having challenged many of the neighbourhood eccentricities that not only do we hold dear, but show that once we passed this way.  I was depressed, frankly, that West Hampstead had so alarmingly and with such apparent visceral intent, missed the boat.  It’s odd to return somewhere you used to live, and find that you are changed, but London has not.  Usually its the other way around.  I wouldn’t mind so much if West End Lane was stuck in a slightly more pleasant timewarp.  Perhaps its destiny to be dreary is attached to the very thing that makes it a desirable location in the first place – the railway.  But this was a depressing sort of discovery that here there is so much wealth and so much care pouring into the homes in the district, but next to nothing pouring into the local thoroughfare and the flats above the shops.  This is a loveless, lovelorn street, and its report card for this term sounds much like my school reports card twenty years ago – it really must try harder.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday 6th March.  Thank you 

Queen For A Day

We all do it.  Don’t tell me you don’t.  An idle coffee break, or that lazy forty five minutes just  before The One Show.  What would you do if you were Queen for the day?  I would:

1.  Abolish the ukelele

2.  Make a Frenchman cry

3.  Shave off what paltry remains of hair Phil Tufnell possesses

4.  Get religion off public transport.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses that have recently started blocking up all the exits of Oxford Circus tube station every rush hour are only witnessing a series of disgruntled commuters who wish to elbow them out of the way.  At 8.12am on a Monday, no one on London Underground wants to hear about Judgement Day.  Too many of us are en route to a building where our employers judge us, and anyway, Judgement Days are SO last millenium.  That’s the JW’s tactic,  I reckon.  They get you when your soul is at its lowest ebb, first thing on a slightly hungover morning, when your  sleep deprived mind is dreaming of a better life.  After all, the JW’s are never there when anyone is actually going home, because that is when we feel happy.  “The end is near!  It’s the end of the line!” their faintly ungrammatical literature promises.  Well, they’re wrong.  It’s not the end of the line because everyone knows the Victoria Line terminates at Brixton.  Duh.

Recently I was opposite a faintly sickmaking advert for sex buddies.  Oh no, hang on, it was internet dating, you know the one for people who are too ugly or terrified to chat up strangers in pubs.  But this was no ordinary match.com scenario, my friend.  It was for a faith-based internet dating group.  Now, whilst I am not against that at all, I found their statement not only objectionable, but utterly devoid of meaning.  “Christians make better lovers”  it said.  Do they?   How many Hindus or Sikhs has this poster had intercourse with?  Have I missed some demon cunnilingus tips in the Book of Apostles or something?   Shall I carry out some market based research on this?    As a Jew I found this mildly upsetting, not to mention  a falsehood : you only need a brief perusal of the novels of Mr P Roth to see that we are, as a people, a vibrant mix of perversions, onanism and hair.  But the paucity of the statement was peculiar : on what basis are you judging whether someone is a better lover dependent on whether or not they follow a religion where a carpenter became a messiah?   This website is called Christians Connect.  Or something.  But you bear this in mind : somewhere there is a timid, churchgoing man about to go on his first date in six years, terrified that the Pentecostal lady he is about to take out for a light Italian meal will expect bizarre types of horizontal bedroom acrobatics. as promised in the poster.  She could sue trading standards if not.  After the “Christians Make Better Lovers” claptrap it goes on to produce such vomit-worthy stuff as say that “Christians believe in love” and that to “Love one another” is in a Christian’s code.  Is it?  What about the code of the other world faiths?  Does that sentiment not exist?  Oh yes, of course it doesn’t silly me!  All those violent, hating Buddhists, eh?   It’s a fucking outrageous advert.  Apparently Christian Connect say it is a joke, but even so it isn’t even a funny one, so what is the point?  They should have made a better joke.  (Jewish jokes tend to be better, perhaps they could have asked us for one of ours?)

On the Christian Connections website it states “Those in small churches often find it hard to meet enough single people” (why?  Are they hiding behind the altar?)  Surely if you have a religion then the first point of call to locate a husband would be the church.  The one thing you are guaranteed to locate inside a church is Christians.  Just like in the 1970s the one thing you were guaranteed to locate within the Geography department of a minor boy’s prep school would be a gentleman sadist with latent paedophilic tendencies.  It’s their lair.  It’s my guess that this was the original marketing ploy designed by the Romans in the first century AD.  “Climb on board this bizarre Levantine sect cult – we call it Christianity!  At least one climax guaranteed you lucky little lady – just sign on at the third chariot on the left”.  

There’s at least one other religious dating website (at least I think it’s religious) which is so covert and insiduous it fails to mention the religion it represents (my money’s on Occultists) but it doesn’t really matter which one it is because all these posters make you want to throw up.  Whilst I understand that some people are too stupid to Google “Where can I find people to date who might be of the same faith as me?”  and need this glaring posters, the whole thing is faintly bizarre.

Eighteen months ago, The Core Issues Trust were banned from using the sides of London buses to advertise gay therapy in a direct response to, and using the phrasing and colouring of, a Stonewall campaign that had just run.  Thinking that the sentiment of Stonewall’s “Some people are gay.  Get over it.”  was threatening somehow and might make people want to be divinely gay just because of what they had seen down the side of a No 98, Anglican Mainstream rubbed its three brain cells together to produce “Not gay, ex-gay, post-gay and proud! Get over it!”  which promoted spiritual and pastoral therapies to “cure” gay people, in an advert that made little sense to anyone on the planet.  I have met many gay people.  However, I am yet to meet a “not gay”, or “ex-gay”, or perhaps, most compellingly, “post-gay” person.  I have a “post-man” but somehow I don’t think that’s the same thing.  “Post-gay” sounds like a historical period – like post-war or a Victorian mode of transportation – post-chaise.

Boris Johnson banned the advert that the Core Issues Trust had created, stating it was offensive to gays.

Unsatisfied with this, and believing that they had been treated unfairly, the Core Issues Trust stated that Boris Johnson had unlawfully used his position as Chairman of Transport of London to get the advert banned.  They stated Johnson had used the banning of the advert for political gain : he had done it shortly before the 2012 Mayoral elections and then telephoned The Guardian to tell them he had done it.  So, as far as I can tell Johnson assured a newspaper’s reporters that London was not Sochi, and therefore not a suitable stage for gay “cure” propaganda and then attended an election.   Arrangements had also been made for Johnson to attend a Stonewall hustings the next day.

Johnson now has to go to the High Court to meet charges of banning this advert “improperly”.  

Let’s be clear :  Stonewall is a charity.  It works to ensure legal, social and cultural acceptance of all LGBT rights and eliminate prejudice.  It works to provide ordinary civil rights already granted to those who have them simply by the fact they’ve been born heterosexual. If a High Court seeks to define Boris attending a Stonewall hustings as political impropriety (there’s that Victorian word again…) is he also going to be accused of touting for votes from women who have had breast cancer if Marie Curie turn up?  Or of chasing the recovery vote if his hustings was to be sponsored by Alcoholics Anonymous?  Not really.  At what stage can a debate between a) accepting people and b) people who clearly have no ability to accept people, be played on a level playing field?  Anyone who refers to a person as “post-gay” needs their head examining.   Perhaps the most sinister thing about this case is that a basic affront to human rights, as attempted by the Core Issues Trust, has been turned into a political act. To use advertising to encourage bus travellers to punish a man for wanting to sleep with another man is not a political act.  It’s an inhuman one.

So, if I was Queen for the day, that’s what I’d do.  Give the Queens a break.  In addition, you’ll notice that the two examples I have given you today regarding religion on public transport have nothing to do with the word of God at all.  They are both selling sex, or lack thereof.  Because sex is the great litmus test : sex is the one thing that religions get a bit fuzzy around the edges about.  Only the Witnesses of Jehovah weren’t somehow sex obsessed in my sojourn around London’s religious fringes.  Perhaps religious advertising should come to terms with a home truth and admit they’re really just sex obsessed, and – like sex – be absolutely banned on public transport.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday 20th February.  Thank you.

London Tube Lines – a definitive ranking

An almost unheard-of Friday update for us here at The London Bluebird but Tom Phillip’s definitive ranking of London tube lines drew a large Friday grin from us here at Bluebird Towers this morning.  You can see it here:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/tomphillips/the-definitive-ranking-of-london-tube-lines

Wet January

Of all the months to go dry – and there are a dozen to choose from – only the perverse go for January.  The reasons are made apparent by our climate and our own financial imperatives : tax bills, credit card bills filled with nonentities from Christmas, dreary rain splattered socks that clump into the front door at a dark and intolerant 6.35pm, clouds, frizzy hair and a lack of the green stuff characterise this most disgustingly Puritan of months.  The only recourse to leisure that many of us can afford at this time of year is a very dry, very cold, crisp Gordons & Tonic sipped in the loveliest of hottest baths.  Even this – dearest Londoners – the Puritan begrudgers wish to take away from us.  Even this.   If you want to select a 30 day period to drop the alcohol, select a kinder month.  July is simply the best.  September runs her a close, pretty-leafed second.  But at this time of year we need all the props we can get.  And London excels in the vintage art of getting mullered.

Now, let’s be clear : here at The London Bluebird we are not talking about out and out addiction, or serious ethanol abuse.  We are talking about the invigorating effects of a aperatif or two.  The way the parachute of the conscience gently floats down after a hard day’s graft with a heartening sip of Chablis, the fizz and buckle and spit of a giddy tonic water and the Nordic, slightly sweet tangy Gin flavour as it flows in dainty ripples over the tonsils and the gushy of lemony hope that is a mouthful of champagne.  We are talking about this mood-enhancing drug as just that – an enhancer.  However, to those of us who believe we actually live in a vibrantly multi-religious, sort of secular, sort of “well there might be something up there but I don’t know.  All I know is I love a Christmas carol” nation, be wary : there a few things more illuminating to the English moral view than its tidy and sick making thoughts on tipsyness.  Because the over-riding dominant culture of England is represented by an innate suspicion and a disapproval of anything associated with bodily pleasure.

Over at The Guardian, we’re getting conflicted articles about whether temporary “dry” lifestyles are counter-productive and dull as last January’s dishwater (see the wonderful Eva Wiseman’s column : http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jan/19/giving-up-dry-january-eva-wiseman) or whether we should be supportive of those pillars of Puritan abstinence (see Lea Emery’s somewhat tooth-sucking article about how Americans think we’re all half-bladdered, vodka imbibing maniacs : http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/21/giving-up-alcohol-for-year).  Our society is embedded with drink and we are confused and exacerbated by the way we are meant to feel about it.   If you Google the word “Alcohol” you don’t get chemical information on its various components, as you would if you Googled “quinine”, or “lemonade” or “leprechauns”. It assumes you have a massive problem.  It assumes you don’t want to find out anything about alcohol, except possibly a way to stop imbibing it.  It assumes we are all crying for help.   “Stop drinking”, “What are you thinking when you’re drinking” “Don’t you know what a unit is you clump” and “I think you’re an alki” tend to be the top four websites.  Like pregnancy, that great biological phenomenon which would hardly exist if people weren’t unrelentingly mashed off their faces to start with, when it comes to alcohol intake everyone’s an expert.

What has happened in our culture is odd.  As we veer haphazardly through modern life, our ability to live in the moment becomes severely handicapped by the monstrous technical disturbances and social miseries of every day life.  Off we go, hurtling through that dust ridden tunnel on the District Line, fiendishly tapping our Waitrose shopping lists for later into the “Notes” app on our iPhones like some desperate, sullen Morse code.  This shift in failing to enjoy each moment seems to have gone hand in hand in Britain with a vast talent we have tapped in the last generation or so for caning it.  Never before the 1990s did the gutters of England become quite so congested with medical secretaries thighs rippling and falling into them having got munted on Vodka Red Bulls and AfterShocks.   But here’s the problem : in order to enjoy the physical and spiritual effects of ethanol, you have to live in the moment.  You can’t get drunk if you are stressed about the morning hangover that will follow, as the object has been resoundingly defeated.  Getting pissed / pixellated / tipsy / bladdered has been something we’ve done for approximately 10,000 years, ever since those first hunter gatherers returned from a hard day of animal slaying to be met by Wilma Flintstone standing at the cave entrance in a cardi made entirely from antelope’s testicles holding out a Slippery Nipple.  And that doesn’t look likely to change.

Now, a distilled beverage are our spirits – our 40%-ers.  Gin, vodka, whiskey, brandy and tequila being the main 5.  A fermented beverage is produced either from grain mash (beers) or grapes (wine).  With distilled beverages, the alcohol is concentrated and congeners are removed – and I believe that congeners is where the worst problems lie with the morning after.  Some of you would have been subject to having to listen to the most appalling old wives tales since infancy “You can get AIDS from cats” or “Tuesday usually comes after Monday”.  One of the silliest is “The darker the drink, the worse the hangover”.  Clearly, this seems barmy. The more you drink the worse the hangover, should be more accurate. But this does come from a kernel of truth : Congeners are a collection of chemicals that can contain other alcohols, and include acetone, acetaldehyde, esters and propanol.  Wine contains higher levels of them than spirits, and some believe that the hangover is worse if you down a bottle of something that contains higher levels of congeners.  This goes some way to explain my own inner chemical workings, which operate around the simple truth that if I drink half a bottle of red wine I want to weep all the way through the following day, but I can have four spirit based drinks, guzzle them back, go to sleep and wake up nearly fresh as a daisy.  In other words, spirits help you do what none of our hand-clenching, Protestant moral policeman wants.  The spirits help.  You.  Get.  Away.  With.  It.  Not completely – but it does go a fair way.  In short, you are allowed the euphoria without the misery which we feel, as guilty imbibers of the grain, that we need to experience for some sort of Victorian moral redemption.

In Plato’s Symposium the revellers placed their drinking firmly in a moral framework, conscious of the physical, spiritual and moral implications of alcohol, although it is key to remember that they did this specifically because they were hungover to start with.  Their intentions did win through – moderate drinking characterised the following night for them (that and the lovely stripper brought in from Mykonos)  but it smacks of the “oh, never again” sentiment that classifies those post-drunk mornings paved with good intentions.  The intentions vanish when the hangover clears up.  It is unfortunate that human nature is like that.  But  it seems we’ve been struggling to situate our drinking within a morally acceptable dimension ever since Plato.  Herodotus suggested that the Persians hit on a magnificent system : each political debate had to take place twice, once whilst everyone was drunk and once again when they had all sobered up, therefore relying on a full expression of the self.  The results were then collected and weighed up.   The Roman historian Tacitus stated that the Germans always drank whilst holding councils as they didn’t believe anyone could lie effectively whilst being drunk.  The Romans, of course, left us with our best known phrase about the 3am dark truth of the soul : “In vino veritas” (In wine, truth), and this is a very peculiar phenomenon.  As if the sober mind cannot see the wood for the trees, alcohol distils not only the grain, but the perceptive muscle.  We’ve all had that sneaky Chablis epiphany.  It comes in waves, and it’s not altogether to be dismissed that it comes only late at night.  But the truth, singed and tinged with old slices of lemon and found at the bottom of sticky glasses, will always come to you at some point.   The most brilliant recent case in point of shards of truth and perception coming crashing through Gordons and tonics was Caitlin Moran’s drunken New Year’s Eve advice to women this year, all of which was bang on the nose, and which I have referred to several times :  http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/_mobile/celebs/entertainment/caitlin-moran-advice-to-women

The glaringly efficient muscles of the day time consciousness don’t allow it to transcend oer your brain but if you’re slightly raddled and chemically compromised, it’s hardly surprising that the revelations come.  It’s not just the Romans who told us this either.  Take a gander at: 

Russian : Что у трезвого на уме, то у пьяного на языке» (“What a sober man has in his mind, the drunk one has on his tongue”).

The  Babylonian Talmud :  “נכנס יין יצא סוד”, ( “Wine enters, secrets exit”).

Persian :  مستی و راستی (“With drunkenness comes the truth”).

Chinese :   (“After wine blurts truthful speech”).

This, of course, all fails to take into account whether the truth is what anybody actually wants to hear, when it’s 3am, The Best of The Pet Shop Boys is bleating electronicially from someone’s iPad, the couple shouting in the kitchen have just agreed to a divorce in a very lively fashion and you are working out whether a minicab will, once you have located your other shoe, come out to collect you from Herne Hill.

I am not, dearest Londoners, all advocating we blindly career into the streets for a Dickensian Dog’s Nose (warm beer, cold beer and gin) nor that we should make January decidedly wet and hungover.  I am simply questioning the purpose of absolute abstinence for your brain or your soul, and suggesting we shave off the edges of our evenings with a civil imbibing session – for, if this was your last month on the planet you wouldn’t seriously expect to spend it sipping rhubarb and dead man’s pants tea whilst being scared of the scales cowering under the bathroom sink, would you?  Dear Londoners – eat, drink and make merry.   And take this closing advice from Yeats:

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
Bottoms up.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  Or not, perhaps, if you are too busy dousing yourself in liquor at the local hostelry, you slut.  We shall be back for another instalment two weeks from now on Thursday February 6th and very much look forward to seeing you then.  The London Bluebird x

Heeeeeeyyy! Whose been given the Freedom of the City then?

The Freedom of the City of London is one of the oldest surviving ceremonies, dating back to 1237,.  Among its privileges were the right to a walk the streets with a drawn sword or be hung with a silken rope.   The list of recipients contains no unifying characteristic – William Booth has received this illustrious Freedom, but so has Jimmy Choo.  Joseph Chamberlain received it, but so did Luciano Pavarotti, who I imagine was deeply comforted by such privileges as enjoying “the right to be drunk and disorderly in the Square Mile without fear of arrest” and an “exemption from being press ganged” although I consider it unlikely that anyone would have wanted him on their ship anyway because he’d sink it the minute he arrived on board. Someone, clearly drunk, saw fit to give it to Annie Lennox.  Now it is the turn of Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, who stars in pantomime every year in Britain, and who has been granted this bizarre, outdated honour due to the work he has done with children with learning difficulties here in London.

However, the idea of being a Freeman (which rendered the person free from medieval serfdom) is not any longer imbibed with any meaning.  Any medieval privileges that the title may have inferred are now obsolete.  It is therefore nothing more than a symbolic “Freedom”.  Not even the kind of Freedom that George Michael sung about.  Not even the Freedom of the Road that Nelson Mandela’s life story was about. Nada.  No longer can the Fonz drive his cattle and sheep over the bridge on his daily route to Smithfield Market.  Nor can he any longer have the right to walk around with his naked sword drawn in the City of London.  No longer is he, as a Freeman, in possession of the right to get married in St Paul’s Cathedral. So entrenched and restricted was UK democracy before the 1832 Reform Bill, that gaining “Freeman” status meant you reached the heady civic heights of actually having a right to vote, and be exempt from the tolls and charges that the City used to have over all its bridges.     As the current Freeman status has no literal meaning, the UK did what it remains good at to reinstate the law as a symbolic one – it wasted time creating an Act of Parliament.  The 1972 Local Government Act established honorary Freemen status to “persons of distinction and persons who have, in the opinion of the council, rendered eminent services” to the local area.  This has not been adhered to by the City of Salford, however, as it gave The Freedom of the City to Ryan Giggs in 2010, as clearly the Aldermen of Salford are not aware that sexual incontinence is not considered an “eminent service” to the local community – or even to your own sister in law.

But what is the point of bestowing an archiac honour that is ripe with meaning but low on practicalities?  Why does it mean anything to our civic lives?  Well, the Freedom of the City is the only honour that a local authority can bestow.  The only other authority who can bestow honours is The Queen.  Although the Queen’s honour lists are highly policed (I imagine.  I don’t know.  My hotline to the Palace was closed down since I made those calls to Prince Andrew) by the civil service and a whole host of doers, and thinkers, and advisors and counsels, the Queen’s honours is not a democratic process.  Bestowing The Freedom of The City onto the Fonz, however, would have been : council majority must be won by whatever local authority is proposing  any contender for The Freedom of the City.  The only obsolete privilege of a Freeman of the City which is occasionally resurrected for publicity or raising the profile of a charity has been driving sheep or lamb across London’s bridges.  This has been done seven times in the last fifteen years by Freemen of the City who were keen to draw attention to a number of causes, from Help the Aged to publicising the start of London Architecture Week.  The City Police are not keen on this, but yet they allow it as an occasional treat. In Millenium Year, Sir Clive Martin arranged for a professional sheep drive across London Bridge, subjecting the sheep to a high quality pamper first including blow drying their hair and polishing their hooves.  The sheep were then dressed in bright yellow bibs prior to their moment of fame.  Strangely enough, the certificate of Freedom of the City is still produced by the court calligrapher on sheepskin parchment.  I can only hope the sheep was not a cast member from the 2000 sheep drive.

I’m going to stop bleating on about sheep.  The only Freedom of the City for London that still exists is access to the Freemen School without a fee, and the right for the widow of a Freeman to live in the Freeman’s Almshouses, should she so desire.  Of course, the Fonzie doesn’t have the right to vote, as he is not a UK resident, and I would suggest that annual appearances in Hampshire pantomimes may serve to keep him safe from the charitable almshouse door.  Until 1996 you had to be a UK resident in order to have the Freedom of The City of London granted to you at all.  But in the late 1990s they just went mental and opened it up to anyone Tom Dick or Harry that fancies his / her slice of our gay metropolitan freedoms.  Fonzie is not real.  He exists in the baby blue and pink coloured 1950s jukebox of our collective teenage imaginations.  I for one am delighted that the City of London is open to him, as he had such a beneficial effect on all our childhoods.  He was the Cool Man, atop his throne in Planet Cool.  We as Londoners are proud as punch to have him.

Should the Freeman of the City be lucky enough to have his application accepted, he will be granted an audience with the Chamberlain’s Court Beadle.  This is always a problem in England, because as soon as anyone hears the word “beadle” in London they feel compelled to sing the entire score of the musical “Oliver!” ending in a rousing rendition of Mr Bumble, the Beadle’s “Boy for Sale”.  This is a song that is a bit like “Love for Sale” but it is about a boy.  The Chamberlain’s Court Beadle then presents the happy recipient of the Freedom of the City to a terrifying man in tights who is called The Clerk of the Chamberlain’s Court.  Then the applicant of the Freedom of The City must recite the following load of stuff.  But wait! It isn’t about the City!  It’s about the Queen!

Get this:

I do solemnly declare that I will be good and true to our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second; that I will be obedient to the Mayor of this City; that I will maintain the franchises and customs thereof, and will keep this City harmless, in that which in me is; that I will also keep the Queen’s peace in my own person; that I will know no gatherings nor conspiracies made against the Queen’s peace, but I will warn the Mayor thereof, or hinder it to my power; and that all these points and articles I will well and truly keep, according to the laws and customs of this City, to my power.

Non British and British Commonwealth Citizens have the option to substitute “our Sovereign Lady” with “Her Majesty”.

I mean it’s a bit of a mouthful isn’t it?  And it’s all about being obedient to Boris Johnson, and keeping tradition with our customs etc, but it’s a bit low to assume said applicant wants to blow the Queen up (“conspiracies made against the Queen’s peace) or start a war.  Oh.  Hang on.  They actually gave The Freedom of The City to Lord Kitchener in 1898.  Whoops.  So, what does this mean?  You are legally obliged to warn the Mayor if shit is going down to risk the Queen’s peace?  This is not an empty symbolic role about sheep!  This is someone playing an intricate part in the great court of our constitutional monarchy!  The way I understand it is this:  If stuff is happening that isn’t good and that is going to blow Parliament up it’s up to Henry “The Fonz” Winkler to detect it, with Annie Lennox as his second in command, arrange an audience with the Mayor and inform him of said plot against Queen in due course.  Right.  We can all rest easy then.  Happy Days.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday January 23rd! 

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Should Auld New Year’s Eve Be Forgot?

You have to understand – I just hate it.  Some of my worst nights have been New Year’s Eve Parties.  I propose absolute abolition.  New Year’s Eve is the worst thing that happens to you all year.  At least when the tax bill has to be paid in late January you know you must have earned some money in the first place in order to be punished by HMRC, but New Year’s Eve is melancholic punishment with no pay off, standing in tight heels at a party given by someone you don’t like knowing you can’t go home for another four hours.  And you’re in Putney.  I hate the feeling of the year being sucked away from under our feet and the onward, terrible onslaught of time.  I also really resent the fact that, here in the northern hemisphere, New Year’s Eve more or less coincides with the shortest amount of daylight any one day can receive.  By 3.45pm, with our Christmas-full bellies regurgitating last night’s Rennie tablets and the cold, wintry branches of naked trees leering at us from cul de sac gardens, the year ends and the sky turns royal and then navy blue.  That’s it.  The end of the daylight for the year.  Always with a whimper rather than a bang, and usually soundtracked by ITV2’s fourth viewing of Mary Poppins of the holiday period.  I am not a depressive but am prone to occasional – and very attractive – outbursts of melancholia.  Nothing smacks of melancholia more than the timid, quiet fading of cold light on a dank and rainy New Year’s Eve and all the electric lights in your house burning wildly by teatime.

By New Year’s Eve your head and liver have had it.  They have, to all intents and purposes, planned to move on.  Your head is plotting miserabilist puritan lifestyles for January.  Your liver is essentially down on its knees, begging for milk thistle supplements.  You’re always thirsty.  Your family are everywhere, all of them, all at once in a way that makes everyone feels fifteen.  Somewhere in your PAYE-mind you were encouraged to look forward to this holiday all year, and yet now you are staring down the barrel at work starting up again, a torrid feeling of ennui launches itself out of nowhere and socks you on the jaw.  Another year has gone.  You’re older.  You have white hairs.  People have died.  Shit happens.  And now they want you to go out and celebrate it. 

The laws of New Years Eve are murky.  All year the clocks have been whirring along superfast – one minute it’s March and it seems only a moment later we are basking in the heat of August in the Med and it seems whenever it’s time to book another wax you’ve only just had one.  Then, as 7.31pm strikes in the suburbs, the clock that has been spinning fast all year slows to a painfully slow place.  You are standing beside a bowl of blighted peanuts in a house twenty miles from your own and people you used to employ on a semi-self-employed basis are on telephones trying to buy drugs as they think it’s 1998.  There are crudites.  There are neighbours and the insolent logic of time dictates that another 4 hours and 29 minutes of the insufferable indignity of watching middle aged people take illegal substances in that once-a-year way whilst everyone makes painful conversations with strangers must be endured before we can all go home and put our slippers on. That’s what we all really want to do.  But modern life is constructed in such a sick-making way that you are made to feel that if you want to spend a quiet evening at home with the cat and a good book, which is what you need after five days of festivities, you are a sad sack of a person.  The implication is you will be found, years from now, dead under the cat, (where you have been for several months, alone) with your bones poking through the elbows of your cardigan.   This is all topsy turvy kids.  It’s the people who want to propel themselves headfirst into the Trafalgar Square fountains whilst off their tits we should as a nation be concerned about.

I once saw the New Year in on the Northern Line between Hampstead and Belsize Park.  I once saw it in at a Covent Garden wine bar (remember those? It’s now a branch of Next) at a small table covered with a red cloth where I was watching my brother’s band lead the Auld Lang’s Syne rendition, which meant the only person I got to say Happy New Year too was a bass player called Colin who happened to be sitting at the table.  I saw one New Year in at a nightclub where people were having a variety of reactions to unsavoury pills on the worst patterned carpet you have ever seen.  I have seen it in twice in a Chinese restaurant.  I have seen it in once asleep.  I once choreographed being in the lav of a Mornington Crescent pub on the stroke of a midnight of New Year’s Eve six months after my father died so I didn’t have to have Happy New Year said to me.  I once saw it in in a chair in someone’s living room in Pinner.  The last party I went to was in 2001, somewhere in Parsons Green.  People are still recovering from that one. In 2002 I did something really outlandish.  I stayed in on my own.  And it was brilliant.

I shall never accept a New Year’s Eve Party invitation.  Even getting one brings me out in hives, so don’t send me one.  I have been to several of these dreadful events and always seemed to end up asleep under a fur coat whilst a happier couple would descend upon me and try to snog.  Someone also needs to explain to alcohol that it doesn’t work on New Year’s Eve.  Alcohol really shouldn’t be your drug of choice.  Because unless you are Oliver Reed, you will have a three hour period in which you feel bonny as can be on alcohol.  After the initial three hour period your stomach, which has been working overtime all week, starts to protest.  You start to worry about being sick, about having a nice lie down, about why the room has the audacity to keep on spinning.  Usually this would herald the end of the evening, and your butler would be summoned to saddle up the horses.  But it’s 9.49pm on New Year’s Eve and you have to stay there not only for two hours until midnight but for another hour after midnight, so it doesn’t look rude to your hosts.  So you have to sit there and feel like crap for three hours.  And it’s the worst start to a year when you have vomit drooling out of the corner of your over-stuffed mouth.  Then, annoyingly, after midnight people who are dealing with substances (and I’m not exactly talking about the icing sugar on top of the Christmas Cake) start becoming quite effervescent in their social excitement.  In fact, talking and drooling and boring is all they can do – and they are doing it – sometimes for hours.  The event ramps up to the awful horror of The Second Wind.  The Second Wind is like The Second World War but lasts longer and there are more psychic casualties.   Blabber blabber jabber jabber go the cocaine mouths in the corner, and you lie back on the Habitat sofa and pray for death.  They think it’s quarter past one in the morning, but it’s actually half past eight on January 1st and someone’s putting the bacon on the grill.

The worst thing of all was to be in your 20s on the New Year to end all New Year’s, a.k.a Millenium Eve.  Millenium Eve was a fucking appalling idea.  It was so awful that they thought planes would fall randomly out of the sky and everyone’s computer would explode.  Wow, that must be some party, we thought.  Being in your mid-20s, as I was, and not going out on New Year’s Eve to refresh your relationship with the stimulants of the day was unthinkable.  Social suicide.  Not that we had a clue what to do, of course.  We hadn’t had a Millenium Eve since before the Battle of Hastings, so weren’t sure what the dress code was (Saxon sack over Normandy shoes?)  But we knew we absolutely had to do something thrilling.  And it was going to cost a fortune.  And we thought it was going to be something we were going to tell our grandchildren about.  Although, why my grandchildren will want to hear about a vaguely damp evening in a big house in Reading that started with champagne in a chilly marquee and ended up with me watching Doris Day on ITV at 6am whilst carefully removing a smouldering cigar from my sleeping brother’s hand is anyone’s guess.  My friend had an argument with another friend, and having really stirred that up, had an argument with my brother’s friend for good measure.  We stared at a big television coated in a large white bedsheet (the theme was Arthurian legend.  I still don’t know what the bedsheet was all about) and watched stupid fireworks come out of the stupid Eiffel Tower in a silly line.  Earlier we had watched some hugely excitable people in a remote corner of the Solomon Islands or some such place giddily enter the new millenial age whilst dancing around in circles.  We tried to take Prince’s advice but partying like it was 1999 is a tall order.  You cannot command the entire globe to have fun just because some woman gave birth on a donkey’s bed to a carpenter two thousand years before.  It’s like forcing millions of people to enjoy themselves, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s people enjoying themselves.

Which begs the point – what is the point of New Year’s Eve?  I quite understand the point of Christmas Day if you are a Christian, but this New Year’s Eve bollocks is beyond understanding.  And it’s not just the excuse to have a party, because that’s what birthdays were invented for.  It’s like a festival with no saint, a party with no birthday boy, a celebration devoid of meaning.  And London gets treated like a whore, frankly.  People invade, fuck everything up and leave.  Most self-respecting smart Londoners head for holiday cottages, and those of us who are not smart stay behind and avoid the West End and it’s glut of out-of-towners intent on mayhem.  The city gets tense and braces itself for something that looks like the last days of Rome.   The next morning it smells like the last days of Rome too, with sick and broken Moet bottles cluttering up the gutters and St John Ambulance men on overtime.

The best way to celebrate New Year’s Eve is to celebrate New Year’s Day instead.  Go for a bracing walk in the bright winter sun and stride off whatever hangover you might have got by downing that extra vat of cherry brandy the evening before during Jool’s Hootenanny.  Because in England, telly is the thing.  Stay in.  Pull the curtains to.  Put the cat out.  Cook a little supper and toast the New Year with your loved one.  Get some rest before the year starts with riotous abandon a few days later.  You’ll be glad you did.  You can even go radical and go to bed at 10.30pm with cocoa, but because you’re nearer 40 than 30 no one cares.  Have a good one and a safe one.  Have a lovely break.  We at The London Bluebird look forward to seeing you in 2014, and wish a Happy New Year to you all.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is updated every two weeks, so we look forward to seeing you on January 2nd 2014 – unless you are still out caning it on New Year’s Eve, in which case we look forward to welcoming you back when you finally surface at some point in February.  xx

NigellaGate

BRITAIN-PEOPLE-TELEVISION-FOOD-DRUGS

Has Charles Saatchi utterly lost it?  Perhaps in his failed ploy to dominate and humiliate his ex-wife he ought to, at some stage, have done two things : tried this act on someone weaker and tried his act on someone stupider.  The overwhelming sense to have emerged from this week’s circus over at Isleworth Crown Court (the very name Isleworth could not be further at odds with the drama played out in its courtrooms) is that Our Nige is a stalwart and formidable opponent who may very well, dearest readers, haul Saatchi and his jiffy bags full of cash that he kept on top of the Smeg, off to the cleaners.  Fact.  No one could vanquish the fabulous elegance of that nude lipline, hovering delightfully between vanquished Queen and distressed matron.   How could he have missed what the rest of the nation knows?  How could the public’s likeability of her and admiration for her have passed so randomly through his mediocre line of vision?  Does he even know how to create a lemon sponge?  I very much doubt it.  This isn’t about sex, or cake. It isn’t even about sexy cake.  This is about using and exploiting the public to vilify your ex, and I’m sure that we all have ex’s lurking about in the grimy chapters of our history we would wish to do this to.  But, by golly, we don’t all do it.  This is mainly because we lack the power and the money to do so, and Saatchi’s somewhat bizarre obsession with focusing a trial that is about two Italian villainesses who have been holidaying in Maldives courtesy of his Coutts Gold Card onto his ex-wife is a perfect illustration of what happens when a control freak has power, has money and is determined to do the devil’s work with it.

Look, okay.  so Nigella has said she has liked to toot from time to time.  I mean, is this 1995?  Is this really shocking?  Yes, it’s a criminal act, but if everyone who ever tooted was immediately imprisoned half the people in the country (and all of the people on Fleet Street) would instantly disappear.  I fail to see the relevance to knowing what Ms Lawson puts between her perfect nostrils in the larger scheme of things.  What about the bitches who nabbed nearly £700,000 on Maldives holidays and snazzy jewellery?   Nigella’s occasional drug use in the past goes no way to explaining why her Blakean Fish Pie continues to elude me.  It doesn’t help me in my quest for a perfect Italian Christmas, which I shall prepare with perfect dark brown tresses whilst wearing a well-fitting bra under a scarlet cashmere button up cardigan.  It doesn’t make me or her less of a domestic goddess and it certainly isn’t that interesting.   Make no mistake : Saatchi has not simply misjudged his ex-wife’s tenacity and strength under fire.  He has managed to misjudge the entire country’s view of her.  Then we come to the third thing that Saatchi has underestimated, and I find it astonishing to believe that he has done so: the canny attitude the British people now have to their own press.

There was a time when we couldn’t see the strings being pulled.  The idea of a media mogul pulling and twisting headlines to their own advantages was culturally more foreign to us a generation or two ago.  But we have been cultivated into a sense of knowingness.  We post-Leveson, Metro-reading purveyors of tittle and tattle have one eyebrow raised all the time these days.  The newspaper business is at best, pretty dead, and at worst, a cacophony of self-mutilated loathings, crocodile tears, paid lackeys and those impressed on emotional manipulation of readers via a whole range of dastardly practices.  We no longer read the news believing what we are imbibing is information.  We read the news like anxious cats, ears cocked, eyes narrowed, knowing we are being pushed to feel a certain way.  Saatchi, confusingly for someone so highly intelligent, is not articulate in this art of comprehending the canny reader.  How gullible did he think the reading public were?  This is a man who made his fortune by using and exploiting perception.  Saatchi could take an idea and turn people on to it.  You could go some way to argue that it was Saatchi & Saatchi that went some way to making jaded, knowing media slags of us all.  This was, in its time, the largest advertising company in the entire world, the only thing larger than it being the size of the frames on Maurice Saatchi’s glasses.  How could someone who had such technical ability to make people buy into the sentiments and values of his adverts misfire so spectacularly regarding people’s emotions  when it comes to his ex-wife?  It is alarming that a man of his experience has got it so wrong.   Did he truly believe that we, like a classroom full of excited three year olds, would be distracted by the tinsel being waved at us by the clown in the corner:  “No!  Never mind the thieves who are actually on trail here for the robbery of £685,000 of luxury goods and to whom the focus of this criminal activity should be on.  Focus on her!  She had a spliff, THE COW.”

Plus, the QC, Metzer, isn’t that bright, really.  This is a problem as Lawson is extremely clever. What was all that tripe yesterday about implying that Lawson’s background was in some way more “liberal and bohemian” than Saatchi’s? Is the implication here supposed to be that the liberals and bohemians basically have raw cocaine shoved up their nostrils from the age of 2, whereas the son’s of Iraqis who ended up in Finchley selling textiles (Saatchi Senior) does not?  Indeed, Lawson’s riposte to this was perfect.  When questioned whether she felt her background may have been at odds with Saatchi’s due to overtones of louche liberalism because she took cocaine with her mortally ill (now dead) husband, she replied “I feared my father might take exception to that” with all the patrician bounty that only a Tory Lord’s daughter could.  I mean Metzer practically fed her the line, and, thereby, her victory on that point.  Of all the people to throw that desperate line to, you select a Tory Peer’s daughter?  Is Metzer a fool too?  Are they all?  Has the world gone utterly bonkers?  So, my verdict on Saatchi is either 1) He still loves her, and is blinded by rejection, 2) He is as mad as a hatter or 3) both.  In which case I’m not sure even Nigel Lawson is safe.

This brings us to other great unanswered question of this trial : Why, oh why, does Nigel Lawson not have a hoover?  How difficult is it to fit one into his pied a terre?  Why were these greedy guts bent on thievery being despatched in taxi cabs across Victoria with a hoover to clean the flat of a man who has jowls so big he could quite easily use them for storing a Dyson?   And then coming back in taxis to Belgravia with damp washing and a grandiose selection of Lord Lawson’s smalls because he doesn’t own a tumble dryer?   He used to run the Exchequer.  Why can’t he operate a clothes horse?  I bet he’s fucking got one now.  I bet he never wants to let a cleaner in ever again after this lot.  I bet he’s thinking he got lucky that those two girls didn’t run off with his special Margaret Thatcher 70th birthday at Chequers cufflinks.  I bet he’s now checking the video cupboard to ensure his copy of “How to Stop the British Economy Dead in its Tracks in Five Easy Steps!” on VHS hasn’t been lifted by those two villainesses.

Still, back to Charles “No one is as Wise as Moi” Saatchi.  You see, it’s a never-ending hell he has consigned himself to now.  And the more he behaves in this way, the more those fence-sitters who can’t quite be arsed with Nigella, or those who didn’t quite like Nigella (and there are people who don’t like her.  Not all of whom are Anti-Semites) have their milk of human kindness stimulated to such a point that they veer over to TeamNigella at 80 miles per hour.  Saatchi, it can only be assumed, is on a one man mission to become his own worst enemy.  As if his physical demeanour isn’t sinister enough, he is now revealed to be even more of a psycho than we previously thought.  According to Lawson’s evidence today, he only allowed her to hold dinner parties once every two years and they had a 12 foot by 12 foot silver room in their Eaton Square home filled with only tea services and candlesticks.  Tea services and candlesticks.  This is Howard Hughes mad.  This is “golly it’s so insane I can’t turn my eyes away from the court live feed” doo lally.  She’ll not refer to it again, make another television show next year, turn to the camera and lovingly lick a spoon free of organic toffee, British male knees will be set a-trembling and the entire episode will melt away in the past(a).   Apparently Saatchi didn’t like her to do the washing up, so she’d call the cleaner to come over and do it, which she would, if she wasn’t already in Cannes on a spending spree.  It must have been to save her hands.  Well, he needn’t have bothered.   She’s responding with dignity and strength.  She’s come out of this marriage with her hands, and he, it seems, is playing right into them.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you on 19th December for our final instalment of 2013!  Thank you. 

Feeling chilly?

As the mercury drops by several degrees all at once, London breathes out befuddled coffee breath into stark, white thin air.  It’s snowing up north, apparently.  Scotland is deluged with the stuff.  Good news for Santa C’s arrival on the 24th Dec but bad news for those attempting to traverse the Highlands on anything other than a robust pair of skis.  In London, it’s just got that sky-like-a-white-sheet look about it, as it the sky is startled and something interesting is about to take place.  But the national news this morning is that we are in for the coldest, snowest, ice-tingliest winter since 1947, where the only thing that wasn’t rationed was the weather.

According to medical advisers, it’s when the temperature drops to -15 degrees that hospitals start to get seriously overstretched and the older and more physically vulnerable are at risk of dying.  At this point, we can be grateful we don’t live in the third century A.D.  They didn’t even have anywhere to go to the toilet then, let alone any hospitals.  London was so chilly that the River Thames froze for 9 weeks in 250 A.D.  This brought about two ideas – the invention of the ice rink, and the start of the London Frost Fairs.  When I first heard about this I thought it meant the local maidens lined up opposite Sadie Frost on May Day and told her how fair and lovely she was, but it turns out this was icier than Sadie Frost, a.k.a. Sadie, Sadie, NOT married lady.  Yes,  icier than that.  In fact during the Middle Ages London was so cold that the Thames froze annually, whereupon it became a useful traffic-free road for the distribution of goods and, after that, partying.  This wasn’t so much to do with the idea that England was colder in the olden days, but rather the Thames was shallower and wider.  Therefore, it was easier for the water to totally freeze for most of January and February.  The Thames wasn’t properly embanked and generally sorted out until the 1860s, whereupon it got busier, deeper, narrower, filthier and crammed with odious fat floating restaurants offer dinner dances and midnight “cruises”.   Henry VIII was really fat, when he let himself go, and even he was said to have travelled up the icy Thames by sleigh to impress a lady he was hoping to make the seventh Mrs Henry, or something, and the ice held him.

However, the really really big one was the Great Frost of 1683-84.  It started on December 20th and ended on February 6th. Hackney coaches zoomed across the iced Thames, touting for fares, there was bull baiting, horse racing, puppet fares and “tipling”.  I’ve no idea what tipling is, but I reckon it was a transaction featuring the oldest profession in the world, but on ice.  Shops were built upon it so that the Thames became another street, and the King and Queen eventually roasted an entire ox on the Thames and ate it.  But this was the exception.  Most London Frost Fairs were short lived and it was often a race as to who would get off the ice safely before the river started melting.  The very last one was 1814, which featured a majestic interlude of an elephant being led across the ice whilst cold Londoners, shuffled their feet together, mouths agog in the chill.

In the Great Frost of winter 1708-1709, temperatures were recorded as low as -12degrees – but that was only because someone had the thermometer in Queen Anne’s pants.    Anyway, Queen Anne thought the Great Frost of 1708 a nasty Jacobite lie, an idea dealt a severe blow when it went ahead and killed quite a lot of French people. It was the coldest European winter for 500 years, and many people felt that it was downright ridiculous and that something should be done about it.

Since its embanking and the wider arches of the new London Bridge were installed, thereby affecting the flow of the river, our Thames doesn’t freeze over.  This is a great great shame.  We could add a new dimension to our New Year’s Eve fireworks display by having a sort of ice skating X Factor special which combines Dancing on Ice with The Great British Bake Off.  The cast of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! would have to compete in sleigh-racing contests and we could fly Robbie Williams in for a ice-skating rendition of his most popular classics.  Then once the winter is over we could bury him in a sort of Egyptian funeral under a tonnage of snow and ice and then the pagans can dance on him.  We have snowballs and gin and tonics with lots of ice and then we shall laugh and laugh.

Snowfall confuses the English anyway.  2 centimetres of the stuff can send the entire country into a hysterical mess.  The national obsession with the weather confounds even a central heating obsessive like me.  Why must we speak of the weather, debate the weather and worry about the weather?  Answer : we are a nation of skivers.  We love the leaves on the track, the cancelled trains, the beauteous hush that makes its gracious descent on the suburbs on a snowfilled Tuesday morning when you know you aren’t going anywhere.  We like anything that stops us going to work (this may go some way to understanding the popularity of Royal Weddings.  It can’t all be down to a nation goggle-eyed at Princess Anne’s drip-dry two pieces looming out at us from a Cathedral).  We love anything that makes us put the telly on a half past ten in the morning.  Our national character is aligned with the “Ooh, pop the kettle on and let’s watch the snow on the news with a custard cream” philosophy of skiving.  It’s skiving without admitting you’re skiving.  It’s snow skiving – it’s not our fault, you know, it’s the damn weather – whilst wearing thick socks and worrying about getting a sled to take us up to Tesco.  It’s also the smuggest time of year for the non-driver.   The delight of saying “Oh, I’ll just pop the temperature on at 15 for the whole of the night” as you slope off to a chilly bed feels terribly decadent as well.  After all, this is a country where most people pride themselves on not putting the heating on until November 1st when there are icicles hanging attractively from their noses and their bottoms have frozen up completely.

Brace it, kids.  It looks like we’re in for a long haul.  I may be paraphrasing here, but I think in Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing, her memoir of rereading every book in her house, she strongly advocated “Throw another log onto the fire.  It’s Dickens for the winter”.  I think the only retreat worth making is into the backroads of Victorian literature, with its hardy constitutionals, breathless Brontes scaling West Yorkshire hills and playful street vagabonds flourishing in a London winter with no socks on.  Now’s the time to retire, close the curtains and bolster up the heating whilst secretly yearning for a wood burner.  It’s going to be a long winter.  Still, at least we’re not in Russia.  Or at least, you could be with this long winter beckoning ahead.  War & Peace anyone?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday December 5th!  Many thanks. The London Bluebird.

Review : David Baddiel “Fame” – Purcell Rooms

Gosh, but the Queen Elizabeth Hall is a spooky place.  Built in 1967, accessible only via a concrete flight of stairs just above the skateboarding bit of the South Bank complex and not – I discover to my fury – named after Elizabeth Taylor, it remains welded inside a late 1960s, architectural nightmare.  The toilets are especially weird.  Unchanged, the toilet paper dispenses from oval-shaped holders that may have doubled as a prop from the first series of Doctor Who.  The flush is resounding, as flushes on loos used to be.  It is a sad truth, but as the British have consumed less beef, boiled puddings and suet and swapped them for chorizo, lamb pasanda and Pret a Manger sushi, the British toilet has lost its imperial flushing zeal.  But the Queen Elizabeth Hall toilets know what they are about.  They’re the kind of loo you can imagine Richard Burton sitting on whilst smoking a fag and flicking ruefully through The Sunday Mirror.

In the Queen Elizabeth Hall terribly well dressed and terribly tidy middle class people resolve not to complain about the shocking Rioja they get in plastic glasses filled to the brim.  The wine inside the glasses tastes of damp November twilights and disappointment.  Beady eyed matrons rustle The Saturday Telegraph Arts supplement and eat Hob Nobs which they secreted in their handbags earlier back in Epsom.  It seems a very odd place indeed to go and see a part stand up, part memoir reflection on fame by David Baddiel, but here we are – his novels precariously piled up in a pile on a 1967 style table by the toilets, a smattering of patrons awaiting a classical concert in a room that smells of school.  Outside, the sky farts and creaks its way through the darkness of the first night after the clocks have gone back.  Oh I do apologise, all of this is making an evening with D Baddiel sound rather gothic and it really isn’t.  But the venue was a terribly weird idea.  It’s Waterloo for a start, and no one wants to go to the other side of the river unless it’s life and death / on a promise/ imminent nuclear attack due in North London.  But there were many other venues that would have served this show better – the UCL theatre, the glorious spaces of The Soho Theatre or even a week crammed into the sweaty intimacy of Islington’s Kings Head.

There were probably some other support acts that may have served this show better, or maybe he was having an off night, but unfortunately the support failed to connect with the audience.  Audience members appeared disgruntled during the interval foisted upon them between Starter and Main Dish.  The couple behind me were roues of the televised comedy scene, reminiscing about their evenings in pockets of West London seeing 8 Out of 10 Cats being filmed and eerily turning to each other and saying “Well, you know what we were doing this time last week…”   in a really unsavoury way.  They may well have only been in the radio audience of Just a Minute but they made it sound as if she’d spent last week trussed up whilst he indulged in radio audience themed role play. When David Baddiel did emerge – following the obligatory playing of David Bowie’s Fame to set the scene – it was clear he had had a marvellous time doing the 5:2.  So dieted and svelte was he that he seemed to have gone a trifle too far and swiftly shrunk to the 4:1.  Either way, he needs some matzo balls.  It sounds shocking, but he says he’s nearly 50.  Chillingly, I turned to my friend who had kindly bought me a vat of damp wine in a pint glass and said: “If David Baddiel is 50, how old does that make me?”

The answer was old enough to remember when he was first well known and old enough to have been young enough at the time to have gone to see him at Wembley Arena, where security searched my bag and confiscated my smoked salmon sandwiches.  I still do not know why this was. In those days, the heady, bizarre conflicted twosome that was Newman and Baddiel was hurtling uncontrollably into an Avalon-financed comedy pile up.  After three years in a van together touring the country dressed alternately as bickering History professors and Soho perverts, Rob Newman and David Baddiel were desperate for a divorce.  It’s fortunate that they didn’t stay together long enough to have children.  As it was, the combination of the then apparently porn-obsessed Baddiel and the startlingly beautiful Newman didn’t appear to be entirely simpatico and you had to wonder what kind of stars had been in alignment when they started writing together in the first place.  An awkward BBC documentary aired the same week they played Wembley Arena, showing them travelling side by side in a van seat along the M6 not talking and awkwardly eating service station sandwiches, whilst Sean Lock sat beside them like a Relate counsellor who had finally met a couple he couldn’t help.  Dave dressed like, well like the person he was, a North West London Jewish Arts graduate of the late 1980s, whilst Rob appeared to be channelling The Scarlet Pimpernel and risked being buried under the weight of his own velvet frock coats.    “We probably won’t work together again,” said Baddiel looking wired and distressed.  Comedy was the new rock ‘n’ roll then, but the queue to rock ‘n’ roll with Baddiel was decidedly shorter than that for Newman, whose sexual attraction was positioned at such a glorious Olympian height that most of Wembley Arena lunged forward and offered him their uteruses during a five minute interval of disturbed, hollering feminine hysteria when he first appeared on stage.  I’ve yet to witness anything as unquenchable as the particular thirst that several thousand women appeared to have for him that night (and you’re talking to a lady who’s seen middle aged women fall over during Frank Sinatra concert encores) but there wasn’t a dry seat in the house.  His reaction to the infinite horror of being caught in the oestrogen headlights of thousands of young ladies was to go to ground.  He emerged several years later as an political activist, author and eco-warrior, and I really can’t blame him.  The initial upsurge of their fame was so strident and hysterical and sudden that it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that it was a really unpleasant experience for both of them.  That’s one of the peculiar things fame does.  Aside from being a glittery bauble of excess, money and adulation it darkens and splinters and seemed to cause Newman and Baddiel’s working relationship to combust.  Their management company, Avalon, also came under some fire for their marketing campaign of them – what were they doing putting Newman and Baddiel on the front cover of the NME and the Melody Maker?  They weren’t musicians.  But to criticise Avalon for this on grounds of it being inappropriate was to miss the point : there was no where else to put them (Oddly there still wouldn’t be – in the thirty years since the alternative comedy movement there is still no monthly magazine or journalism niche to serve it). Avalon put Newman and Baddiel everywhere they could.  And it all went a little bit bonkers.  Even a groupie experience of the time that Baddiel recalls is tinged with awkward humiliation and distaste when he is coerced into saying his catchphrase in the middle of proceedings.  Never mind, off they trotted on their different paths and we are left only to regret that the idea Baddiel said him and Newman had had for a sitcom set in a lunatic asylum (working title “In The Bin”) wasn’t picked up by the BBC.

After his decree absolute from Newman (he got custody of the jokes), Baddiel developed a long-standing partnership with Frank Skinner which led to a sofa-centric television career, which he curtailed slightly to accommodate novel writing, before blossoming out into film writing and – now – musicals.  His ruminations on fame come at a significant time because they concern themselves partly with the impact that social media has on the manner in which people who are well known are perceived.  This is essentially what he is dealing with : not fame itself but the way that the circus hall of mirror’s perception of fame appears to construct you.  His dalliance with fame has been , as he outlines in this show, a push-me, pull-me sort of thing, as it only can be for someone who relies partly on public performance and partly on solitary writing.  When he’s on television, he’s on television.  When he’s having a fruitful writing period, people approach him in West Country car parks assuming he is ill.  Television is the platform by which society judges how far you rank on the fame-o-meter.  Television, not social media, is the golden egg.  If you’re on television you’re doing well because your visibly channelling yourself into millions of peoples living rooms.  If you happen to make films like Steve Coogan well, then – you’re massive.  If you’re writing books you may as well not exist.

Much of the time it’s probably irrelevant for David Baddiel to discover that David Baddiel is famous, because, as he says in this show, 6 out of 10 people think he’s Ben Elton.  One of these is Andrew Lloyd Webber who, having written a show with Ben Elton, really ought to know better.  Indeed, there is a vast similarity in the type of facial hair / glasses and physical (pre – 5:2) shape – with the main difference being that Baddiel has always walked in a way that my mother would say was schlocking about.  He isn’t a schlock, but walks with a deep curve on his shoulders that makes you want to immediately enrol him in some Pilates classes at the nearest day centre.  However, he did recently tweet pictures of himself recovering in a clinic having had his back operated on, so perhaps his schlocking days are numbered and he will be forced into proper deportment.

Over the last six or seven years, Baddiel has focused away from television and more into writing, in other words, he has sought to be a little less famous / ignored by Madonna / dealing with the surreal every day business of being a Someone.  At this stage, he begins to acknowledge the liberation of people not quite knowing who he is anymore, but then Twitter invented itself and he has a very funny twenty minutes musing on internet trolls.  The problem with the perception of fame, he says, is that the over-riding culture we live in presents it in two ways – either fanciful, glorious adoration or death tragedy.  His experience, is neither, albeit this is a befuddled “third” way.  It isn’t entirely clear what the summing up of this show is : Baddiel repeats the premise of it several times – an investigation or a deconstruction of the process of discovering people think you’re utterly different to who you actually are – but this is smart comedy about an aspect of our culture which many others have chosen to leave unexamined.  It’s brilliantly funny but much of the laughs are underlined with a real sense of anxiety – the troll who abuses, the knife in the side of the internet that is Twitter, and the virulent poison that is England’s particular brand of sly anti-semitism.  These issues bring a sort of odd bitterness to the laughter.  There are all manner of despots, racists and idiots who consider those who engage in public performance have consciously lined themselves up to be fodder for abuse.  And they haven’t.  In fact, it is his musings on how anti-semitism is presented in British culture that are the must illuminating of the evening – how this country, which is dedicated to using words that express meaning without actually using the words themselves, ends up repeating phrases slyly synonymous with, and therefore disparaging of, Jewishness; “North London” being the most over-used example.  The phrase “North London” becomes a respectable disparaging conduit when what is truly meant is “Jew”.

The virulent side of fame is balanced out by referring to his family photographs and stories, notably how the American celebrity culture is echoed in something so apparently straightforward as his daughter’s junior school leaving show, and also in the comment that most people seem jolly nice.  But it seemed a strange end of the show to play a video of his daughter singing a song, and it underlined the fact that the show did not in fact have an ending.  And that’s really a shame because this was a series of observant, intelligent, very funny – yet slightly disjointed – tales.    Baddiel is saying something really worth saying it here, both about the nature of celebrity and the over-arching press culture that serves to enhance or destroy it.  It’s just that I was left with the the sense that he hadn’t quite said it.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next update will be on November 21st.  Thank you.

Mornington Crescent

I saw it on Wednesday evening, on the homeward crush of the Northern Line, at about 6 o’ clock. It was probably because it was that time of the day why I didn’t spot it. The tube rattled its sleepy cargo home, and we inside dreamed of hot baths and dressing gowns, rocking dozily to our destinations. Here at the fag end of the day London dragged itself through the final push. Sometimes the Evening Standard flings its arms out into the inner Home Counties and draws some other England in, and that evening, the man sitting in front of where I stood rattled the page of his Homes and Property supplement, there they were – postcodes from Hertford, Cobham, Saffron Waldren. And then I realised. For the last half minute or so I’d been staring at Annie’s parent’s house. It was undoubtedly theirs : the red-tiled roof, the windows of the dining room, in which we’d all sat, at the front, and the style, just the right side of tasteful Home Counties stately. Then the man got off the train, taking Annie’s house with him.

The last time I’d seen Annie was at some point in late 2009. She’d been on the ground floor at Fenwicks, fussing over tights. At first, I thought she looked odd and then realised I’d never seen her without eyeliner on before. Annie’s look had always been the same – Amy Winehouse after a hot bath, a good scrub and an hour at the Clarins counter. She always seemed to be in the wrong place to me. Annie had never been in the right place, because I had never been to Gloucestershire and Gloucestershire seemed the only right place for Annie’s well-bred profile and forthright chin. She oozed military efficiency in a fourth generation public school way. We didn’t get it of course, and continued our nervy, well-rehearsed ennui, dismissing her graceful enthusiasm for naivete. When she smiled her eyes gave off a flinty gleam and her teeth were revealed – pretty, patrician and (with the exception of an implant following a altercation with a Fifth Form hockey stick) filling-free.

Annie and I used to spend Thursday nights at our favourite pub – gone now – in Dean Street. It suited her as it was as dark and nicotine stained as Annie was pale and white. She drank gin and tonics and had had three serious boyfriends. We gossiped about make up, work tales and fashion tips and silently competed in that sly grotesque way women in their twenties do. It was Charlotte who had befriended her, in the beginning, I think, but she settled in. I remember noticing her contentment in swimming around the edges of the group of us, always with the self-possession of someone who knows they have a gift. She never tried to influence the centre of our social crowd, and in doing so, seemed to draw people to her with her stillness. She was an only child.

It was after I’d known her for about six months that she invited four of us out for Sunday lunch, to her parent’s house. It seemed an unusual gesture to us – we never seemed to be ask for Sunday lunch anywhere – but in early October Charlotte, Rob, Nick and me tumbled out of a train somewhere east of Welwyn, hoping to dull our nerves with wine. I don’t know what we expected, but we certainly hadn’t expected a tennis court, nor the series of crystal decanters in the drawing room, nor lines and lines of paintings and certainly not a separate orchard for fruit trees. Annie was the first person I ever heard say that coffee was a “psychoactive drug”. She had just made Rob three espressos after lunch. Pudding was cinnamon heavy pear tarts, made from the fruit trees that glistened in the sharp rain and which Annie’s mother pointed out to us from the warm drawing room. We listened to a lot of music that afternoon, with Rob falling a little bit in love with Annie’s attractive and well-preserved mother. By the time we left with our foil-wrapped slices of cake after tea, we may not have been in love with Annie but we were certainly in love with her home. On the return train in the dark Sunday evening, London seemed wanting.

I have never been sure when Nick started to gravitate towards the house east of Welwyn but when I first found out about Annie’s and Nick’s liaison I thought she either had a taste for the absurd or had been blind drunk. Annie’s destiny was to find love with some radiant man with strong, joyful shoulders, who could muster witty repartee and complement her grace. Instead, she had gone for someone far more trivial in the man stakes. At Nick’s shared flat up in hideous Muswell Hill, the girlfriend remained, apparently oblivious to her boyrfriend’s errroneous masterplan. She was crammed in there with his home-made bookshelves lined with records featuring the standing classical library for a jazz musician – Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninov. It was a small bowl of inspiration but one from which he retrieved holy draughts nightly when regaling limpid-eyed ladies with his latest tales when his girlfriend was out. But the chances of those limpid eyes divinely abandoning themselves to him were slipping away now, as Nick hit his mid-thirties and his hairline was gently moving backwards, like an eiderdown in the night. Nick hadn’t had a gig in three months.

His front forelock, dyed at home with the girlfriend, who dressed like an off duty Second World War ARP warden, flopped about and stood mutely to attention over a face that had been sat on by half of the female cast of Mamma Mia. It was a face that had seen better days. It looked as if it had seen all of them actually, since about 1846. Creases of smoker’s lines made aggressive beelines for Nick’s ear. From there the signs of good living would mutate, presumably, or move off into another space, as Nick’s head did not have enough room to show the bonhomie and midnight fervour it had sampled over the years. Nick would only drink his coffee in Flat White in Berwick Street. He was that sort of person. In the same way, Nick would only buy books at Foyles. Even though the only books he’d ever read were The Great Gatsby and The World According to Clarkson. His choice of hats were inspired by the first book, his clothes by the second, which meant he looked like a cross between an Oxfordshire racing tipster and A A Gill.

Charlotte told me that they had been meeting somewhere in Mornington Crescent, and in the beginning I could never understand why this was. Mornington Cresent? This area free of allure or romance, an area so ill-defined it was unable to decide whether it was part of Euston or Camden? There was nothing there. I defied anyone to have rewarding sex in a place such as Mornington Crescent. The Gods simply wouldn’t allow it. But meeting Annie for lunch in November, it was clear that she was indeed being sexually satisfied somewhere in the Mornington Crescent environs. This was met with woeful annoyance by Charlotte, who had felt that she had had no choice but to fake two climaxes with Nick the previous winter on a Warwick Avenue living room floor. You see, that was what Nick was occasionally for. You could sleep with him, if you liked, but you certainly didn’t fall in love with him.

At Christmas, everything switched up a notch. Mornington Crescent became a thing of the past, and Nick’s girlfriend suddenly disappeared, as if she had only ever been a night mirage. Soon we forgot her entirely. Weekends blossomed and overspilled into Mondays up at the family house east of Welwyn, where Nick and Annie would love, eat, laugh and flop about on the Heals sofa with The Sunday Times. He was absent from his usual town haunts, he unburdened himself to Charlotte one evening in The PItcher & Piano that he was certainly in love, or something that felt an awful lot like it, but Annie’s cup of happiness appeared suddenly laced with danger when she started peppering her conversation with phrases such as “When we move out to the country….” and “Nick’s going to make this fabulous table from oak” and “Dad thinks it’s a great idea.”

Dad did think it was a great idea, although I wasn’t sure at this stage what “it” was. Nick? This Nick? Nick who had lost two teeth on a night out and who carried on drinking through his crusty, bloody mouth? Nick who wasn’t quite sure whether that tottering, sturdy legged toddler in the next road wasn’t his, or Nick who the mothers liked because he reminded them of the boys they would flirt with when they were 19 and, subsequently, who they had not seen go to seed? This Nick was now sprawled over Annie’s parents’ sofa politely exchanging their generous plates of scones and jam for his Wildean bon mots and the occasional musical anecdote. He played them like a piano. The clock ticked on the mantelpiece and Annie’s parents continued to be drawn in.

Nevertheless, I never saw Annie more doe-eyed or happy as she was in those first few months. Time ticked on stealthily in London, marked by Nick’s absence until, a few days before Christmas, we were all invited up to the house for supper. It was a very dark, glittery sort of evening. There was Annie, and there was Annie’s fragrant, beautiful mother (Rob a little bit more in love with her with every glass that she filled for him), Annie’s father, a gargantuan man whose waist stretched out until it was buffetted against the linen tablecloth and then there was Nick. He had a new suit on. He wore expensive suede shoes, but there was something elusive in the shadow of his face and his left eye had developed a twitch. We smelled danger and knew trouble was afoot when he began laying out his plans – to develop a business that would go into nightspots and shake up the profit margins a bit. His plan was to sack the hash-riddled bar managers and reduce the fee of the DJ to slim things down a bit. Horrifyingly, he was now planning to be some sort of management consultant for nightclubs. In deep candlelight, that night, we could even believe it might actually happen. Annie’s father certainly did. This business, it seemed, was what Dad thought was such “a great idea”.

The wedding was a vast, tub-thumpingly sentimental affair. Annie wore her grandmother’s wedding dress. We didn’t even think Nick had a grandmother. His family was represented by one resentful woman in a royal blue two piece suit and three striking looking men wearing signet rings. The bride and groom had originally planned to write their own vows in a civil ceremony (Annie always wanted to do things a little differently) but in the end the family considered the close relationship they had with the village church and it was decided to have the ceremony there. We found ourselves cloistered in a hellhole of a 15th century church that was struck through with mildew and damp flowers, followed by a grand affair in a marquee, where, during the cutting of the cake, I watched Annie’s mother’s arm snakily work its way around the back of Rob’s waist and clutch him. The honeymoon was in Argentina, regular reports and sights of which arrived on Facebook with due regularity. Nick looked suntanned and younger throughout the holiday, whilst Annie was as porcelain and perfect as ever, still with what now looked like painfully optimistic up-flicks of her signature black eyeliner.

Of course, when Dad’s cheque book stop writing cheques and when it all fell down, Mornington Crescent wasn’t there to help. It was a bit like the crumbling of an empire, or a terrorist attack. To start, it was drips of comforting excuses – the management were resisting change, Nick would say, the business is taking its time to produce profits, there were issues with cashflow, nothing ever is as cheap as you think it’s going to be – until it became a massive implosion and the fabric of life fell apart. The flow of money happily continued until, well, it didn’t. The money from her father seemed to disappear into Nick’s pockets, and at some point the well ran dry and the cheque book got closed. It was just after this that I bumped into Annie in Fenwicks, a grim day the following autumn. She looked like all the flesh had been carved out of her and only the dry husk was left. All the lines and wrinkles that had avoided her face had been storing up somewhere all this time and only now were breaking through. After a few years sticking to the edges she’d plunged into one of the central cogs of our group and got buffetted and pushed about by its centrifugal force. By this point, the payments on the flat her parents had helped them purchase had well and truly fallen behind, and Nick’s hopes that the threat of bailiffs would do what his girlfriend had done two years previously and disappear altogether were very much dashed. They took everything, leaving behind only the couple’s mutual loathing.

Walking away from Fenwicks, I realised for the first time why Mornington Crescent had seemed so safe to her. A nowhere place, straddling the indetermined barriers between inner London and outer, a Zone 2 half way point, a place that is of the city and yet starting to bleed towards its outer circle, a non-station on the Charing Cross branch where no one boards nor alights a train. For a woman who had always felt safe on the periphery of things, it suddenly made sense. I never saw Annie again, but I did see Nick – about a year later, rolling out of somewhere in Romilly Street drunk at half past three on a cloudy afternoon, with a limpid-eyed straggler gripping onto his arm. He still had the expensive suit on. Thinking back to the picture in the newspaper, and thinking of the beloved house now up for sale, I wondered just how much they’d all lost because of him.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you on November 7th! Thank you

Hello Foxy (Vulpes Vulpes)

Despite the near constant presence of them, there is  something special about spotting a fox.  During the day we can forget they exist, consider them an urban myth of our streets, but at night, the fox makes it entirely clear this is his London, his patch and he is absolutely astonished to see us trespass upon it.  They can only be caught in the blue, nocturnal gaze for a moment or two, almost always in late summer (reasons for that to follow), and whilst their physical looks are not in themselves compelling, the audacity with which they present themselves is.  For a second, in which he sees you before you see him, he’s got your eyeline, frozen in the clinical glare of the car light, and he crouches, one foot raised, warily staring as he pauses in his moonlit business.  For, make no mistake, foxes are busy creatures, and no one else is going to undertake that night’s scavenging, you know.  “You?”  their eyes seem to say.  “You?”  The tail stands, curving daintily.  “What are you doing here?  I say, this really won’t do, you know.  It is most irregular. I am a FOX. ”  Then they’re gone.  Whilst unsure how timid they are, I know they try to avoid us.  There are two that live in breaks in a fence beside a public path to the woods behind our flat in Finchley.  Very, very rarely I see them at night when I return to our quiet road.  For some reason I like them.  “Hello Fox No 1.”  I whisper, as he gazes startled as this be-hatted woman in her late thirties who totters stupidly down the road after Pilates.  “Evenin’ Fox No 2,” I nod.  They bolt off as soon as they see me, resentfully sniffing towards the bins that are tightly lidded at the side of the house.  “Spoilsport,” they seem to say. “Gissa chicken leg.  I’ve got five kids.”    Fox No 2 is more debonair.  Probably smokes Hamlet.  Has a smoking jacket.  Goes ski-ing in Gstaad.  You know, that kind of fox.  Acts like its grandfather didn’t die of mange.

Foxes cram a life into a year.  That’s because whilst in captivity a fox can live for 14 years, in London most of them will barely live to see their second birthday. Each spring a male fox will brush his tail until it gleams, whack on a splash of his chosen scent (usually Eau de Dead Dormouse) and begin stepping out with a vixen.  He will produce an average 4.5 cubs in spring, but often with more than one vixen.   He likes to have a couple of ladies on the go, does foxy.  He is fond of keeping it in the family, often having some of his spring cubs with the sister of the vixen who has already presented him with an offspring the previous week, otherwise known as The Ryan Giggs School of Fatherhood.

So, the cubs are born in April, but by September they’e grown so much that they’re indistinguishable from their parents.  The same thing happened to me in 1993.  For the fox watchers, it’s June or July where we see them most, as these cubs are now fox teens, setting out to explore their territory, which often will take in up to 80 London gardens.   This summer, a face suddenly popped up outside the glass doors leading to our garden, comical and inquisitive in the dark, a patchy, bushy bearded thing, staring in for a moment, presumably trying to work out whether we had any birds or worms on site.  For, this is what Mr Fox eats.  Only 35% of his diet is gained from scavenging; not by choice but by a recognition of labour : scavenging is hard work.  Garden birds, slippery worms, squirrels and mice are easy prey.  In the autumn, coming up to six months old, the foxes will set out and leave the district of their birth, and this is when it goes wrong for so many of them.  50% of foxes in the UK are killed by drivers.

They have dens.  People sometimes have dens too but the kind of people who have one and say “I’m just off to relax in the den” probably have one full of menthol cigarettes and / or cigarillos, Sky Sports, Venetian blinds and leather executive style lush chairs.  A fox’s den will have none of these things.  Instead it will have cubs, a musty smell and that half-eaten Thai chicken curry you ordered after four Budweisers last Wednesday.  The fox is a dog, but although a member of the Canidae family, as dogs are, it is vulpine, not canine.  So it is a member of the wolves  / coyotes / dingoes family rather than the “gosh, that’s a lovely Labrador!” family.    For this reason, although not this reason alone, the English feel rather differently about foxes as they do about dogs.

The interesting thing about foxes is not actually what they are but how towndwellers choose to see them.  A couple of years ago we had a brief civic disturbance in London called a riot.  I wrote about it here, not really the riots as it happened, but rather the language that is chosen to culturally comment upon it (see https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2011/08/11/a-riotous-message/).  Whilst revising Foxy this week, I realised that the language people use to describe him is merciless, and has much in common with the fears of cultural degeneracy that people express at times of social disruption or riot in urban spaces  (“feral”, “populous and breeding out of control”, “Scavenger”, “robber”, “urban blight”) and I don’t suppose a certain type of person would be surprised to find their local fox wearing JD Sports footwear, stealing tellies, sporting a back to front baseball cap, and carrying a knife whilst texting on his mobile phone with his mates about the best way to loot a “Burger King”.

Why does the fox come in for so much stick?  Because he’s used as a site onto which a whole range of cultural anxieties become projected and, like most manifestations of cultural anxieties, they are entirely without context.  Foxes are a pest to some, a wild nuisance to others.  On the other hand, dogs are sacred in Britain.  And more dangerous.  The chance that a fox may savage a small child is absolutely tiny when measured against the harm that dogs can do.  We hear about fox attacks solely because of their rarity rather than their violence.  In 2008/09, over 5,000 people were treated at hospitals for injuries caused by dogs.  Over 1,300 of these were children.    It is exceedingly rare for a human being to look in any way appetising to your neighbourhood fox, who is more interested in a half squished worm and a tasty robin redbreast, to be frank.  Of the 3 cases that hit the headlines of a fox biting someone in the last 11 years, one was discounted as possibly being a fox bite on medical evidence and the second involved a family who tried to divert the attention from their family dog, which seems strange.  A rat is more likely to bite a baby.  And 10,000 foxes patrol our streets keeping the rat population in check, so it’s a bit of a win-win for your baby who is subsequently less likely to get bitten by anything at all because foxy has just knocked off a few rattus rattus’s for his elevenses.

To call a woman a “vixen” (a female fox) is to imply she is shrewish, manipulative and malicious.  This is because foxes are cunning.  Cunning is just another word for wily and clever, but a woman who is wily and clever is faintly mistrustful and a carnivorous cunning cow.  (I don’t think men have this problem with implications of being wily and clever.  They just call it being bright).  The verb “fox” also has disastrous connotations for our urban friends : to trick, to fool, to baffle ; to act slyly or craftily and – oddly – to repair a shoe by replacing a new upper (to fox it).  To be “foxed” is also archaic English for being drunk.   Yet, there is one absolutely positive way of using fox.  If you call someone a fox, or foxy, you are telling them they are incredibly sexually attractive.  They will take this as a compliment.  But you will get a very different reaction if you call them a “dog”.  Which is what a fox is.  Confused?  I am.

The key to living happily alongside our wild animals is very straightforward : be sensible.  Vulpes vulpes is classed as a wild animal.   It’s no use getting burgled and then saying “I can’t believe it! Someone came into my house and stole my iPad when I decided to leave my garden door wide open with the lights on.  Oh, the cheek of some people.”  Well, it’s the same with our urban friends.  Keep them outside whatever you do.  And don’t fall asleep with the fire escape door open with a sign saying “Come on in and bite me, foxy”.  In the exceedingly rare event of a fox biting a human being they will instantly back away after the bite, which they tend to only ever consider giving in self defence.  They do not squat there salivating and gnawing saying “Mmmmm….feet.  Lovely.  Do you have any tabasco for this please?” like some Grimm fairy tale.  Some astonished Londoners have left doors open to find a fox curled up on their sofa, having spent the evening eating the cat food.   Foxes are strangely fascinated by children.  They love to watch them play and, although wary of them, can spend hours sitting in hedgerows beside playgrounds just watching what’s going on.  Nutters.

Foxes back away from cats generally, due to the cat’s supercilious, malignantly steely stare and sharp claws.  Plus all cats have superiority complexes and think they are superheroes.  Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about foxes.  Cats will take on anyone.  They love the fox face-off.  The fox will usually turn away.  Dogs and foxes can exist together unless the fox really oversteps his territory, but unfortunately a large number of fox cubs are killed each year by domestic cats and dogs.  80% of fox cubs fail to reach maturity in London.  Oh, and obviously : rabbit, gerbil or hamster? Fantastic Mr Fox thinks of only two things : “YUM” and “NOW, WHERE DID I PUT MY NAPKIN?”

It is legal to shoot a fox but, that’s a bit dodgy because, at the Kensington & Chelsea website helpfully points out on their fox advice page:  “We do not want to encourage people to walk around our streets, gardens and parks carrying and discharging firearms”.  Well, no, quite, Ken & Chelsea, unless they’re aiming at that other ginger, suave and nocturnal fox like creature, H.R.H. Prince “Nightclub Mad” Harry.  This time of year you’ll hear them screaming at each other, as late-autumn is the time for fox family units to break up as the young adults head off to new horizons.  It’s not mating calls.  And it isn’t a fight.  It’s a fox conversation.  It just sounds incredibly violent, like someone is pulling a cat to shreds, but it’s actually a fox shouting “Phone your mother once a month, at least!”  sort of thing.

Another urban myth is that foxes “rifle” through bins, which is something they actually never do.  Badgers are bastards for this, as are cats and sea gulls, particularly if there’s a lovely bin liner to rip.  A sea gull think’s that’s a holiday.  But foxes – very rarely.  An average fox weighs about 6kgs.  Do you think if you weighed 6 kg you could manage to knock a full London Borough of Barnet wheelie bin over?  No.

The idea of separating out the country fox from its ruthless, mangy urban cousin is wrong.  A fox is a fox is a fox.  They are all the red fox vulpes vulpes.   There is no significant physical distinction and they do not vary in hunting practices.  Researchers noted in the 1990s that a family of fox cubs born in central Bristol relocated themselves to rural arcadia and spent their lives grazing on the Mendip Hills. Nor are the numbers of urban foxes on the increase : the fox community has yet to recover from the 1990s sarcoptic mange epidemic which wiped a huge number of them out, and whilst London is home to 33,000 foxes, about the same levels as in the 1980s,  the countryside has got a quarter of a million of them. And thanks to the abolition of fox hunting, they are flourishing.

The finest fox that ever was was Basil Brush.  He was a sort of vulpes Terry Thomas who repeatedly referred to himself in the third person as “fella”.  He had his own television show for 13 years, which is almost unheard of for a fox, and was very good at singing and acting.  He was also the first puppet to win The Weakest Link.

 

Those of your interested in more information about fox protection can have a look at : http://www.foxproject.org.uk/about-us/

Thank you for reading The London Bluebird.  This blog is updated fortnightly so we look forward to seeing you on October 24th.

Celestial spheres : The Bluebird Guide to Solstices and Equinoxes

I am often accused of being a far too city-centric person and am frequently on the receiving end of The Disapproving Eyebrow.  The Disapproving Eyebrow appears when accompanied with any of the following offhand comments : someone decides that I live in London because I refuse to live anywhere else, that I hate the countryside and that – no – I wouldn’t be interested in that Lake District beer quaffing and walking holiday because I am intrinsically wired against it / think The Wirral is a public house not an area / cannot achieve orgasm if taken beyond the M25 etc etc.   Well, for all the nay-sayers and those who think my world is too internally Londonified I say Ha!  I say Double Ha!  I say read on, as today we are going 149,600,600 km, which is longer than distance between John O’Groats and Clapham High Street.  Just.

Last Sunday the Autumn equinox occurred at 20:44hrs or, in UK parlance, shortly before Downton.   The evenings at this time of year are highly seductive, but ultimately a tease.  I say this because no sooner have you noticed the blissful violet radiance in the heavens above and prepared the candle and the glass of Venetian red in preparation for a swoon at the sexy sky in the mild temperature than it suddenly decides to switch off the lights and plunge you into deepest night.  This means that you are left, in dressing gown over optimistic spring-like outfit in deep darkness in your own garden, gesturing wildly in rage towards the night sky and blindly grabbing into black hellish nothingness for your wine glass.  And it’s only 7.30pm.  It’s like the promise of a beautiful stripper taking half of their clothes off, with a series of pouts and shoulder rolls to imply : “Feast your eyes, kiddo” and then suddenly deciding you won’t get any further than underwear, and he’s fucking off until next Spring.  You see?  Autumn.  Beautiful.  But a blatant seasonal tease.

My thoughts have turned celestial.  One night, you know the moment the planet turns.  It’s the moment you don’t want to drink white wine anymore.  It’s the moment you know a supper of fish and salad will no longer fortify.  It’s the moment you remember you haven’t got any tights.  If you’re self employed, you know its the moment you can no longer procrastinate when it comes to preparing this year’s books for your accountant’s meeting in mid-October.  Most of us though, don’t really rely on the planet to tell us this.  We just know this moment because Strictly starts.  However, I have become fascinated by the planetary activity that just sort of potters on in this magical planet of ours whilst we pettily provoke madnesses and silliness down here on terra firma,  keeping our small brains occupied with Sainsburys, booking waxes, cleaning bathrooms and topping up Oyster cards.  Exactly what is going on up there?  What has astronomy got in store for us through the year?   I have been researching this a little for you, and thought to produce a guide of equinoxes and solstices for you in layman’s terms and in Londoner’s terms.

Third Rock From The Sun

Yes, that is us.  We are on Earth, and we are 149,600,600km from the Sun.  That is the same distance as driving up and down the whole of the Finchley Road 21,371,515 times.  Earth is like an egg, that has been sat on for a bit and turned on its side.  The official word for this is ‘oblate spheroid’.  As it sits on its side, it is quite short.  It is bigger in width (equator) than it is in height (pole-to-pole).   It has a crust, a mantle and a core, and the top crust layer, on which we live,  varies in its thickness between 3 miles (Berwick Street to Essex Road) and 46 miles (Milton Keynes to London).

Ecliptic Plane

This is the path on which the Earth orbits the sun, together with the other planets in our solar system.  It is like an enormous M25 but as it is an imaginary plane I cannot tell you how much bigger than the M25 it really is.  But take it from me. It’s massive.  As imaginary lines go, the ecliptic is a big’un.  Unlike the M25 it is perfect, has no roadworks, you are unlikely to crash in a Vauxhall Astra on it, nor come across an enforced 40 mph three mile zone whilst on your way to a barmitzvah.   The ecliptic can be basically called the apparent path on the sun on the celestial sphere, or the imaginary line on which we move around the sun.

The Celestial WHAT?

The celestial sphere.  It’s a troublesome phrase, mainly because it sounds like a nightclub in Bushey.   Space is extremely large, and subsequently its tricky to place those things within it (moon!  stars!  planets!  Suzi Quatro!)  as they appear to be so remote.  The celestial sphere is best imagined as an enormous circle that we are all inside, and we see the stars and moon reflected on its domed underside.    Everything you can see in the night sky is reflected on what appears to be the inside of this enormous, imaginary circle.  The ecliptic plane also exists inside it.

Axis

Imagine you have a cocktail stick.  Perhaps it is a Thursday night and you are feeling jolly. You wish to make a martini.  You take a green olive (stoneless) and you spear the olive at a jaunty angle, going in from the top right corner and poking the cocktail stick out of the bottom left.   In fact, you are poking the cocktail stick through the olive at an angle of 23.5%.   That is the angle of the earth’s axis.  The distance from pole to pole is 12,416 miles, or the same distance as driving down the A406 from Chiswick to Beckton 786 times.   The planet spins at this angle, veering slightly to the right diagonal:

Earth Axis

Yes, but what has this to do with Autumn and why am I wearing thick tights?

Hang on. I’ll get there.  You have to know your ecliptic plane, axis and your celestial sphere to understand how the seasons work, because these things are called the celestial coordinate system.   The celestial sphere may be imaginary but it provides a framework for us to understand the earth’s axis and orbit, and also to understand how the sun shines.  This will go some way to describing why it is cold in winter and hot in summer.  You get seasons because of the axis I mentioned above. If the earth was perpendicular to the ecliptic plane, and did not have this axis,  it would not have the opportunity to experience seasons.

Celestial Sphere

Here is a picture of Earth as the small black circle in the middle.  The blue circle is the celestial sphere. See, I told you it was bigger than the London Orbital.  So, you can see from this picture how the South Celestial Pole is just a continued line directly into space towards the celestial sphere from the South Pole on Earth and how the North Celestial Pole is a continued line directly into space towards the celestial sphere from the North Pole on Earth.  Simples.

So, what is a Solstice?

A solstice occurs twice a year.  The Northern Solstice is when the Sun sits over the North Pole.  It also seems as if the sun is higher in the sky at this time.  This occurs on June 21st.  So, for us in the Northern Hemisphere it is our longest day of the year.  Note the Northern Solstice is not the Northern Line.  The Northern Line exists only several hundred feet beneath the Earth’s crust and has no up escalator at Tottenham Court Road due to Crossrail.

The Southern Solstice is when the sun sits over the South Pole and that’s when the lovely people in the southern hemisphere get to have their longest day. This occurs on approximately Dec 21st.  Most of us in the northern hemisphere do not notice it however, as it’s impossible to spot the shortest day in the dark when we are mainly drunk and wrapping Christmas presents.

Solstice comes from the Latin “sol” (sun) and “sistere” (to stand still).

Why can’t the Autumn and Spring ones be called Solstices too?  Why do we have to call them Equinoxes?

Because they aren’t the same thing.  Solstices indicate the extremes of night / day and cold / warm.  The sun is polar during solstices.  But on a equinox the sun appears to cross the equator.  It is always on its way between north and south poles and the equinox marks the half way route.  That’s why it happens in Spring and Autumn.  It’s genius!   The word Equinox is also Latin, translating roughly as “equal night”.  So during the Equinoxes we should have 12 hours each of dark and light respectively.   So, that’s March 21st and September 21st, although it differs by a day or two.

So, when is my smear test due?

I’m sorry.  The sun cannot tell you this.  But if it’s been more than 6 solstices you ought to get yourself to the GP.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed today’s educational astronomical insights.  We update every two weeks so look forward to seeing you on Thursday 10th October