100 London facts for our 100th post!

To commemorate our 100th post here at Bluebird Towers, settle back and read 100 interesting, strange and downright fascinating facts about London:
  1. The Great Smog of London lasted from Friday 5th December to Tuesday 9th December 1952.  It is estimated that 12,000 people died prematurely because of it.
  2. The London Eye is the largest observation wheel in the whole world.   It weighs 2,100 tonnes in total.
  3.  The daylight bombing of the first day of the Blitz on London , September 7th 1940, involved 300 tons of high explosives and thousands of incendiaries.  By the following morning 500 Londoners were dead and another 1400 injured.  After this day, Fighter Command amended its defences, and the intensity of this daylight bombing was never repeated on the same scale.
  4. The only road in London in which you can drive on the right is Savoy Court, the short, turning street in front of the Savoy Hotel.
  5. The City of London has never been under the authority of the monarch.  The Queen may only enter the Square Mile of the City if she is given permission by the Lord Mayor.
  6. 80,000 umbrellas are lost every year on the tube.
  7. Christ Church, Lambeth, has a spire decorated with stars and stripes. Half the cost of the church was borne by Americans, and the tower commemorates President Lincoln’s abolition of slavery.
  8. London’s first traffic island was put in St. James’s Street in 1864 at the personal expense of a Colonel Pierpoint, who was afraid of being run over on his way to his Pall Mall club. When it was finished, he dashed across the road to admire his creation and was knocked down by a cab.
  9. In the floor of Westminster Abbey is a tiny stone marking the burial place of the poet Ben Jonson. He was too poor to pay for the normal grave space, so he is buried standing up.
  10. Rudolf Hess was the last prisoner to be kept in the Tower of London, in 1941, after the plane he had been flying solo crashed in Scotland.
  11. The London production of Chicago opened in 1998.  Since then it has used more than 14,871 pairs of tights, 581 metres of fishnet fabric, 871 metres of black lace fabric, 760 pairs of men’s socks, 136,520 hairpins, 9,666 hair grips and 2,321 litres of washing-up liquid.
  12. Buckingham Palace has its own chapel, post office, swimming pool, staff cafeteria, doctor’s surgery and cinema.
  13.  London is home to people speaking 300 different languages.
  14.  In 2012, London will become the only city that has hosted the Olympics three times (1908 and 1948 previously)
  15.  23 and 24 Leinster Gardens in Paddington are dummy houses built to hide the Tube line running underneath (the old Metropolitan, now a section of the Bakerloo). The windows are painted on, and behind the façade is a track.
  16.  Mosquitoes live within tube tunnels.  They’re not native to Britain and can’t be found anywhere else. It’s thought they travelled on Underground trains from Heathrow where they arrived by plane. They also form their own unique species.
  17. London has had five names in the last 20 centuries.  London began life as Londinium, the Roman fort at the Thames crossing. During the Golden Period of Roman occupation it was called Augusta. Later during the Saxon period of occupation it was known as Lundenwic (actually an area west of Londinium near present day Trafalgar Square). During the 9th century the old abandoned Londinium was repopulated and known as Lundenburh and Lundenwic was depopulated and renamed Ealdwic (old town) – which is where the present district ‘Aldwych’ gets its name. After that it was called London, and so it remains…
  18. Karl Marx once narrowly avoided arrest for drunkenly smashing street lights in Tottenham Court Road after an all-day bender.
  19. The most significant Charles Dickens museum in the world, at No 48 Doughty Street, is in a house where Dickens only lived for three years.  It was saved from demolition by the Dickens Fellowship in 1923.  It holds 100,000 items connected to Dickens.
  20. The Sherlock Holmes Museum is based as close as it can be to the address of 221b Baker Street.  The house is government protected, due to its “special architectural and historical interest”.  There are now 25 Sherlock Holmes Societies around the world, in countries as diverse as Japan, Israel, India, Australia and Venezuela.
  21. The River Thames is 215 miles long, has 47 locks and carries some 300,000 tonnes of sediment a year.
  22. Only two people have ever had their coffins transported by tube: Dr Barnardo and William Gladstone.
  23. There is only one tube station that doesn’t have any of the letters in the word “mackerel” in it – St John’s Wood.
  24. In 1925 an office boy called William Taynton was asked in Frith Street, Soho, if he minded taking part in an experiment.  The man who asked him was Logie Baird, and he paid William Taynton half a crown to be the first person to ever appear on television.  A blue plaque commemorating this first television experiment is on the first floor of No 22 Frith Street, now occupied by Bar Italia.
  25. Soho is also home to London’s only French Protestant Church and was home to a shop called “Anything Left Handed” selling household products specifically designed for left-handed people.  Unfortunately this shop has now closed.
  26. The concept of the Christmas cracker was invented by Tom Smith, a baker and confectioner on the Goswell Road, EC1 in 1847.  By 1890, he had sold 47 million of them.
  27. Clerkenwell was famous for its gin distilleries in the 18th century – with the big three (Stone’s, Tanqueray’s and Gordon’s) all setting up in Clerkenwell in the 1740s.  They were probably attracted to the region due to its close proximity to the Fleet river, and also to the droves of thirsty cattle traders passing by en route to Smithfield.  The only London-based gin distillery left today is Beefeater Gin, which is based on Kennington in the former Haywards pickle factory,
  28. It was Lord Byron’s valet, James Brown, who established Brown’s Hotel in Dover Street in 1837. Alexander Graham Bell made Britain’s first telephone call from there in 1876. Agatha Christie’s At Bertram’s Hotel is also based on Brown’s.
  29. Mayfair’s most eccentric dentist was Martin von Butchell (1735- 1814). When his wife, Mary, died in 1775 he had her embalmed and turned her into a visitor attraction to drum up more business. Doctors injected the body with preservatives and colour additives to give a glow to her cheeks and gave her glass eyes. The body, dressed in a lace gown, was embedded in plaster of Paris and placed in a glass topped coffin – which was put on display in von Butchell’s window. When he remarried, his second wife demanded that he get rid of his first wife’s corpse. It ended up in the Royal College of Surgeons, where 166 years later it was blown up in a German bombing raid.
  30. Suite 212 at Claridges was declared Yugoslav territory by Sir Winston Churchill so that Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia could be born on home territory. King Peter of Yugoslavia moved to Claridges with his queen after he was exiled in 1941. A spade full of Yugoslav earth was placed under the bed so that the prince could be born on Yugoslav soil.
  31. The Ritz hotel in Piccadilly was built on a site previously occupied by The Old White Horse Cellar, one of the most famous coaching inns in London. The Ritz was one of the first steel-frame buildings to be erected in Europe. The restaurant has so many chandeliers that its ceiling has had to be specially reinforced.
  32. From 1808  to 1814 Hampstead Heath hosted a shutter telegraph chain (system of conveying information by means of visual signals, using towers with pivoting shutters)  connecting the Admiralty in London to naval ships in Great Yarmouth.
  33. William Whiteley opened London’s first department store, Whiteleys, in 1863, by buying up a series of Westbourne Grove shops.  He was shot dead outside the new Whiteleys in Bayswater, in 1907, by a man who claimed to be his illegitimate son, Horace Raynor.
  34. Actor William Terris was shot and killed outside the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre, where he was performing, in 1897.  His killer was a jealous actor called Richard Prince.   Terris’s ghost has apparently haunted Maiden Lane and the Adelphi dressing rooms ever since.
  35. In 1666 the Great Fire of London swept through the City, destroying almost every building in its path. The fire blazed with such ferocity because the medieval and Tudor buildings were made of wood; and so was the ‘Hoop & Grapes’, but luckily the fire stopped just yards away. After the fire wooden buildings were forbidden.  This pub is now the only surviving 17th-century timber-framed building in the City, in Aldgate High Street.
  36. Another old boozer, is Gordon’s Wine Bar in Villiers Street, WC2.  It is situated in the same building that was home to Samuel Pepys in 1680 and has been a wine bar since 1890.  It has no music, no modern characteristics, is still owned by the Gordons family and is reputed to be the oldest wine bar in London still operating.
  37. Many people think The London Palladium is London’s biggest capacity theatre, but in fact The Coliseum Theatre just pips it, having 2,358 seats to The Palladium’s 2,286.
  38. There are five prisons in London and four of them were built by the Victorians (Wormwood Scrubs, Wandsworth, Pentonville and Brixton).  Brixton is the oldest prison in London still in use, whilst the authorities made the most of the labour force they had in prisons by getting the prisoners to build Wormwood Scrubs themselves.  The smallest prison in London is a single room in the base of the St Stephens Tower in the Houses of Parliament.  Although never used these days, it is still classed as a state prison.
  39. The Piccadilly Circus statue fondly known as Eros is officially called “The Angel of Christian Charity”.
  40. In 1750 the whole of London only had 6 policemen.
  41. London Clay is a heavily fossiled, bluish coloured clay which dates back to between 36million and 42million years ago, and which is found in many areas in south east England.  It is ideal for driving tunnels (it was used heavily during the construction of London Underground) being impermeable.
  42. There is a Euston Square tube station but there is no place actually called Euston Square.  That is because of a grisly 1878 murder of a woman named Matilda Hacker who was found dead in a cellar at No 4 Euston Square having been strangled.  The name of the square was subsequently changed to Torrington Square.
  43. The population of London is approximately 7,556,900.  The biggest European city population is Moscow, which has 10,415,400 residents.
  44. The first ever Sainsburys shop opened in Drury Lane in 1869.
  45. The Roundhouse in Camden was originally built as a turntable engine shed for the London & Birmingham Railway in 1846.  But within 10 years the engines were too big for the building to continue to serve its purpose.  The Roundhouse has been a bit of a white elephant ever since, with no sense of purpose, although in recent years considerable investment has been put into it to create a performing arts venue.
  46. London Zoo is the world’s oldest zoo, having opened in 1828.  It has never received state funding and exists wholly on Fellows, The Zoological Society of London and charitable donations.
  47. The bronze statue of Peter Pan was erected in Kensington Gardens in 1912.  It marks the spot where J M Barrie first met Jack Llewellyn Davies, the boy who was the inspiration for Peter.
  48. Pelicans have been kept in St James’s Park since the 17th century ever since the Russian Ambassador made a gift of them to Charles II.
  49. Hyde Park is known as the “Lungs of London”.  It is not the prettiest park (that award probably goes to the Regent’s Park) but it is one of the biggest and is full of different ducks, swans and birds.  Speakers Corner was established here in 1872.
  50. The Serpentine is London’s oldest boating lake (1730) but it is artificial, created to look as if it has evolved naturally.  Part of the old River Westbourne was dammed to help create it.
  51. The word “Strand” is an old English word for “shore”.  It makes reference to when the Thames was more shallow and more wide, and would have flowed along the side of the Strand.
  52. When Suetonius, the Roman General, defeated the uprising of the Iceni tribe led by Boudicca, he slaughtered 80,000 Britons on the site of what is now Kings Cross.
  53. The much-loved Euston Arch was controversially demolished in 1961.  In 1994, part of it was found buried in the Prescott Channel in the East End where it had bizarrely been used to fill a chasm.  The Euston Arch Trust was established in 1996 to “right a historical wrong” and rebuild the arch.
  54. The area Maida Vale is named after a pub, The Count of Maida, on the Edgware Road.
  55. Until the 1840s Notting Hill was a rural area known for its pig farming, until its owner, Mr Ladbroke, had the idea of building an estate.
  56. Wembley Stadium has 2,618 toilets, more than any other venue in the world.
  57. 10 Hyde Park Place, Marble Arch, is probably London’s smallest house.  It is 3 foot, 6 inches wide and is a corridor on the ground floor and a bathroom on the first floor.  Constructed in 1805, it has only ever had one tenant.
  58. London’s biggest private home (after Buckingham Palace) is Witanhurst, on Highgate West Hill, N6.  It has 65 rooms, including 25 bedrooms, a gym and a library.  Plans have recently been submitted to Camden Council for a labyrinth to be dug in front of the house to house an underground cinema, beauty parlour and car park.
  59. Hatchards of Piccadilly is the oldest bookshop in London and opened its doors in 1797.   It has three royal warrants and remains the oldest bookshop in Britain that still trades from its original premises.
  60. Prince Albert did not introduce the first Christmas tree into London, as popular opinion would have it.  The first person who had a Christmas tree in London was Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, wanting to recreate the German Christmases of her childhood.
  61. The Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square has been an annual gift from the Norwegians since 1947, in particular gratitude to the people of London from the people of Oslo, for assistance during the Second World War.
  62. Human habitation in Shepherds Bush can be dated back to the Iron Age.
  63. Berkeley Square’s London plane trees are amongst the oldest in the city, having been planted in 1789.
  64. No 50 Berkeley Square is reported to be the most haunted house in London.  Not only is the attic room haunted by a young woman who died there, but a whole range of deaths followed in the attic rooms throughout the 19th Century.  As a bet, Lord Lyttleton slept in the attic in 1872, with his shotgun. He apparently fired his gun at several apparitions throughout the night.
  65. London receives less rainfall annually than either Rome or Bordeaux.
  66. London’s population in 1939 was half a million more than today.
  67. Despite feeling as if it’s a leftover from a former time, and that it has been overtaken by air freight, the Port of London still handles 45million tonnes of cargo through the Thames every year.
  68. The University of London is the largest teaching university in Europe.  It has 125,000 students.
  69. Upper Street has more bars and restaurants than any other street in the United Kingdom.
  70. The George Inn is a National Trust-owned, medieval pub in Southwark and one of the few Grade I listed public houses in England. Next door to it once stood The Tabard, which was the pub from which Chaucer’s pilgrims started their walk to Kent in “The Canterbury Tales”.
  71. The inspiration for Paddington Bear came to writer Michael Bond one evening when he saw a lone bear for sale in a Paddington store on Christmas Eve, 1956.  The duffel-coat wearing bear from Deepest Darkest Peru is adopted in Bond’s stories by the Brown family after being found at Paddington Station with a sign around his neck saying “please look after this bear”.  Bond was inspired by his memories of newsreels of children being evacuated out of London at the beginning of World War Two with suitcases and signs around their necks, and decided to do the same for Paddington.
  72. There are 46 places on six continents named after London.
  73. The Square mile of The City is actually 1.12 square miles. It has 11,000 residents, but 330,000 people travel to work in this one square mile daily.
  74. The City of London police is the smallest territorial police force in the world, as it only covers the Square Mile, although it has nearly 1,000 officers and special constables.
  75. The City of London has had city status for time immemorial – i.e. no historical information exists to show that it wasn’t a city at any point in known London history.
  76. Wiltons Music Hall remains the only music hall in London, a remnant of what was once the city’s most popular form of live entertainment.   It first opened in 1859 and was saved from demolition by a group of campaigners, including John Betjeman, in the 1960s.  It’s current condition remains perilous, however.
  77. In 1895, an American visitor to a training college for teachers of physical education in Broadhurst Gardens, South Hampstead demonstrated a new type of basketball where the girls played with wastepaper baskets at both ends of the hall.  This was the first game of netball to be ever played in the UK.  The rules were codified in 1901.
  78. In 1854, the London Necropolis Company opened the world’s largest cemetery in Brookwood, Surrey.  Special trains carried coffins there from London’s Waterloo Station. The rail service was withdrawn when the station was bombed in 1941.
  79. South Kensington is still sometimes referred to as “Little Paris”.  The area is not only known for its Francophile bookshops but also its French doctors and dentists.
  80. The façade of Libertys in Regent Street is constructed from the timbers of the navy’s last two wooden warships : HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan.
  81. 8 people drowned and 15 buildings were completely destroyed in the Great London Beer Flood of 1814.  A brewery vat burst just behind what is now New Oxford Street and 30,000 galloons of beer flooded the area.
  82. During the 1860s, London’s most notorious prison, Newgate, became a kind of theatre.  On Wednesdays and Thursdays between 12pm and 3pm visitors could tour the prison.  Being briefly locked in a windowless cell was one of the highlights.
  83. By 1870 there were 20,000 public houses and beer shops in London.  By 1945 there were only 4,000.
  84. London’s first sandwich bar, Sandy’s, opened in Oxenden Street in 1933.
  85. 40% of Londoners died in the Black Death of 1348.
  86. By the end of the 18th century, London was the centre of the watch-making trade, with more than 7,000 men in Clerkenwell assembling 120,000 watches a year.
  87. In the 18th century a ‘Winchester Goose’ was not an animal.  It was the nickname for a prostitute that plied her trade on the south bank of the river.  There, the landlord was the Bishop of Winchester, who leniently tolerated prostitution and took tax revenues from all businesses in the district.
  88. In 1815, West Hampstead was such a quiet, rural enclave, that its residents were reported to have heard the cannon fire from the Battle of Waterloo at Brussels.
  89. The Uncrowned King of Limehouse was the unofficial title of the landlord of the Railway Tavern, West India Dock Road, in the 1890s.  He acquired a massive collection of antique artefacts – including Ming vases – which he displayed in the bar, and was a generous donator towards the striking Dock workers in 1912.  He died in 1932.  His funeral procession was said to have been London’s best attended until that of Winston Churchill.
  90.  Adverts in tube carriages are known as “tube cards”.  They are very good value; in 2009 they cost £10 per week, and travellers spend an average of 13 minutes per journey viewing them.
  91. Playwright George Bernard Shaw served as a St Pancras councillor from 1897 to 1903, during which he worked to establish the first free ladies toilet in the borough.
  92. Both Hampstead’s New End Theatre and Knightsbridge’s Pizza On the Park were entertainment venues converted from hospital mortuaries.
  93. Big Ben is not the name of a clock.  It is the name of the bell within St Stephens Tower.  It weighs 13 tons, and is accompanied by four quarter bells, which weigh between 1 ton and 4 tons each.
  94. The ‘Dirty Dozen’ is a nickname for a section of 12 Soho streets used by cab drivers to short cut between Regent Street and Charing Cross.
  95. A ‘cockney’s luxury’ is the slang term for breakfast in bed, followed by a good defecation in a chamber pot.
  96. The Camberwell Beauty is the colloquial term for Nymphasil antiopa, a velvety, chocolate brown butterfly rarely seen because it migrates annually to Scandanavia from London.  This is not to be confused with a ‘Camberwell Carrot’, which is an enormous marajuana joint, as mentioned in the film Withnail & I and which is ordinarily constructed from three or more cigarette papers.
  97. The British Library was formed in 1973 from the British Museum Library.  It has over 14 million books, 920,000 journal titles and 3 million sound recordings.  It moved to its new home at St Pancras at 1998, and membership is open to all.
  98. According to the London Hackney Carriage Act of 1831, black cab drivers should by law carry a bale of hay in their cabs at all times.  This Act has never been repealed.
  99. The BBC’s Broadcasting House is constructed of Portland stone and the four groups of sculptures featuring Ariel, the invisible spirit of the air.  In June 2008 the glass and steel sculpture on the top of the building, titled ‘Breathing’ was unveiled.  It is a tribute to workers of the BBC who have been murdered or lost their lives whilst working for the Corporation.
  100. The ‘Lutine bell’ is a ship’s bell rung at Lloyd’s of London in Lombard Street before important announcements.  The bell was carried on board the French frigate La Lutine which surrendered to the British in 1793.  It only rings at Lloyds during disasters :  during the Second World War it was used as an air raid warning and it was last rung during the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001.

Many thanks to all our readers for following The London Bluebird throughout 2011.  The blog will return, as usual, on Thursday 5th January 2012 and will be updated every Thursday from then on.  Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Quiz time: How much of a Londoner are you?

I wasn’t surprised to see during a recent survey, that Londoners consider them selves patriotic about  their city first and foremost and about their country second and secondmost.  It is also not surprising that it was our very own Evening Standard who happily pointed this out:     http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-24018243-were-proud-londoners-first-then-british.do

I have to bear my colours here; I have never truly understood the point, or trusted the feeling, of patriotism about a country.  I quite simply don’t get it, particularly in a country as diverse as this one, in which being English and hailing from Devon isn’t at all like being English and hailing from Lindisfarne.  In short, it feels like I’m being played, as my Leeds grandmother would have said, for a giddy kipper.  What is the point of patriotism?  To lull me into a sense of national love, so that I would think little of being farmed into the nation’s army and then be killed for something that is worthwhile?  I don’t buy that claptrap, children.  Why should feeling English mean anything, and how could feeling English serve any kind of dutiful purpose?  I fully understand my citizen’s charter.  I understand that I have to go about my business in a law-abiding way, that I do not kill, rape or pillage, that I pay my taxes, that I display munificent humanity and generosity towards my fellow men and that occasionally I stand up for an old person on a bus.  That is the contract.  My feelings are too intensely private to ever come under the vague banner of “civic duty”.  My feelings are my own, and if the British Nation was to enquire what they were regarding themselves, I’d tell them to bugger right off.

Anyway, the survey chimed very much with what I think.  This isn’t one country.  It’s about 7 different countries, possibly 10.  This is a country of great diversions in the regions (diversions that will become more pronounced as the recession / depression /whatever the buggery bollocks it is continues to seep in and bite the British on the bum) and no one from London thinks they’ve got much in common with people in Peterborough, let alone the Cornish.  I would say my religion is that I am a Londoner.  I identify with the city.  I haven’t seen most of the rest of the country, anyway, apart from that lost weekend in Devon with George Clooney (and I’m much too discreet to discuss that here) so what kind of an authority would I be on the rest of it?  In this survey, Peter Stringfellow, that most classy of delectable Yorkshiremen said “I’m British if we go to war, but apart from that I’m a Londoner first.”

Oh, that’s all right then.  So, if we engage ourselves in the Franco-Turkish Thong and Nipple Tassel Wars, we could be safe that Commander Stringfellow would be in charge of hostilities.    But it raises an interesting point;  a Sheffield native is no more or less a Londoner than you or me.  London is a state of mind, and you don’t have to be born here to be one.  We are magnaminous, and take converts.  Just like the Liberal Synagogue.  The survey showed that 53% of us are “very attached” to the City, whereas only44% of Londoners were “very attached” to England.  This is the kind of statistic that has the retrogressive naysayers cradling their Daily Mails and weeping for a better England, and complaining that there is no sense of pride in the country.  It doesn’t mean that of course.  It means that most of us in London don’t go anywhere else and particularly don’t tend to leave our region that much so don’t really know what the rest of England is like.  This, usually, has a lot to do with being descended from foreign stock, and feeling (aha – there’s that non-civic word again!)  that the rest of England doesn’t really speak to us.  This is more common than you think and basically goes on for centuries after arriving here.  

So, here are, kids – a festive questionnaire.  You may only work here, you may choose to shop here, you may have been born here and then made a rapid break for the Home Counties border, you may have relocated to Quebec, but the question to all of you is – how much of a Londoner are you?

a).  It is 5.15pm on the Friday before Christmas and you are standing in the middle of Hamleys with several hundred hysterical adults and children.  Do you:

  1. Make a calm beeline for the Wii and then head for that till at the back that you know will have a shorter queue.
  2. Worry about a terrorist attack, shout at the children and dream of getting home to a hot bath and a cold beer.
  3. Have an anxiety attack and faint, keeling over onto a six foot model of Paddington Bear.

b).  Complete this sentence : “Cleopatra’s Needle is…..”

  1. A large stone edifice on the edge of the Thames that was stolen from the Egyptians.
  2. A casino run by Egyptians.
  3. An Egyptian-based sewing group that meets fortnightly

c) You are invited to a Devon manor house for Christmas.  Do you:

  1. Break out into a cold sweat, threaten to vomit if taken beyond the orbit of the M25 and immediately say to the person who suggested it that they have gone “completely bonkers”.
  2. Worry about the roads / cows / pigs / farmers / killers that approach isolated manor houses in the night.
  3. Pack a pheasant, guns and your Duke of Windsor tweeds and look forward to pretending you are in an episode of Downton Abbey bossing proles and servants about.  Hello your Lordship!

d).  You are alone in Soho at 1am.  A man with a broken jaw and one eye asks you if you have a light. Do you:

  1. Give him a light and then recognize him as the man you briefly lived with when you were 23 back when he had a full head of hair.
  2. Say “No” in your best Headmistress voice and feel smug that you don’t expose yourself to the nastiness of this city life too much.
  3. In Soho at 1am?  Are you mad?  I wouldn’t live to see morning.  Some London guttersnipe would cosh me over the bonce with a hammer and rob me of my kidneys and sell them on Ebay.  It’s LONDON, you know.

e).  You need to get from Mayfair to Euston.  Do you:

  1. Walk across Oxford Street, nip up Great Portland Street, wiggle up around New Cavendish Street and Warren Street and then dah daaah.  You’ve arrived.
  2. Get the tube from Piccadilly Circus to Green Park, and then Green Park to Euston – which you hate.
  3. Get out the sat nav, panic that if you use it in broad daylight in the West End you will be mugged, weep, and then give up and get a taxi.

f).  What is the difference between North London and South London?

  1. About a universe.  We don’t go there and they don’t come here – and most Londoners assume you need a passport to travel from Westminster to Lambeth.
  2.  About half a mile of river.
  3. Who cares.  They’re just two foul urban stretches of decay populated by fools, students, halfwits and cockneys.

g).  What’s the best thing about London?

  1. Arriving home at Heathrow and seeing a black cab
  2. The theatre and shops – although you sometimes tire of the expense
  3. The M1 heading north out of it

h).  At lunchtime you find yourself in a Clerkenwell gastropub.  Do you…

  1. Get drunk, order a steak, settle on a brown leather sofa and get cosy
  2. Get drunk, complain about the service and refuse to pay £10.50 for a hamburger
  3. Get drunk, get offensive, shout that this is a “trendy wine bar” and that there’s a place in Gloucestershire where you get better local produce at half the price, wipe the mud off your wellington boots on the carpet and get asked to leave the premises, please, madam.

i). What is the “Silicon Roundabout”?

  1. The area around Old Street famed for its silicon chip and software innovations performed by youngsters in uber-fashionable clothing.
  2. The junction of Harley and Wimpole Streets, famed for its plastic surgery consultation rooms.
  3. A record player.

j). At closing time in the local hostelry you are most likely to say….

  1. The best place to get a cab is outside the nearest 5 star hotel.  Let’s walk that way and grab a drink on the way at a bar.
  2. Is there some sort of secret, terribly exciting strip club I can visit now I’m in town? Do they accept Amex?
  3. Collect your sheepdog from beside the open fire, pop your personal pewter mug on the mantelpiece and head out across the hills to your rural homestead.

k). What accent was Dick Van Dyke trying, and failing, to execute in the film of Mary Poppins?

  1. Cockney Lahndahn.  Cor Blimey Guvnor, Strike a light etc
  2. Belfast
  3. Spanish

l). What was your last big social evening event?

  1. Shoreditch wine bar, rapidly followed by Smithfield restaurant and a cab ride home that you don’t entirely remember with someone called Richard who worked in IT.
  2. West End musical, post show supper at Joe Allen and a dash for the last train, all of which you thoroughly enjoyed.
  3. The Annual Countryside Alliance dinner dance – South West England branch – where you accidentally injured the Master of the local Hunt on the dancefloor with your enthusiastic dancing to “I’ve Got A Brand New Combine Harvester”.

m).  What famous consulting detective lived in Baker Street?

  1. Sherlock Holmes
  2. Chap from Midsomer Murders
  3. What is Baker Street? 

Mostly 1’s:  You dapper, urban flibbertygibbert you.  You are a Londoner; cool and collected in the face of Oxford Street madness and able to handle yourself on our dastardly, dirty city streets.  10/10.  You know the best routes through the city and are comfortable in the trains underground.  A bit like a rat.  Make sure you don’t develop Woody Allen Syndrome, where you become so conditionned to the city you panic if someone suggests going anywhere else.

Mostly 2’s.  You tart.  Mostly you treat London as a buffet, nipping in for the fruitiest chunks and the best dips when the mood takes you.  Most probably you’re a native Londoner who’s rippled out to the borders, venturing into the centre for vicarious London-like pleasures but returning to a outer suburb at twilight.  The general consensus is you have the best of both worlds, but be wary of becoming too jaded about the city.

Mostly 3’s.  What are you doing here?  How did you even find this website?  You think people who live in cities are all nutters.  All of your shoes have mud caked on them.   So do most of your relatives.  It’s possible that when you wondered onto this ‘ere London Bluebird you thought Armageddon had come.  Move away from the Blog.  There is nothing for you here.

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

You Belong To Me

On Monday, I went with Mother Bluebird to see The Deep Blue Sea, a film so ponderous and deadly slow that I wanted to cosh the director over the head with a blunt instrument and run out of the magnificent confines of the Curzon Mayfair.   Such wonderful actors, and such a self-consciously po-faced and generally snail slow film, it failed to slake my normal thirst of all things Austerity Britain.  I think we should all start to love Austerity Britain (generally 1945-1952 but ranges according to what you read), as pretty soon we are all going to be living in it.    But what it did do, somewhere amongst the languid tomfoolery of the over-indulgent art direction, is use the whole of the song You Belong To Me

This is a song which has always had a terrible beauty to me.  Strangely, it can depress, despite its gloriousness.    For those of you unfamiliar with it : cop of load of : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8hdqEoFbLw

Of course, now you have listened to it, you realised you weren’t unfamiliar with it at all.  The Deep Blue Sea isn’t the only film that has used it.  It also popped up in the Derek Bentley Story Let Him Have It back in 1992.  Tori Amos sang it for Mona Lisa Smile.  Another version of it also appeared in Shrek.  With the obvious exception of Shrek, the song is usually used to indicate fatally unrequited sexual longing, imminent loss, ration books and heartbreak.  Directors can’t seem to resist it – employing it to evoke moods and atmostpheres that perhaps they are struggling to create themselves.  Maybe it’s not just the stately tempo which lends it a certain melancholy, but the effect of years of watching Austerity Britons on screen, fumbling with clothes in dreary shades of fawn and brown, stumbling over damp craters left over from wartime blitzes and then dealing stoically, in narrow-brimmed hats and headscarves, with the impudent injustice of life.   Certainly that’s what seemed to be happening in The Deep Blue Sea.  The director’s (only) excellent choice throughout the movie was to play the song in its entirety, set to a montage of scenes set in a public house in London in 1950 where everyone wears a hat and smokes like a trooper.  Rachel Weisz’s character and her lover, for whom she has left her husband, sing along with the song playing on the jukebox and gaze adoringly at each other.  But you can see they are doomed; she looks to him as if she needs air from him to help her breathe and eventually, like every other dirty damn cad, he does a runner – bizarrely, to South America.  But do we believe him? 

The song fitted beautifully to the scene – it’s a strange song, suggestive of the war, in which the longing of the domestic heart is placed in the exotic locations where a lover might be, yet there is that terrible sharp sense of ghostly doom; someone doesn’t return home, service is done in foreign lands that ends only in misery and loss (Fly the ocean in a silver plane, see the jungle when it’s wet with rain, but – remember ’til you’re home again….).  Despite the lush, glamourous romance of it, my introduction to this song wasn’t romantic at all.  Or in a plane.  Or in a jungle.  It was the winter of 2001 and I was standing in a pair of itchy, red woollen tights in an uninsulated rehearsal room for the Chichester Festival Theatre.  A scene was played out, startlingly, in which an actor who was the son of another person who was an actor, and a girl actress who had been a nineteen year old divorcee and who was part albino, grappled in a tongue-free stage kiss on the linoleum.  The pale wooden IKEA table, covered with the rings of that morning’s umpteen Nescafes, doubled as a gravestone in a provincial graveyard by the sea.    The table was doing the best method acting  – although it isn’t difficult to play a graveyard on the edge of the sea when you’re in Chichester off-season.  The stage kiss was formidable – just a vast airy sucking sound, punctuated by occasional stabs of sexual awkwardness whilst each actor concentrated on not sticking their tongue in the other actor’s mouth.  I think, although cannot be sure, that the scene featured antlers of some kind.  I do remember the waft of appalling Honeyrose cigarettes, the tabs that actors smoke when they don’t want to smoke real cigarettes and which smell of month-old petrol station dead roses mixed with an aged cat’s urine.   They smell ten times more toxic than the real thing. 

The director, a pained and sadistic chap in his early seventies, walked past this week’s “whipping boy” and pressed some god-awful tape recorder, that probably came from someone collecting Nectar tokens.  When he pressed PLAY, this was the song that came out.  It piqued my interest, mainly because I couldn’t for the life of me identify the singer.  Keely Smith?  Kylie?  Cyndi Lauper?  It could have been anyone, the way that tape machine was strangling the vocals.  I was hanging off the ends of the country in the middle of a dark winter and this song leapt out of the room and filled some warm, gorgeous place in the air.  What was it? 

And so it went on for the next four weeks.  Night after night, standing in the wings, in the same, itchy red tights and mid-length 1970s costume waiting to go on for my turn to stage kiss the actor who was the son of the person who was an actor, three lines of this song became my stage prompt.  I listened to it, increasingly annoyed I couldn’t identify it, thinking “Who is this?  What is this?  Why is she singing about a market in Algiers and buying souvenirs?  Is she actually IN Algiers?  I should know this?  Shouldn’t I?  Oh, dear.  Whoops – sorry am I on now?”

Back in London I broached the topic with my brother over a robust steak luncheon. 

“So, do you know the song You Belong To Me?”  I asked.  He had started his lunch back to front and was progressing steadily from pudding to soup.

“Oh you mean – ” And he started to sing You Were Made for Me, Everybody Tells Me So! by Freddie and the Dreamers, complete with cheeky-chappie 1960s swinging arms.  The diners – frail, elderly and few – ducked.

“No.”

“Oh.”

“Useless,” I said.

It continued to elude me.  I had become convinced, for some reason, that it was Keely Smith after all (which it wasn’t)  and filed it amongst the “Songs To Learn One Day” amongst the hundreds of other songs that littered my frontal lobe.  I occasionally asked acquaintances who were musicians about it.  I either got blank expressions or a repeat of the Freddie and The Dreamers routine.  But it wouldn’t stop turning up.  Amongst the hundreds of hits from this period, You Belong To Me continued to be the Editor’s Choice in film and dramas – always when a love affair transcends the possibilities of real romance or when it all goes spastically wrong.  It would suddenly surface every so often on television, reminding me of the cold, pale blue painted rehearsal room of years before, and the middle of a torrid, horrid English winter.  And I still didn’t know who sang it.

At 6.45am this morning I had had enough, so, waiting for the kettle to boil, I propped myself up against the kitchen worksurface and rippled through my i-Tunes search engine.  JO STAFFORD.  Of course, it was Jo Stafford.  One of the biggest singing stars of the 1940s and 1950s.  The person that Frank Loesser slapped because she wouldn’t sing his songs the way he wanted her to for Guys and Dolls.  And then, as with the wonder of i-Tunes, it was a moment, a click, 99p and a 30 second download and then it was mine.   Since this morning, I have used the internet to discover more things about it.  It was written by a music librarian for Louisville Radio, USA called Chilton Price.  I don’t know if that is a man or a woman.  The radio station played predominantly country music, and, as the story goes, one day she, or he, showed country music composers Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart some of the songs she/he had written.  This was one of them.   Astonishingly, she/he had also written a song called Slow Poke, but I don’t know what happened to that.  The version of You Belong To Me in the You Tube link above, sung by Jo Stafford, was in the UK charts for 20 weeks in 1952 and is the first British No 1 by a female solo artist.   It remains “our song” for many couples in the US and UK today who were courting in the years after the war.  Of course, ten years ago, in Chichester, I couldn’t have scrolled through anything.  I would have had to go to the small HMV in the city centre and no one would have known what I was talking about.  I would have had to check into an internet cafe.   Or do that terribly twentieth century thing and actually, I dunno, look it up in some kind of book.   Would the song ever have got to me; ever have eerily,  fascinated me in an annoying and endearing way, if I had been immediately able to identify it?  It became more haunting for its anonymity.  Would it have failed to enchant if I’d been able to pinpoint it in so prosaic a fashion ten years ago?  It would be nice to think so.  The advent of the i-Tunes era has made everything wonderfully accessible and certainly made life less irritating, but I am sure that the ghostly magic of the melody of this song wouldn’t have been half as dreamy or interesting if it had been so readily available from a telephone – a telephone  – at a neat, tidy, swift 99p per click.

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

Water, water, everywhere – and not a drop to drink.

Yesterday morning, when I woke up at silly o’clock, I had no water in the house.  Turned taps on : nothing.  Not a drop.  I was forced to wash up and brush my teeth using a small bottle of mineral water.  It reminded me of Greek Island holidays where, fresh from the bruised tetanus jab at the local surgery, you are terrorised into mixing Colgate with pre-packed bottled water for the next two weeks in order to maintain some degree of dental hygiene because people in England have convinced you that if you don’t you’ll return to Gatwick with tetanus lockjaw.  It did make me realise how important caffeine was to me.  I couldn’t give a monkey’s about the water, but the coffee was the thing.  I slopped a load of water from my nighty-night-bedtime glass and boiled it for the cafetiere.   I was able to go out and face the world, adrenal glands a-glow.

Our whole city is of course built around the water.  The river is the one piece of the city most Londoners regret not taking advantage of, and not spending enough time with.  Perhaps that’s a leftover from the days when the Thames was a friend in trade but an enemy when it came to the gut; many Londoners were raised on weak ale as the water was far too deadly to drink.  They did skate on it during occasional “Frost Fairs” in the seventeenth century, which seems like utter stupidity to me, but that’s the early Georgians for you.  The development of further bridges through the late 18th and beginning of the 19th century “broke up” the river slightly, making it less likely to freeze over.  I shouldn’t think anyone wanted to drink that water after it melted.  Cholera was so rampant and dastardly and progressed so swiftly once it attacked that it was known as King Cholera in the early and mid 19th century.  It arrived from Asia at some stage in 1831 and didn’t let up for nearly thirty years.  There were epidemics in every decade from 1820 to 1860, and the source of it was not successfully worked out until John Snow, assessing an outbreak of cholera in Broad Street Soho (now Broadwick Street) in 1854,  traced the outbreak to a street water pump. By the end of this particular outbreak, made possible by the fact that Soho wasn’t included in the beginnings of London’s sewer system and that certain people lived with “night soils” underneath their floorboards, 616 people had died.   Basically, it’s to do with poo poos getting into the drinking water; rampant diarrhea and vomiting herald dehydration and, more often than not, death within 72 hours.

And who would have wanted to partake of a refreshing glass of Thames Water extracted from the river during the “Great Stink” of 1858?  I remember it well!  It was a corker.  London was so rancid and smelly that parliament couldn’t sit, so there were some advantages.   However, in the short period in which they did sit, no doubt, holding perfumed handkerchief to public school noses and dry retching in the face of The Stink, they shoved through a  bill in 18 days that was to construct a massive sewer system for London and an Embankment (The Victoria Embankment, constructed 1864)  to stave off the stench of the river.  Fast forward a century, and with London drinking water the safest it’s ever been, it seems odd that the country then got obsessed with drinking water out of plastic bottles that, they now tell us, breed carcinogens if left in a hot car, in a hot dog, or under a warm dinner lady’s bottom.    The Thames Water Ring Main does supply massive amounts of us within the Thames area with our drinking water (or not, if you live in our house).  London needs 2.6 thousand millions of litres a day.  Most of the Thames Water Ring Main has its activity in Teddington Weir and from there is piped out through various sub pipes throughout the city (BUT MISSING OUR HOUSE).  Obviously, it’s built in London Clay, which is a fabulously brilliant tunneling fabric because it’s impermeable.   I did try to Google “Thames Water” to research this river further, but just got directed to a website that asked me whether I wanted to “pay a bill or was I moving?”  and it turns out that that website, was in fact Thames Water, the supplier. 

So, my first email was largely composed in swearwords and badinage and asked when my ****ing water was going to be ****ing well back on and if, after all these ****ing years, they couldn’t pull their fingers out of their watery ****ing ***holes and make it possible for me to have a ***ing bath.  Oddly, no reply.  But I was able to play a game called Waterwisely.

Waterwisely lets you move in an interactive town and go through your daily routine monitoring your water intake.  Apparently, when I got into the bathroom area, I should pledge to be in and out of the shower in 4 minutes in order to wash responsibly.  I should also put a bag of crystals down my loo to initiate responsible flushing.   Apparently if I turn the tap off when brushing my teeth I will save an astonishing 12 litres a day.  Of course, in my house that’s a hypothetical scenario because I HAVE NO WATER, but you get the drift.  Then there was a section of the cartoon about saving water at the Health Club (don’t go there.  Ever.  So water saved!) and Car Wash (don’t wash the car.  Saved!).  Also, I could collect rainwater in my garden (I don’t have one) to water my plants ( they are already dead) so lots of water saved there.   Want to save 17 litres a day doing the washing up.  Don’t do it.  Get your husband to do it.  There you go – water saved!  Apparently, in the water stakes, dishwashers are toxic.  I mean, they are really really bad news.  They’re the water equivalent of leaving the garden hose on all night. 

Of course, yesterday I went around turning the taps on and then cursing when nothing came out of them but a tragic, semi-whistling, stream of air.  This meant that last night the house was suddenly filled with the burp and fart of pipes and tubes and there was water, water, everywhere, vomiting out of various rooms.  I’m glad it was back on, as I was dreading the return of the “stand up wash” – you know, the one you do standing bolt upright naked at your bathroom sink with lonely, pathetic flannel  and which makes you feel like you are at boarding school or a prisoner – but ultimately the absence of running water made the heart grow fonder.  How wonderfully lucky we all are, to turn on a tap and have clean cold water rippling out through it.

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