Red and Yellow and Pink and Green….

This morning I altered my usual routine by updating my Oyster in Italian at Bond Street Station.  Grazie per aver utilizare Oyster! it told me.  Well, the same to you, I thought.   Bond Street is a red-and-silver-station.  Not because of the impending Christmas season, but because of the Central / Jubilee connection.  I have always coloured London Underground Stations, and filed them in municipal-looking sections of my brain, ready to be retrieved and studied when when travelling through town; Finchley Road is cosy burgundy flushed through with a jagged line of take-no-prisoners Silver (connection : Metropolitan & Jubilee interchange).  St James’s Park is a bucolic green with City-chophouse mustard yellow (District &  Circle).   Charing Cross is boot polish black and lose-stool brown, as dirty and blemished and full of darkening secrets as the river it guards.   Westbourne Park’s and Ladbroke’s Grove’s cheery pink and butter yellow (Hammersmith & City and Circle) have a colour combination that is exactly that of Battenburg cake.   When all three of the Circle, Hammersmith & City and Bakerloo lines join each other at Paddington, it always reminds me of Neopolitan ice cream.

These colour combinations don’t just provide us with aids to memory recall.  Is it imagination or do the stations wear the personalities of the colour characters like winter coats?  Independent of their fellow station comrades on an underground line, each station emerges into a blocked, colour version of itself.    On the District Line, for example, (on which no matter which train you take, you seem to always end up stranded at Earls Court, cursing) the section that pushes into the hinterlands of South West London seems to march alongside a greener, and more rurally affluent drum; a higgledy-piggledy green, meandering mess, where there are no signs and the rules are different.  Oxford Circus is in colour terms what it is in real life – a dreadful, crushing clash, the stimulation of overwrought senses and the eating of a dyspepsia-inducing Pret a Manger lunch : with its Bakerloo shoe leather brown, sky blue Victoria and a worrying horizontal dash of Central Line pillar box red, this is a headache-inducing station.  Holland Park stands proud, alone, in a rich silky scarlet that promises supercilious luxury.   But the same red that ripples through Chancery Lane is the red tape of difficult, impenetrable legal cases.  The burgundy, yellow and pink at Great Portland Street looks like the colours of a school scarf; a nod to the hand-holding snake of children weaving up Baker Street to see the Planetarium’s universe.    The grey, mid blue and dark blue of the Jubilee, Victoria and Piccadilly curling through Green Park is the colour of park winters; the silvery dead leaves embalmed in frost, the chilly naked branches and the taste of December in the mouth.  Kings Cross is a mess on the map – a spaghetti loopole of Parker inks blue and black and yellow and pink and Jesus – more or less every other colour – heralding the truth that navigation around the station will be a pain in the arse as well.  Marylebone, my favourite mainline station, is cute and hip in Dairy Milk chocolate brown, standing cheekily over the northern tip of the West End, above the presence of any of the other, vulgar lines, thank you very much.  Bank looks like a standard open-and-shut case for the Central Line at first glance.  But, come with me.  Walk over the tiled floor of the underground station to the map again.  Look again.  Bank is where the Bank of England lies (the clue’s in the name).  As a station it greedily throws its arms out out at uncomfortable angles to grab onto the Northern, the Waterloo & City, the District and Circle and the DLR.    It is stretching its arms, its influence, its ruinous borrowing, its incalculable danger, over most of us on the network.  This game will go on and on if you allow it – the Eastern branch of the District is chaperoned by Hammersmith & City once you get east of Aldgate, and the pink and green are mindful of suburban allotment flowers – but of course, it can’t work out of London because outside London the rail colours have no lines.  There is little need for clarification or distinction from other lines, so the colouring-in is unnecessary.

How did the colour-blind, or indeed the completely sight-blind, navigate London before the trains starting talking to us?   These talking trains do make it easier for the non-literate, the non-English and the non-seeing, since their introduction at some point in the mid-1990s.  But until then the tube was a silent experience.  It was the first great metropolitan transport system that took it for granted that its consumers could read.  Before the tubes, there were omnibuses, appearing in London for the first time in 1829 and which are our buses today. The conductor always shouted out the next stop.  This wasn’t because he was trying to be helpful, but because before the 1870 Education Act many Londoners could not read.  Now both buses and tubes speak to us, although most of us wish they wouldn’t.   When the tubes were silent, the colour blind had to learn station names, and the blind had to count the stops.

Now you get on a tube train and are told by a mechanical voice what the next station is, when you would arrive there, mind the doors when you do get there, and what other lines you can pick up on arrival.   These are not merely anodyne voices.  There are colourful characters narrating our journeys through these colourful lines.  For many years several lines had their in-carriage announcements made by voiceover artiste Emma Clarke, to whom TFL gave the codename “Marilyn”.  But at some point in 2007 she posted spoof announcements on her website, including “Would the passenger in the red shirt, pretending to read the paper, but who is actually staring at that woman’s chest, please stop.  You’re not fooling anyone.  You filthy pervert.”, and “Residents of London are reminded that there are other places in Britain outside your stinking shithole of a city”.  When questionned she said “I go to London a lot but I never use the Underground.  I take taxis.” Unsurprisingly, after this TFL sacked her. 

Over on the Piccadilly Line, the announcements are made by actor Tim Bentinck, who some of you may know as being the voice of David Archer in “The Archers”.  As well as being David Archer he is the 12th Earl of Portland and 8th Count Bentinck und Waldeck Limpurg .  I don’t know where Bentinck und Waldeck is but I bet it’s not a patch on Rayners Lane.    Other female announcers are given code names.  The Central Line has SONIA (so called becuase, as TFL say, she get’S On Ya nerves…” Geddit?), Celia and Vera.  The man who rather stridently announces that “this train terminates here” and reminds us to take “all your belongings with you” is an announcer called Michael Meech, who also worked as a Radio 2 announcer in the 1970s.

Of course,  the world will never run out of voiceover artists.  But London Underground may run out of colours if any more lines are built.  What’s next?  Olive Green?  Golden? or Purple?  We still need to see the colours, even though we have to hear all the silly voices.  For many of us, intent on snuggling into a corner carriage with a full iPod and an unread, much anticipated book, we yearn for that old, vibrant, colourful, tube silence, to stop the incessant chatter and hibernate underground without the yelp of Blackberries, the beep of text messages arriving and the ring of iPhones.    We want the world to shut up and not say a bloody word.  But as usual, there is an alarming space between the cityscape as we desire it and the cityscape as it truly is and, as they are always telling us, you have to Mind The Gap.   Right.  I’m off to go round and round and round and round the Circle Line until I’ve finished reading Little Dorrit.  Until then, share kids.  What are you oddest tube experiences?  I was once flashed at by a man who looked to be about 90, but I think he didn’t mean to – I mean he was just wearing shorts and it sort of fell out.  Any other tube experiences worth mentioning, please comment below.  I’ve sure some of you have stories to tell.

For a lively and fun blog on all things tube, I thoroughly recommend Annie Mole’s blog:  http://london-underground.blogspot.com/

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Now you see it….

During an afternoon walk in the West End on Saturday, I turned off Goodge Street and down Goodge Place.  Goodge Place is a dead-end canyon peppered with shabby genteel Georgian homes and slabs of uber-modern apartments where the Luftwaffe randomly, and thoughtfully, peppered the city.  Two unnerving things happened next.

The first was a community mural, featuring Fitzrovians of stature, past and present.  Someone had painted  an astonished looking Virginia Woolf next to the BT Tower (“To The BT Tower Lighthouse”, anyone?), an anaemic looking Bernard Shaw, Marie Stopes and unsettlingly, a series of “Bengali dancers”, which I initially misread as Bengal Lancers.   The second was a massive, fuck off space to our right which was 3 acres in size and which, quite simply didn’t exist.

The Middlesex Hospital, which previously lay at the junction of the bottom of Cleveland Street and along Mortimer Street was sold off in 2007 following its closure in December 2005.  The NHS rubbed its (sterilized) hands with glee when they netted a humungous £180million (cor!) for the site and used it to build the spanking new University College Hospital on Euston Road, which unfortunately was tainted almost immediately after opening by the arrival of a radioactive Russian called Alexander Litvenenko who probably poisoned all the wards before being removed in a lead coffin.  The version of the Middlesex Hospital that was demolished – grimy, black and a little forbidding –  had only been built in 1935, although the hospital had existed in various forms since 1746, when the area west of Kings Cross was the bucolic fields of Middlesex.  The proposed new development on the old Middlesex Hospital site was christened NoHo Square by Candy and Candy, the property developing brothers.  It was called NoHo because the people who named it wanted the people who were going to live in it to sound like twats.   “Where do you live, mate?” “Cab to NoHo Square please.” “Oh ho, No-o-o? what ho?  Sorry love, you’re not from round ‘ere are you?”  NoHo Square was a vastly abhorrent concept based on a New York property estate.  It triumphed on the American system that their Manhattan SoHo (referencing South of Houston Street)  could be translated to the northern slopes of London lying directly above our Soho (depicting at 16th century hunter’s cry of “So – ho!” and having nothing to do with Houston ; Street, Texas, Whitney or otherwise).   Just as the New Yorkers developed a penchant for shoving capital letters into names where they didn’t belong to make nonsense words (TriBeCa – Triangle Beneath Canal Street), the Dandy Candy Brothers decided to create London’s NoHo, but no one was sure what it meant (North of Horsham?) .  Similarly, no one actually knows that The CaNDy brothers references Callous Neanderthal Dickheads, you know.

You can see where this is going, dear readers?  This was back in the heady days of 2007, when children would frequently get letters through the post and hold them up with sticky, Playdoh fingers, before shouting : “LOOK Mummy!  Now I’ve put that £5 in the Post Office savings account this letter says I can have a credit card for £1,000,000 on standard 17.9% APR can I have a biscuit now, Mummy?” This was a world in which, when one of my brothers turned up to the hospital where another brother had a new baby with a cheque for £200, which was meant for the baby girl’s savings account, the recipient brother of the cheque said : “£200?  Nah.  This is England!  Never mind her savings account.  With £200 you can get a mortgage.”  

The NoHo Square concept was immediately hated by the residents of Fitzrovia.    The hospital was bulldozed down, with the eerie remains of the Grade II listed Victorian hospital chapel left in the middle of the site, like a long lost Victorian relative, crying out for a decent God-fearing flock.  Then the Candy Brothers remembered they had engineered funding for the site through the Kaupthing Bank which melted when the rest of the Icelandic banking system did.  Swiftly, the Candy Brothers swapped their 33% stake in Noho Square into Beverly Hills luxury apartments, a world in which their crassness and creepiness of name would be more fitting.  The NoHo Square name now appears to be consigned to the dustheap, and the only certainty that remains is that Aviva and Exemplar are now the minority investors of the site.  Urban myths abound as to what will happen next, and include: a  parkland site with vegetable gardens, an orchard, an environmental education centre complete with horticultural workshop, or zero-carbon affordable housing, or a series of burlesque dancers, hopping and skipping about daily wearing nothing but smiles and red nipple tassles.   It’s all up for grabs.     All that remains of it’s former self is a sinister, red brick 1920s wall, currently being held up by a vast, strong, wooden structure, and which contains the old-1930s Radium Department label in large, beige, cement letters.  So, what will become of this, frankly, enormous slab of Central London real estate?  Will it continue to be dogged by lending crunch funding problems?  Will we wake up to a caravan site?  Will it be some much needed green space for this particularly built up section of town?   Who will maintain the former, listed hospital chapel?  (I’m not doing it.  I’ve had beef with the Lord before – and anyway, hassocks ain’t how I roll).   Personally, I think an orchard would be spectacular.  With a circus in the middle.  Or something.  With a spectacular opening night party featuring brass bands, fireworks and a finale in which Jamie Theakston is fired out of a cannon and to which the Candy Brothers will not be invited. 

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Festive Business 2012

Shotputting doesn’t do it for me, nor does the synchronized swimming or any of the other leaping and jumping shenanigans that are to be going on at Stratford next summer.  As soon as I see the lycra I can feel the chafing.  Couldn’t give a monkey’s about any of it.  Not even a pole-vaulting monkey.  Or a 300m race monkey.  Sport isn’t my passion.  But the frisson of London-oriented passion that rippled through me when I read about the Cultural Olympiad meant I almost let out a gleeful “whoooop!” on the Northern Line.

Letting out whoops, gleeful or otherwise, is not a grand plan on the London Underground.  People think you might be a bomber, or one of those sickly people who initiate marriage proposals on the tube network, complete with a capella choir (did anyone see that slightly creepy proposal on the 19:57 to Watford last week – now on You Tube?).  So I kept schtum for the rest of the journey, but the London 2012 Festival looks IMMENSE. 

Essentially, it’s £50 million spent on making people have fun, orchestrating artistic events, presentations and productions and general musical and dramatic tomfoolery all in the name of London-tastic fun.  It starts, with a hint towards both ancient, Celtic folklore and Shakespearean romance – on our midsummer’s day and chortles happily through summer, weaving around the sporting fixtures, before ending shortly before the autumn equinox.  But the bit I’m looking forward to is Martin Creed’s art installation concept, that at 8am on July 27th, the day the Olympics and the Paralympics both begin, everyone in the UK is encouraged to grab a bell and ring it ; every chuch, every handheld school bell, ever cow bell and every doorbell.  Find someone you really want to piss off.  Head to where they live at 8am on a pleasant summer’s morning and blast them out of bed with a dingle dongle of a tune on your bell and the authorities won’t be able to touch you.  You’ll simply be doing your duty. 

Bell-ringing is particularly evocative for the British and for Londoners.  The Romans, being self-obsessed Italians who worried about being so short and so needed bolstering, started to encourage citizens to ring bells before a procession or a formal event of some kind.  The British ring their church bells at royal weddings and at the end of battles and wars.   During the Second World War, the BBC used a broadcast of the famous Bow Bells for their World Service, which was designed to boost morale and keep the idea of victory bells ringing in the psyche of the populace.  On VE day, the sound of London church bells was deafening.  But, for those of you who think I’m showing my usual regional bias – fear not.  The 2012 Festival stretches the whole land, engineering musical workshops to disadvantaged schoolchildren in Scotland and arranging performances of ancient Celtic warrior stories in Welsh forests .  It’s a daring and brazen festival : theatrical installations of prose and poetry will be performed by some of our leading actors on our best loved national beaches.  Argentinian choreographers will be worrying the populace with their take on dance-themed outdoor presentations.  The Reading Challenge runs for a month across Britain’s libraries to create the biggest book festival for children ever created.  Mark Rylance will be moving around the underground giving impromptu performances of Shakespeare’s poetry and sonnets to bewildered tourists and commuters alike. 

That last has to be the most interesting, as I, or anyone else who was fortunate enough to see Rylance’s Jerusalem in the West End or on Broadway in the last year, would agree.  The middle-aged darling of the theatrical demi-monde then, will be floating about the Circle Line, asking whether or not to compare those alighting at Great Portland Street to a summer rose, or commanding old ladies at South Kensington tube with noisy grandchildren en route for the Natural History Museum, that they should “follow your spirit and upon this charge cry God for Harry, England and St George!”.  This will make the children cry, the old ladies back off, and – at worst – may encourage some onlooker to invade France.   It is so mindblowingly daft that I cannot but look forward to it.  I think I’ll book a day off.  Just go for it.  Hover around the network until I alight upon Mr Rylance and follow him for some wonderful street theatre for the day.  He might try to get away from me – oh yes – by rushing through those dastardly electronic ticket terminals for Oyster card – but in the underground no one can hear you scream.  So I can capture him and demand soliloquies hourly from the Rylance.  I believe Shakespeare would most certainly have approved.

There are to be retrospectives of British artists (Hockney, Hurst & Emin – and – bizarrely – Yoko Ono).  Daniel Barenboim, the innovative creator of the celebrated Israeli /Arab orchestra West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will rock up  to the Proms, whilst over the EC2 the diverse collection of musicians involved with the Barbican end of the festival range from Simon Rattle conducting his little heart out and the Wynton Marsalis Swing Orchestra.  Of course, the fact that 10million tickets are available for free cultural events harbours fear in the heard of every British breast, as it carries the threat of “audience participation”.  People don’t know where to look when Fiona Shaw starts monologue-ing by a speedramp near Southend beach, or when a culturally valid, but essentially confusing, Eastern European dance troupe takes up temporary residency doing cartwheels on Tower Bridge.  We might find it all embarrassing.  Because we spend most of our time in a national cringe.   If our nation had a national expression it would be somewhere between half-baked anxiety and faint embarassment.  The British face would squirm if it could.

However, it really shouldn’t.  The cultural achievements warranted in this tiny island over the last sixty years have been ridiculously great and we have an awful lot to be proud of.   Somewhere between old-fashioned English modesty and huge, X factor crocodile tears about “journeys” we forgot to confidently celebrate the things we have consistently done well since about 1950.   And this London 2012 festival is our chance.  Get out. Stop squirming.  Be proud.  And get on the District Line and follow Mark Rylance all the way to Putney Bridge.  Let’s hope it doesn’t become a really British event and end up being naff.  I mean, how could it?  With BoJo at the helm?  Flinging his albino-coloured hairdo about whilst in command of a waving Union Jack flag?  Our 2012 Festival couldn’t be anything other than dignified.  Could it?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

Rent a vid

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 transaction of video rental, she would simultaneously hold a monologue on the phone to her friendly associates with whom she frequently fraternized at the local hostelry:

“Naaah.  Chris is coming – but you know what that’s like…..Naah….she’s left ‘im, ain’t she?  Remember the motorbike, she gave ‘im hell over that and then what with her mum having her whatsit down in Painswick and the car was buggered, weren’t it?  I told ‘er, I said ‘You wanna clear aht, he’s taking the piss ……yeah…..naaah…..Bulmer’s cider.    Yeah….naah….Well, I was going to wear me white trousers, but then well, I’m due ON on Friday, ain’t I?  So I told Chrissie I weren’t wearing me white trousers coz in case, you know, well, I ain’t gonna wear ’em, naah.  Wear me pink ones, won’t I – eh?  Eh??  Won’t show then will it?  WHAAA???”

This last exclamation would be in a direct reaction to me, as I was gently trying to rent La Bamba featuring Lou Diamond Philips and a guitar.  She was aghast that someone had come into the shop and was attempting to actually rent a video.  It was a genuine shocker.

“HANG ON SHIRL…. I got a CUSTOMER.  Right.  Yeah.  Nah not that one, the other one.”

Then she would lumber, elegantly, off the stool, scratch her arse and potter over to the collection of film fantastics that our village video shop had.   This would be done so slowly you could hear the seasons change.

FLOoopppp. Smash.  That was the sound the plastic casing of the video would make when it landed on top of the plastic counter.  Slowly, there would be a creak on the 1980s swivel chair before she launched her not inconsiderably sized behind into it and turned, sighing heavily towards the computer screen.  The computer screen was a new innovation.  It was startlingly under productive.  It would not, for example, tell her whether Shirl would get the duty free for her mum, whether her white trousers should be worn on Friday, or whether Dave had quite forgiven her for ‘aving it large on Thursday night at the Brewers and thumping Chris.   But what it would do is remind me how much was outstanding in fines.

“Riiiiiight.”  An intense stare at the 1987 Amstrad followed.  Then an expression of intensity, the most this puffy face could produce, filled the face in front of me.  Keys were pressed, stoically, by very long nails at the average of two keys a minute.  Tap.  Sigh,  look for number.  Scratch arse.  Puff out bottom lip and blow air upward onto face to disturb permed fringe.  Tap.

“Twelve pahnds. Blimey. That’s what you owe, innit?”

“Oh,” I said, resolving to sound a little less middle class, which never works.  Already I felt the village barricades had been raised silently, secretly in the night, letting our cluster of posh Jews in, without consultation of the local populace.  Already I felt like The Village Yidiot.  I didn’t need to inspire them further.  “Really?”

“Yeah.  It’s all those Kiefer Sutherlands, innit?  The modern American screen of the Brat pack film genre is mindful of the 1950s Americana film style made popular through the all too small film catalogue featuring the late James Dean as the primary American Teenager negotiating the adult terrain and making his own individual generational tensions manifest.”

(Oh, all right then.  I made that last bit up).

But I was trying to give her a bit of glamour.  It would be depressing wouldn’t it – to read her real response?:

“You gotta PAAAY, int cha?”

This place must have been able to pay its rent on fines alone.  I shuffled over the money and she expressed her revulsion by nonchalantly puffing a lungful of second hand smoke onto my school blazer.   Fourteen quid fifty lighter, you had a video to rent.   Then you’d leave the shop, and leave this extraordinary, nameless woman to her weekend worries, wardrobe queries and bodily functions, which she used to discuss on the phone with a distressing amount of volume.  There wasn’t a person in the WD4 area who didn’t knows the ins and outs of her hemorrhoids.   But it reminds us that in those days, if you wanted to hire a film, you had to deal with people, hold cash in your hand, transfer it into the hand of another, carry the video and actually be physically reminded of its presence.  That meant that you were guaranteed to watch it.  It was not a common occurance.  The film you wanted to hire would have been buzzing around your brain for the best part of the week.  Now, with the advent of the download, we see no people, we speak to no one, the money doesn’t really, truly exist, the films pile up on the Sky Plus Planner and readers, how many of them do you actually see? 

The video shop has gone the way the travel agent will inevitably follow.  There is still a travel agent in my district, but I am astonished as to its survival.  Recently someone drove into the front of their store.  I think they were relieved.   Sweeping up the broken glass gave them something to do.  In South Hampstead, there also used to be a bizarre video rental store valled Vulture Videos, which had a large model vulture hanging out of the top of the sign and sweeping up over the road, which used to alarm shoppers in the Waitrose next door.   Many people used video shop membership cards to develop alternative, eccentric titles : “Sq. Ldr John Smith” or “Judge Emma Brown” or similar.  Now, identity proof online has rid us of those playful eccentricities.  Apple wouldn’t understand if I happened to make myself “Doctor” or “Councillor” or “Justice of the Peace” just for larks.  Someone from Apple would try to arrest me.  Virtually, of course.   There is less room for humour now, and more room for reverence.

What, I wonder, happened to the chain-smoking woman once smoking at work and renting videos became a thing of the past?  Did she finally find her vocation burying bodies for the Mafia/road testing vitriolic shades of coloured mascara/dealing with Shirl and Chris and her mum in the manner that would have made everyone happy?    Did she end up locked in a call centre eight hours a day where, attached to a centralized telephone system, she was unable to regale locals who eavesdropped into her calls to Shirl, not to mention the lugubrious Chris?  Unable to smoke and unable to watch Sylvester Stallone films on a loop all day, what kind of menace and hatred would have developed in her already somewhat menacing brain?   Did she ever give Chris what for?  Indeed, who was Chris?  I imagine a chap with builder-shoulders who was probably the person who used the leave a pints worth of urine in a glass at the end of our driveway every Saturday morning.    Maybe not.  Maybe it was the video shop woman, in which case she must have had spectacular aim, despite the hemorrhoids.  

Four things need to be asked:

1. Why do we have more choice in shopping these days, but less personal freedom?

2. Do we have too many things that we don’t watch / see / enjoy / concentrate on because we don’t have a human-orineted, cash transaction to buy them?

3. Why, if transactions are soundless and efficient, must they be so confusing and miserable?

3.  And lastly – one of the great questions relating to the technical transitions of the last twenty years that have changed our lived from real to virtual – did she ever get to wear those bloody white trousers? 

Please return to the London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.