What Next for the New Era Estate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Paddington only fit for the basin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I’m saying goodbye to my Kindle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unseen London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ageing Student

Student

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m too old to say “no biggie”.

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

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

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

A Memorable Date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Review : Secret Cinema : Back To The Future

cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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