GE 2019 : The View from Amersham & Chesham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thrilling book reviews from Bluebird

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

Michelle Frances, The Girlfriend

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


Sarah J Naughton, Tattle Tale

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

Lucie Whitehouse, The House at Midnight

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

Ruth Ware, The Woman in Cabin No 10

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

Ruth Ware, In A Dark, Dark Wood

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

Emma Cline, The Girls

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

Elizabeth Buchan, The New Mrs Clifton 

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

Cass Green, The Woman Next Door

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

Books I did not like

Sam Hepburn, Her Secret Life

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

Rachel Hore, The Dream House

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

Metroland – the departure for 1953 leaves from Platform 4


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

Zone 9?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broadway Baby?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Difficulty and complexity are not the same thing

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

Physical tiredness and mental tiredness are not the same thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

The busy paradox : “I’ve no time!”

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

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

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


Wherever possible, walk don’t drive

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

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

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


As I was saying….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This train terminates at Sainsburys

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

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

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

So, what should happen to those 32 stations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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