Teatime in Soho – or is it?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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!!


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.