A Riotous Message

This week an exotic species has raised itself up, jettisoned in from the deprived and blighted peripheries of our nation’s underclass and made themselves visible by robbing Dixons, JD Sports, breaking into stores and essentially producing the most radical mode of rioting for a generation.   Britain – as always – is fixated on the short term solution (people are like that here) rather than the long term. Much indignant reaction calls for a 1955 approach: stocks, plastic bullets, death sentences, lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key growling contempt and various other colourful ideas for how to control the feral.  Social networking sites are awash with sweeping , simplistic comments, which are always the last resort of the stupid. Consequences for actions is preoccupying victims and the societies against which the perpetrations have been carried out, many of whom withstood attacks in boroughs little equipped with money or power to re-establish themselves quickly.  In the last five days, moral law-abiding Britain has been brought face-to-face with its own brutal underclass and it doesn’t like it.  Not a jot.  Peculiarly, attempts to produce explanations for the macro/micro socio-economic conditions which resulted in a fear-free underclass within British society are too often met with attacks of leftist apologism.     Rioting in this country is as old as the hills, only this particular episode is so riddled with personal greed and some quite bizarre claims of human rights to materialism – “I deserve that Plasma TV, and yes, let’s steal some watches on Clapham High Street” say the rioters – that moral indignance has, for the moment, overtaken the importance of logical explanation and debate.  Rage is understandable, of course, and dangerous as it also carries the fear of vigilante reprisals which, naturally, our government is keen to repress.  But rage in the face of lawlessness doesn’t get things done.  The law does.

Of course, there is no doubt whatsoever that the rioting is uncivil, terrible, terrifying, indefensible and unacceptable.  That is a no brainer, but what is unsavoury is the nature of the discourse, and the keenness for politicians to take centre stage and bitch-slap each others’ faces with left/right blame.  Those at the margins of society sort of remain there, dim and invisible to the rest of us, threatening, isolated and disconnected from a political process that continues to allow urban decay to fester away, irrespective of whatever wing that political ethos springs from.  The papers have had a field day.  They love this sort of thing, which happens on average every 20-30 years in this country, because the British tabloid press are slags for the psychology of fear that they are dedicated to perpetuate, as opposed to common pragmatism or pro-activity.  If they have you fearful, they have you paralysed.  There is enough fear on the streets should you wish to go and look at some and take some i-phone snaps like everyone else, but The Daily Snail and the The Pun  has been projectile vomiting fear like there’s no tomorrow.  They would like to convince us there is no tomorrow, the country is sinking into a morass of sports shoes and stolen audio visual equipment , that the majority of people under the age of 20 are destroying society, we are being “swamped” (an extremely key word in the debate surrounding urban decay) by the feral animals in hoods etc etc etc (are you finding this as boring as I am?) whilst reaching further into the lexicon of grammatical poverty.  “National Lootery!” screamed The Pun yesterday, implying the whole nation is at it.

What our chroniclers, reporters and journalists owe to this country is to point out that a maximum of – say 2,000 young people in London and – on the absolute outside – another 2,000 people in the Midlands and the North West, have been involved in these riots. Three men in Birmingham have been killed.  The BBC reports that the Salford and Manchester riots featured “1,000” people, but I want to scare you a little bit, so let’s say 2,000 to be excessive.  That’s 4,000 in total.  Let’s take it to the outside and whack on another 1,000 – say, 5,000 people.  It sounds a lot, yet in Britain there are 7.5million people aged between 10 and 19.  Therefore, an absolute maximum of 0.065% of British teenagers have been involved in the riots in some form.  There has been no effort to point out this contextualisation.  This is one of the most peculiar and insidious aspects of the British tabloid press: its entrenched and somewhat spastic inability to engage in logical debate, logical debate being something only found in our four broadsheets, and to stealthily fan the flames of “Broken Britain” related paranoia into a spiral of helplessness.  These newspapers often do not encourage action of any kind.  It is like listening to a national groan, a long wailing of hopeless, constipated grievance.    The result is a population being herded into feelings of failure and futility.

However, in the last 24 hours, operation #RiotWombles and #RiotCleanup has brought about a rash of British cleaning, evoking images of blitz spirit and showing inhabitants of all our major cities that have been affected waving cups of tea about and harvesting broken glass and various items for recycling whilst clearing the streets away.  An estimated 1 million people in towns and cities have been involved in this voluntary clean-up operation.  That’s, for those of you interested in statistics, instead of de-contextualized reportage, is 1.43% of the British population.   That’s 22 brooms metaphorically pushed up the backside of every teenage looter or rioter bent on destruction.  See also http://www.operationcupoftea.com/ which currently has over a quarter of a million Facebook followers and which sells branded tea products, advocates to “make tea not war!” and advises the population to jolly well stay in and have a brew until the nasty business has subsided.  The profits of their branded tea products will go directly to those affected by the riots.  If aliens landed on Planet Earth and asked for a generic picture of the English nature, you’d have to be a depressive pessimist to show them pictures of the riots.  You’d direct them instantly towards Operation Cup of Tea’s homepage.  It tells you so much about English resilience, reaction, psychological regrouping and stoicism.  The Huffington Post picked up on Operation Cup of Tea yesterday evening so in the following few days the site is fully expected to go stratospheric.

Urban social decay, broken societies, the detritus of society bent on destruction appearing in the form of rabid hordes of arson-fixated looters first appeared in the 1850s, peaked very highly in the 1880s, 1930s and the late 1970s / early 1980s.   You’ll note a distinctive pattern in the economic temperature of these times; riots are recession friendly.  Like bailiffs.    As soon as the urban spaces were filled by the mid-nineteenth century, having been fuelled by the industrial revolution, an underclass of urban decay appeared as a characteristic of it.  Our fears of annihilation, degeneration and bankruptcy have to go somewhere, and for the last 150 years they’ve been directed towards the urban poor, some of which occasionally live up to our fears, often with, as what has happened in the last five days, a staggering audacity and absence of fear in the face of municipal authority which tends to disturb the mainstream population more than the physical action of robbery itself.  You’d be hard pushed to find a world city in the West that does not have vast economic disparity.  Yet when the facts are viewed coldly none of these societies are literally – or metaphorically – “broken”.    The painful alliteration of “Broken Britain” was invented by The Sun in 2002, and became a coarse concertina of a label, in which anything can be sandwiched that corresponds to present representations of social breakdown – teenage pregnancies, the absence of conventional parental units, social deprivation, crime, drug abuse and endemic violence.  It has been applied to so many things that it is almost rendered meaningless.   We are doing ourselves an enormous disservice if we allow our mental faculties to be “swamped” by the over-arching culture that tells us such baloney as “we are broken”.  The dialectics of despair inherent in the concept of being broken serve only to disenfranchise us from the possibility of realizing a different future.   In short, it socially and mentally disempowers us.  Conversely, “Broken Britain” implies that at some point it was “Unbroken” which doesn’t mean anything.  Because it wasn’t.

The strange thing  is that underclass, the vagrants, those that exist beyond our normal society, do not and cannot permeate the robust rich commercial and residential heartlands in the centre, i.e. they cannot and do not “swamp”.  What they do is smash and grab, violate and terrify randomly – and this is something the authorities constantly seek to curtail – but there is too much long-term fundamental structure and normality in the way we live to sustain further development, to “seep” into conventional societies values, aims and customs.  Urban societies co-exist but rarely combine their own socio-cultural codes.  Urban spaces are remarkably intricate like that ; we share spaces but are removed, and we see faces yet are strangers to the humans behind them. Many of us in London are no more than 1,000 yards from a crackhouse.  But that doesn’t mean we all go inside them.   There is no evidence in world history of a mob rule “breaking” through this invisible urban divide and making a fundamentally functional and law-abiding liberal democracy “broken” by usurping its social structure, magistrates, the legal system, police force and the common morality of the man on the street.   Political revolution with ballast, money and power behind it may end with the cutting off of a king’s head.  But riots do not manipulate in the same way.  Further reading (excellent reading) on this can be found in Peter Ackroyd’s London : The Biography in which its section on the London mob throughout the age illustrates the implausibility of a mob “breaking” into a city and literally obtaining it.

An overwhelming majority of people in this country are moral, law-abiding, understand the fundamentals of property, robbery and ownership, and go about their world with noble decency.  If that wasn’t the case, this would be Zimbabwe, or operate like the Wild West.  And it clearly doesn’t.   There is no excuse for riot and destruction and the rule of mob terror.  But at least what it does do is provide us with enough hysterical behaviour, thank you very much.  We don’t need the newspapers to do it for us too by failing to contextualize crime.  We are doing our civic duty if we robustly challenge the manner of reportage, read our history books and look coldly at statistics.  Statistics at the Home Office http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk feature year on year crime detection rates in England & Wales, separated by offence type.   A comparison of the figures of 2009-10 and 2010-11 show, for example, a 13.1% drop in reported criminal damage but a 4% rise in general theft offences.  You see?  Calm and statistical.  Very helpful.  Simples.  David Cameron’s speech yesterday has brought some much needed authority and rational reassurance to the country.  Decisive action and pragmatism work well in riot situations, but unfortunately he was three days too late, because he was too busy shoving focaccia down his neck in Tuscany, and his speechwriters brought together a series of strong phrases designed to try to get a Prime Minister who had lost his public back into trust.

The truth is:  this is an intrinsically decent, robust little island that can and will handle the various nonsenses and nutty things thrown at it.  There is danger inherent in the acceptance of the belief that the robbery and violence of a tiny minority heralds an ongoing downward turn of significant national momentum which will lead us into a Wellsian dystopia.  This is utterly bonkers.  There are urgent issues which must be addressed in various quarters of the country, but pessimism and hysteria is distinctly unhelpful, as ever neat, simplistic explanations for this week’s attacks.  Neither is this a time for naivety : it may take years for the social deprivation of some of Britain’s most down-at-heel areas to establish a different sort of destiny for their young.  My urge to you is : take a closer look.  If there is distaste for logical, and socially contextualized debate, in your newspaper, which renders you with increased feelings of isolation and hopelessness in contrast to crime statistics or the position of Britain, ask yourself why.  This is the same country that took to the streets brandishing brooms on Tuesday morning in London, the same country that has so many wonderful things and people which to be proud of, a gracious and decent country that must be championed, that is – in my humble opinion – a frankly fucking marvellous place –  and a country whose robust commercialism, culture, traditions and decencies are obvious to see to those who wish to see them.    The idea that the fabric of civilized society has disappeared and unravelled is one of the worst bum steers in popular culture in the last two centuries.  Travel around rural England, visit ordinary suburbs, and it’s all still there, alive and kicking, making a mockery of all us paranoid townies.   London will simply get on with it, host the Olympics, get Boris and his silly haircut waving a torch about and everyone will be blessed with a feeling of patriotism again.    Getting up and dusting ourselves off with characteristic tenacity and stoicism and without hysteria is what is in our blood; giving up on a decent country isn’t.    Most of us who are not from the edges of British society are magnificently lucky : unlike those that are from the lowest end of the social spectrum, we are not culturally impoverished, we have had the benefits of an education, we have functional parental units with no problems with hard drugs or welfare dependency.  We’ve had it all.   We are doing that education and those cultural benefits an enormous disservice if we become so philosophically bankrupt that we believe a tiny mob intent on riot have the requisite power to define this country, and take us down with them.

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

Citizens Caned

Being a citizen is hard graft, kids.  This was an excerpt from The Bluebird’s Keystone Cops-esque existence yesterday morning :

“You sir!  Get in the building!  Yes, don’t think I can’t see you!  YOU IN THE BLUE SHIRT.  Get back,  into the building.  And I can STILL see you. Yes!  Stay away from the windows! Yes, I mean YOU!”

If a copper could “Tsk” or “Tut tut” through a loud speaker, this rozzer would have done.    It took me a while to get over the whole fashion suicide short-sleeved blue shirt thing, but when I did it turned out there was some kind of terrorist alert because a plank had left a suspicious looking motorbike parked in Brook Street and so they cordoned off our plentiful and glamourous corner of West 1.  Whatever it was, it turned out not to be an explosive device, as pretty damn soon the cordons came off and the police suddenly weren’t there anymore, as if they had vanished into some sort of strange, municipal dream.   Probably Prince Harry left it there on his way to Mahikis or wherever the ginger and eligible party these days.

Perhaps not.  Perhaps it could have been a super-injunction slayer?  I only say that because Max Clifford works in our street (I’ve seen him, accompanying weeping slatterns who’ve slept with Premier League footballers, walking with them into the kitchen and bunging a Nescafe into their astonished hands, before arranging to give them a career so they can buy their mums bungalows.)   The whole world would fall apart if the contents of Max Clifford’s desk was to shower down over the West End, like publicity confetti.  Not that I approve of making jokes about bombs of course, kids.  I’m only teasing.

For, to be sure, there is nothing else you can do when the Metropolitan Police tell you to stay in your building (I did not see Max Clifford break this curfew).  You stay in.  Occasionally there were yelps and starts, but mostly ominous silences as the pedestrian traffic on our road was emptied away until the street looked like a film set before a shoot.  A piece of blue and white ribbon went up which would have been nice and festive, if it hadn’t been warning us away from a bomb alert.  Again, PC Truncheon strutted up the end of the Mews, spitting into his loud-speaker and then suddenly disappearing an hour later, when it turned out to be a Domino’s pizza delivery moped – or similar- that had caused the raucous mess in the first place.   In the wake of a possible – no, actually at the time what we thought of as a probable  – terrorist attack, we do what the British always do; have a gossip and make some tea and keep calm and carry on.  I never really understood those silly T-shirts before, but keeping calm and carrying on is all that inhabits that thin line, my friends, between holding on to sanity in the face of uncertain death and just going nuts and screaming and running down the street with no clothes on saying “GAAAH!  Ladies!  Gents!  We’re all going to die!  AHHHHHHHHH!”

At least it was more exciting than doing our constitutional duty this morning and voting on the ever-dreary AV idea.  So lousy, but in order to nip it in the bud altogether, I had to go to the polling station.  In my case, the polling station is an infant school, which smells faintly of child sick and Pledge.  It still had a vastly decorative “Kate & William” celebratory corner for the royal nuptials outside the gym in a serious of jingoistic posters.  It smacked of a bank holiday hangover.  When I went into the polling room, I was swiftly advised against performing an illegal act or something.  Like ticking a box where you should have put a cross.  Needless to say, if that had happened, they would have cordoned me off and announced me to be a terrorist threat, like that unfortunate bike.

But – people – could voting be any more depressing?  If the turnout is due to be low, as expected in London, as we don’t have the local council elections today as per the rest of the UK, thereby denying an incentive to turn up inthe first place, couldn’t they try harder?  Would it be too much, dear House of Commons, to include a bar, and the price of a drink included with presentation of  ballot paper?  A chill-out zone once the constitutional duty has been performed?  It simply isn’t good enough.  I want the parliamentary process to be carried out with brio, stealth and zeal.  I want each party leader personally welcoming me into the polling booth: “Good morning, Mrs Bluebird.  May I say how fetching your hat is?  Please go forth and vote, madam.  Oh no.  NO.  Please don’t put the pencil in your handbag.  See you at the next hockey tournament at Chequers!  That’s if Kenneth Clarke has recovered from the kneecapping you gave him last time!  Ha ha.  Cheerio.”

Alas, it shall not be.  But is it any surprise that how citizens are treated constitutionally is preoccupying my dizzy mind this week?  I have been encouraged to wave a flag like a nutter at a collection of despots and Germanic lunatics at La Wedding Royale, I have been bullied into not being able to go to Pret and get a latte, coz of some terrorist threat which featured a policeman shouting up at the office window (how common) and now I have been dumped into the austere, sober and dull as dishwasher episode of the AV ballot.   I have been harried into three constitutional roles since last Friday.  Not counting the Republican lunch I avoided on the Day of La Wedding Royale, which seemed to shoehorn me into yet another role of angry republican.  I had not a bean of interest in doing this because I was too busy admiring Tara Palmer Tomkinson’s hat.   I have got constitutional schizophrenia.  After all, aren’t there only so many things a citizen can be?   And did those people at Buck House even send me some cake ?  Did they?  No.  Peasants.   I am waiting for David Cameron to send me some cake for thanking me for turning up this morning, but as usual he won’t bother.  He hasn’t been the same since our third date when he met my mother.  Mostly, I blame the Liebfraumilch.

Dear citizens, this week, sod ’em all.   The great advantage of an unwritten constitution is we make it up as we go along anyway.  So, take advantage of that pleasant political loophole : have your own wedding, have your own AV / not to AV party.  Put your flags away.  Get those toothy Prince William celebratory mugs out and put your feet up and have a right good cuppa.    Enjoy your liberal freedom of this ‘ere green and unpleasant land.  I constitutionally decree it.  Oh – and please watch out where you park your motorbike.

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

My Royal Conversation

I had a conversation with an important royal personage this week, quite out of the blue, AND, dear readers, he spoke to me for quite some time.  I think I am finally in.  I’m one spindly paper invitation away from Prince Harry’s DiscoBalls Nightclub, Rum-Supping Disco Royal Wedding Rave-Up at Buck House on Friday evening.  Watch this space.

“It’s a big day for us tomorrow,” he said.

“Yes, your Royal Highness, it is.”  I was very surprised to be having this conversation , as La Bluebird is not usually beckoned into royal circles, because I don’t want to dampen their splendour as I am so much better dressed and fruitily glamorous than they are.  But there I was in the middle of a park, next to an ornamental fountain, chatting to the Royal Family’s biggest and most important person, about the upcoming celebrations.

“I need a good King.  It’s a very important time.”

“Yes, your Royal Highness, it certainly is.  How exciting!” I said, thinking about the half-eaten packet of Twiglets I’d left behind on the bench.  “Can I have a photo taken with you please?”

He was very obliging, and we stood at the side of the ornamental pond, chatting about America and what he thought the next episode would be in Anglo-American relations.

“We’re going to thrash the French out of there,” he said.   “Do enjoy the rest of your time – please feel free to walk around the parklands here.”

Then he wondered off towards a small child who threatened to drop bits of a 99 Flake onto his lovely red tights.

Tights?  is that the Royal outfit for Friday?  I hear you screeching, people.  I bet you are worrying about Prince Balding turning up to his right royal nuptials with a smile and some red tights.  SEXY.  And ballet shoes.  But, calm yourself, Britons, calm yourselves.  I need to adequately explain my collision with crowned heads on Monday.

I was in 1536.  Edward VI was about to born (although his Royal Kingliness did not know this) and Jane Seymour was about to go into confinement (I don’t mean the Dr Quinn medicine lady).  Henry VIII, resplendent in a codpiece of royal proportions and a rough, kingly ginger beard, like Prince Harry’s cheeky uncle, was meeting his public.  Most of his public had paid £15.95 for the privilege and were trying to have pictures taken with him.  In the courtyard, the Queen’s midwife was being quizzed on what the four humours are.

This was Hampton Court Palace on Monday.  This is, in fact, Hampton Court Palace, every day.  Visiting with family from the former colony known as USA, we were sucked into a series of bizarre royal role plays.  Some poor bastard actor spent the hottest Easter on record wandering around in doublet and hose and a hot hat with ostrich feathers sticking out of it like a right royal plonker.  His courtiers were no luckier; their outfits were heavy. black fur capes.  Occasionally, Henry VIII’s wife would arrive in the courtyard, screaming about her lady in waiting being a right slapper.  Henry would approve.  Bemused children in tracksuits looked on, accompanied by frazzled-looking parentals.  The actors repeated the same script on the hour, every hour, like some awful Tudor Groundhog Day.

Now, strictly speaking, Hampton Court Palace isn’t really in London.  Unlike North London, South London doesn’t seem to have any defined boundaries.  We simply are not sure whether London ends and Twickenham begins.   Ham?   Kingston?   Hampton?  Its all much of a southwesterly London muchness.  In addition, Hampton Court Palace is not easy to find.  The entrances aren’t signed properly, and I nearly drove into a private golf club, which I thought might be Hampton Court Palace as it looked a wee bit kingly.  Finally though, having got through a traffic-free South Circular and rippled over Kew, I arrived and his kingships lordly palace.   Quite a place it is, too.

I looked forward to the maze most of all.   I couldn’t wait to get into it.  However, once in, it served as a pretty appropriate metaphor for the royal family.  People love to get into it, and think the game will be flighty and flirty and hugely fun but they discover it isn’t half as glamorous or interesting as they had envisaged.  When they try to make the break for the border, they find the exit concealed, having been hidden away by sly courtiers.  Many false starts and dead ends have to be found before anybody gets out with their sanity and the family intact.  The clever use of hedgerows has rendered the common citizen powerless.  Not that King Henry could have fitted into this maze though, coz he was five feet wide, because he ate like five chickens a day or something.  Seriously.  He was even leering at my Twiglet packet.

The best guide for a palace is an eight year old child.  Thankfully I had temporarily acquired one that morning.  Eight year olds are the perfect age for the Hampton Court Palace Activity Book.  On the Palace tour, we searched for patterns in the ceiling that revealed passwords, we located the “eavesdroppers” – real models of people’s heads that peered out and over from sections of the ceiling down into the Great Hall, we counted the foodstuffs being prepared in the Tudor kitchens were some other poor actors had been roped in to turn a piece of meat cooking on a spit on the hottest day of the year, and paper mache slabs of meat sat on wooden sideboards.    In the royal apartments, I accidentally set off an alarm when leaning over a rope to take a snap of William III’s crapper, a bacteria friendly toilet with a red velvet cover seating.  Snazzy.  Hope Harry hasn’t found out about it.  The ‘partay’ to end all ‘partay’s at Buck House will be full of the Glosse Posse aiming their crowned heads at velvet-covered seats for a slash.  Now, that’s what I call the royal wee.

It was all very grand, the idea of 16th and 17th century Palace living.  I wonder how much of it has changed?  I cannot make a thorough comparison as I’m not allowed into the royal apartments, not since that time they found me in the middle of the Queen’s bedroom one night where I had shouted “Aha!  Queenie!”  and quite startled the old girl.  I got some sort of restraining order or something.  Halycon days.  I should imagine, though, that Buck House is equally laden with sumptuousness and coated in heraldic glory.  And Pippa Middleton.  Perhaps that is why the Prince Balding and Kate MiddleClass nuptials seem so unreal.  We are being transported into a patchwork quilt of constitutional monarchy past.  The state landau coach that will take the heavily protected couple away from Westminster Abbey and towards Buck House was made in 1902.  That’s even older than Prince Philip.  The pageantry and uniformed daftness is so anachronistic as to seem like watching toy soldiers marching across a child’s make believe world at playtime.  The 4.30am dress rehearsal, early yesterday morning, looked positively ghoulish, with officers angrily bossing people about in the lunatic half-light of an early London morning, with the glare of a 102 bus in the background and shiny faced boy sailors looking terrified in the foreground.   If the sailors are on shore in the landlocked SW1 area, exactly who is protecting the darn waves which Britannia is supposed to rule?  And what about the poor bastards who may have a nasty episode off the coast of Anglesey and have to deal with a reduced helicopter rescue service, as the King in Waiting is too busy getting hitched?  Selfish, I call it.

I am at a crossroads between monarchic heraldry and ribald republicanism.  I have been invited to a flag waving, sandwich munching, 1950s-esque street party and a republican lunch.  I know what the first would entail but what on earth happens at a republican lunch?  Presumably anything except coronation chicken is acceptable, for the menu.  But what exactly happens?  Do we toast the possibility of no Queen, no happy couple?  How can you toast something that doesn’t exist?  As a beef dinner involves eating beef, does a republican feast involve eating republicans?  Am I supposed to get cross about the royal wedding day?  And won’t that play havoc with my indigestion at lunch?  Has no one thought this through?

Hmm.  Clearly not. One thing is clear, though.  As the rest of us enjoy our day off and sit about watching the telly and putting bets on at William Hill about whether the Queen will wear a yellow hat and a ski mask, think of those poor sods at Hampton Court.  It’s another day for the actor who can’t get any other sort of job, and who has to dress up and pretend to be a Tudor FatBoy for the day.   Who, like the Prince of Wales and his son, is just padding around in his current role, waiting for the better job to make itself available.    While the 21st century ploughs on, the 16th century is alive and kicking in some northerly corner of Surrey.  Get yourself down to Hampton Court Palace for a right fun day out – but don’t lose your head!  haha.   Happy Royal Wedding Day.  Save me some cake.  I can have it when I get home from the republicans.

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

The Bus Nutter

He gets on around the bit of the Finchley Road that connects to Hendon Way, our Bus Nutter.  And it isn’t really Frognal and it isn’t really Cricklewood and it isn’t really West Hampstead, it’s the fuzzy weird bit in the middle where people get petrol and where they realise they are in the wrong lane for the A41.  He looks entirely ordinary (AHA!  Most of them do) and he gets on the bus very casually and normally.  He is of average height and build and just sits on the upper deck.  Then there is the catalyst.

The catalyst can be anything, really.  It could, for example, be Wednesday.  And then he will go downstairs and in his very very normal voice demand the driver to explain why it is Wednesday.  He sounds ordinary, mundane and has an authoritative voice that lurks somewhere between Phil Mitchell and that bald bloke who does Masterchef.  Once, on a wet morning a few weeks ago, our bus driver announced that he had received a warning light on his dashboard, so off we all got off, to spend five minutes trudging along Finchley Road in morning mist whilst waiting for another bus.  For ten minutes our Bus Nutter parlayed his grievances to our driver.  He does this in an insinuating voice that implies that the driver thinks what he thinks, which is lunacy.  Mad people do this sometimes, however.  “The service doesn’t equate to common sense – I mean, you know what I mean, eh?  Yes, don’t you?”  Yesterday morning, though, Bus Nutter’s rants became downright surreal.  Buses these days talk at you, to let you know where they are going, when they are about to arrive at bus stops and then, finally, when they have arrived at bus stops to tell you that – yes, you have arrived at the bus stop.  This is abhorrent.  You cannot concentrate on your book, and the robotic voice delivery system seems to have been designed to purposely be louder than the world’s loudest, largest i-Pod that has been racked up to top volume.   Bus Nutter, whose frontal lobe has clearly yet to engage with his feet, failed to respond to the delivery system telling him we had arrived at Baker Street.  As the bus left the bus stop, he suddenly hopped up tutting and fretting and bounded down the stairs to rant at the driver that there were “too many stops”  and “why not have some common sense and change the next stop”.  This was because “no one wanted to stop at York Street anyway….I mean, mate, mate, why have SO many stops?”  At this point the robotic lady voice says “Number 82 to…..Vic-tor-i-a.  Not for you, random loony boy.  You’re getting off at Blandford Street if I have to kick you off, you mad cowbag.  Please move down inSIDE the bus….” All right, she didn’t.  But crazy lad did get off at the next stop, where he continued his conversation with the driver as the doors were closing.

Everyone has had these experiences in London and the Bluebird’s first reaction is to giggle silently in her seat and turn Frank on the iPod up louder.  In seventeen years of London Island living, I’m lucky not to have been the victim of some lunatic encounter or other, and lucky that nothing wild, violent or downright terrifying has even occurred to l’il old me.  That’s not because I brandish my light sabre at them, blind them while chortling “Aha!  I am the Bluebird.  Kneel and show your mercy, bus boy!” at them, but rather that I spent my first 10 years in London travelling everywhere by taxi. Nuff said.  You don’t so much pay for the geographic journey when you travel by taxi, but pay for the guarantee that random bus nutter will not try to engage your driver in a dialogue about bus stops for the best part of 20 minutes whilst leering at your legs and dribbling.

Black cabs are the golden elixir of the gods on late nights out.  Everyone has had that feeling – yes, you at the back, don’t deny it – when it’s 1am, you are so drunk you are ready to insist that you are sober, you knew  that fifth mojito was a mistake, you have danced with a man called Bruce and are not quite sure who he is but he said he went to school with your brother, you are tired, slightly sweaty and really, really want to be at home, on the sofa, safe and tea-and-toasted up.  But you are a lady.  A female lady of the woman gender, and have been warned by other female ladies, by your mother, your father, your brothers and Bruce (who played rugby at school with them and who had earlier, in a bar on the Charing Cross Road, showed you the scar that never quite healed after your brother “accidentally” broke a bit of his jaw off) that you Must. Not.  Go.   Home.  On.  Public.  Transport. Late. At Night.  Ever.   This has been drilled into you so successfully throughout your adolescent years that you are convinced that by going into a tube station after the pubs shut you are guaranteed to be the subject of some ghastly sexual attack or that you will be randomly clubbed on the head for your wallet.  If I so much as move towards the Piccadilly Line at Green Park after closing I can hear the Crimewatch theme tune.

Get a cab.  Your Dad said it as he handed you two folded-up ten pound notes when you were 19.

Get a cab.  Your brother tells you when you are 16 and then tells you (again) that all men are potential rapists – never mind, have a nice evening, love – and get a cab.

So I always got cabs.  When I could find the bastards.  Have you tried?  Stand in Piccadilly Circus at midnight on a Friday and look for one of those magical orange lights.  Nowt.  Your shoes ache and it’s raining on the hair you blow-dried for an hour at 6.40pm.  Rubbish.  The best thing to do, I was told, is to go and stand outside a five star hotel.  There are always cabs there, I was told.

What numpty told me that? – because  it was actually the worst thing to do.  Regularly I used to walk down Piccadilly after a night out in Soho, away from the flotsam and jetsam of Soho muckeries, where I immediately felt safer as soon as I passed the classic porticos of the Royal Academy, and felt I was instantly transported into a smarter London.  I always used to stand outside the Meridien Hotel , and ironically put myself in exactly the wrong sort of situation because it would be guaranteed that within the next half hour I would be approached by a gentleman from Kuwait who asked “how much?” whilst I shuffled from one foot to the other and threw eye semaphore towards the doorman in the hope he might rescue me.  Tsk.  None of those random prostitute-seekers from the East ever offered me their taxis, incidentally.  I don’t mind being mistaken for a prostitute if they were a bit chivalric about it.

So well-honed was my need to find a taxi that I once walked all the way up Oxford Street and Regent Street to Portland Place in five inch heeled sandals until my feet bled to try to find one.  When I did see one I screamed and waved my hands around in desperation “STOPPP!”  “Oh my goodness,” he thought.  “It’s a random blood-splattered Bus Nutter.  Not picking her up.”  When one taxi driver did finally pull up I could have kissed him (but didn’t) and luxuriated in the thing I always do in the back of taxis after a splendid night out: kick my shoes off and stretch my legs out in the generous confines of the passenger seat.  The moment you are successfully installed in that warmth, in that comforting leather seating, with BBC London or LBC humming away in the speakers,  you are truly in urban bliss.  Or at least you are until you realise another random, verbose mad-as-a-box-of-frogs chap is driving you home.  It’s a sinking of the heart that accompanies his rants, the oily eye that engages with your own via the smeary rear view mirror and the voice that inevitably says “Bus stops!  Don’t get me started – how about a bit of common sense about bus stops? Well, there’s just too many of them, aren’t there?!”

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

Local Misgovernance

Occasionally, when at a supper, or a shabby winefest deep in the bowels of Holborn, or polishing off a delightful pudding at a theatrical soiree, I fill a hole in the chatter by saying I used to work in local government.  It never fails.  People spit out bits of meringue.  “You!”  they point a spoon in my direction. “You’re the person who didn’t open the front door to the council tax people for a year and a half in case they worked out you lived in your house.”  “But it is true,” I protest, blinking first at the brandy, then at the coffee, and then again at the brandy.  “I was at the sharp end, loves.  Typing and everything.  It was like being in an episode of GBH.”  I reach for the Bendicks Bittermints.  “Permanently.”

“But you?”  they squeak. “You come from a line of self-employed tax dodgers who, when they used to receive cash payment long ago, would sign for tax in the names of minor Shakespearean characters.  You’re a non-civically caring hussy.  Pass the brandy.”

Alas, it is true.  Once I shared corridors with funny looking mayors who wore those freaky masonic necklaces whilst marching to the Council Chamber.  These things are necessary.  As I keep reminding the youngsters who irresponsible parents occasionally leave in my charge; books, pretty stationery and a never-ending supply of Clinique lip gloss costs something, and sometimes you have to bite the bullet and get a job.  Once there they do things like pay you for the stuff you actually do in your spare time (make tea, check Facebook, read news, check Facebook again).   I have had any number of these.  In fact, so many that they have blurred into one ten year long mesh of post files and dictation tapes.  Soon they reveal themselves to be undistinguishable from each other and merge into one.  But one of my jobs has never managed to merge into the others because it inhabited such a zone of lunatic tomfoolery that it defies connection to any other job.  Or any other part of my life.  Or anything that is normal.  It was the only job that made me want to go home and cry in the shower (and I include performing in pantomime where a fourteen year old child kept hollering “Lezzer!” at the stage every time I sang).

And, no, I don’t know how entirely it happened.  One minute I was paper shuffling and not working very hard at all in a finance division of the social services area with people wearing tracksuits putting through invoices for payment, and the next I was at the Town Hall where the people with suits are, and making tea for the Chief Executive who had had a humour bypass.  On my first day, I was instructed how long to leave her teabag in her tea before serving it, which should give you some indication of the Council’s priorities.  This was back in the day when New Labour were still relatively new, when the phrase “credit crunch” seemed unimaginable, and when you would frequently get home from work to find that some 12 year old who worked in the credit division for Mastercard was offering you a new little flexible friend with £1,000,000 credit on it.  Result.

Part of this lunatic expenditure was to book temporary staff via agencies to do many admin roles.  This meant that a job worth £25,000 could cost the Council as little as £50,000, once agency commission had been taken into account.  Marvellous.  I rocked up to the Town Hall and got a good salary for a job that involved cutting the hot cross buns for Council meetings.  I got told off when I did this and the buns were sent back.  I was supposed to cut them in half downwards instead of sideways.  Who does that?  Perverts who work in local government, that’s who.  Sometimes we had meetings about whether or not to have meetings.  Most of the time I dealt with irate callers who wanted to know why their car was clamped or who threatened to kill someone if their parking penalty wasn’t cancelled.  Some of them asked me my name but, strangely, when I told them, everyone thought I was lying.  I was always getting told off by the Chief Exec’s co-hussy person, mainly because the bizarre jobs they told me to do took longer than they thought they should.   I was frequently told that I wasn’t doing things right, although everyone else was doing things wrong.  I didn’t understand why all the Lib Dem councillors had to have lesbian trouser suits on (even the men) and was forced to adhere to a complicated “post-it” sticking procedure on the Chief Executive’s invitations, which would arrive by the thousand through the mail.  Meetings would go on for three hours.  Sometimes I would look at the papers for these meetings, and they were all in gobbeldegook.  Most of them contained phrases that weren’t English like “Process to be implemented to initiate middle management strata for organisation and execution of domestic refuse sub-laws” which translates in English to “bin collection”.     I had never seen sentences with so many verbs in them.  I thought, “This has to be a cover for something else – something concrete – something useful.”  But as usual, my hopes that I was working for humans were dashed.

I was in trouble.  It was manic, and it took half an hour every morning to check the supplies of sweets (the leader of the council had to be given sweets when he visited).  My fellow accomplice (PA) tried to book a holiday.  She set up the entire thing, only to find at the last minute that the person who had agreed to cover for her had decided to commit suicide instead.  Which meant that I had to cover.  For the top PA.  In a suit and everything.  It was quite possibly the most unpleasant week of my life.  I inadvertently destroyed a bunch of papers that the Chief Executive was supposed to take on a train the next morning to Liverpool.  I was too busy trying to look through the envelope with her payslip inside it to see how much she was paid, and suppose I just sort of mislaid the papers.  This meant a crazed half an hour at 5.30pm trying to locate the in-house lawyer who picked his nose and who had the original paperwork in his office.  Eventually, papers located, Chief Exec got on her train and all was okay.  The following week I got the push for “standing up too quickly when people entered the room and offering them tea”, which was perplexing.  The suggestion was made that I didn’t really suit being a PA, although I had been one for ten years, and that perhaps I would suit something more arty.  I could have a meeting about ordering the wrong kind of biscuits, but essentially, it was “bog off as soon as this week’s timesheet is signed”.

On my last day, things were sinister.  I got a signed card from my disapproving fellow PA with odd phrases in it, like : “As you spread your wings and fly away to a new chapter…”  All right, take it easy – I was only there for 6 weeks.  I had to go through the humiliating rigmarole of “leaving drinks” which the Chief Executive actually turned up to and we glared smilingly at each other for half an hour over dry white wine.   She was decidedly jolly about getting rid of me but nothing had disarmed me more than these six weeks at Town Hall.  At least in social services everyone was normal, if congenitally lazy.  The oddest thing that happened to me in social services was that I think someone asked me on a wife swapping evening (but am not sure) but at the higher echelons I spent my days standing with trays full of mugs of tea, waiting to be signed by a regal wave of the hand to present them to the Council table, as if I was serving Marie Antoinette in pre-revolutionary France.

The monarchistic regalia had been replaced by the oddest kind of bureaucratic madness.  This was back in the early years of the noughties; that time when Alistair Campbell conjured up his own image of absolutist rule when he blithely commented that only seven people in the country mattered and “…all of them are in Millbank Tower”.  The power of our palaces may have diminished over the years, but there are always callow puppet princes to take their place.  The extent of waste was hugely shocking and seemed to go on for about five years after I last filled the council biscuit tin.  I can only hope someone gets value for money these days; and that all those people who owed parking penalties frequently drove into the Town Hall.  Never before or since has my working life been more futile or depressing.  I hope this was a symptom of only the New Labour years but I fear it isn’t the case.  As for yours truly?  “Well,” I say, as I put the brandy bottle back and everyone has stopped laughing.  “I deigned to have nothing more to do with the public sector ever again.”  Which I didn’t.   After all, the only bonus was you were the first in line for the annual flu jab, and if avoiding disease is the best thing about your job then, frankly, you’re better off in private enterprise.

The natives are revolting

Today is a day of student protests in London.  Hard hit by a LibDem back-down that was both sorrowful and inevitable, the vote on fees starts today.   These  student protests, we have been warned, may take shape in forms of disruptive behaviour, violence, physical and mental dangers and, as the Standard growled on its front page yesterday tea-time, under threat of hijack from anarchists.  All the above is true.  All the protesters are cross.  All of them have a right to be.

What was astonishing about yesterday’s Evening Standard was not the tone of thrilling scare-mongering about anarchists mowing down shoppers in Oxford Street, which broken-down logic is typical many of our daily nasties, but the tone of the article that covered the various outposts of protest throughout the University of London.  Surveying sites including SOAS and UCL, the LSE, The Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths,  the mocking tone of the article was blunderingly apparent:“A performance poetry slot includes sets by Northern indie rapper Ruby Kid and Londoner Kate Tempest, for whom the unruly gaggle of students and the odd lecturer finally fall silent.  Later, striking singing Iva of three-piece thrash band Rough Kittens draws a crowd fascinated by her impressive caterwauling and leopardskin leggings.”  This was at Goldsmiths.

Later in the article, over at the LSE “In a grubby anteroom, a small group polishes off some sugared doughnuts while sketching out a three-metre-long banner.  One student’s proud dad had picked up a bag of Brick Lane bagels that morning, which “went down amazingly”.” Alarmingly, it took three people (presumably over the age of 10) to write this article. The impression it led the reader to was that this students protest against fees is the childish, misguided brainchild of  feckless, doughnut munching layabouts, who have papered together “Cut Capitalism” banners with a well-meaning, yet vague ideology.  In the face of an ethically robust demand for free tertiary education in the city they care about, the Standard mainly saw fit to lampoon students, not venerate them.

Despite the fact that I bet you the Evening Standard will be the first to show the bloody pictures of people’s faces in Friday’s edition, they failed to grant the students they met political or ethical legitimacy by accenting that this was a campaign run by liberal idiots wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, lacking neither basic organizational skills nor fortitude. The Standard’s implication is these children have not yet woken up to smell the ConDem coffee.  They should grow up and maturely stop fighting, shouldn’t they, these daft, over-educated prigs?  Incidentally, there are plenty of protestors at ULU who are better educated than the rest of Britain, financially articulate, adept at calculating costings regarding the financial impact on students at the drop of a hat outside the LSE, but Georgina, or Louisa, or Victoria, or whoever from the Evening Standard didn’t interview them.

It is one thing to take sides on the university fees debate, but it is quite another thing to deny the noble beliefs of morally centred protestors their ethical ground by taking the piss out of them.   Is it a great myth, perpetuated by adults normally,  that when you grew out of education, decide on a job and go to work, the political and moral idealism of adolescence becomes inappropriate; distasteful; something one grows out of, like wearing braces on your teeth.  Many people over 25 are, shamefacedly, embarrassed in the fact of idealism.  To demand a right, to stick to your guns, to fail to compromise oneself, all of these are misinterpreted as views only for the unworldly and the ill-prepared.  That is because to be morally bankrupt in the world is a vast asset, particularly if you want to acquire power, political levy or become a banker.   To have moral gumption, to be of noble sentiment towards students (and sentiment these days is a very, very dirty word) is to be a pain but we absolutely need far more of it.  The world would rather you went to work, earned your money, shut up, pay your taxes and then died.  Curiously, the world has its views very often the wrong way round.  It may be that the Standard will continue it’s stance on accenting the violence of protestors with indignance.  The annoying behaviour of political protest, which forces our cars to take circuitous routes around London (oh what a pain) and disturbs the glut of Christmas shoppers in town, will be aligned with civic irresponsibility, whereas it is actually civic responsibility in action.

So much focus has been pulled toward the economic value of education that the civic value of it has slipped out of view, because the newspapers don’t write about that.  If we have to prove to the public that higher education is something worth paying in terms of its value in a civilized and cultivated society then something has gone terribly wrong.   Regardless of what you think about the current student finance situation, you would have to be a selfish philistine to not be moved by the end of 500 years of free tertiary education in the UK, and not to empathise with those to whom the prospect of £9,000 p.a. fees would knock further education on the head altogether.  100 years ago it was part of a citizen’s moral duty to be concerned regarding the civic implications of political change in society.  In its original meaning, Ruskin explained that sympathy was “the imaginative understanding of the natures of others, and the power of putting ourselves in their place” and that it was “the faculty on which virtue depends”.  Eighty years earlier, in his dictionary of 1775, Samuel Johnson defined sympathy as a “fellow-feeling; mutual sensibility…” rather than its modern implications of being primarily about pity.  The original definition of sympathy would be welcome today.

For an article that actually uses joined-up thinking, a more helpful guide than the Evening Standard is offered through the BBC website : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-11874633

The current argument must be contextualized in economic reality but it must also be viewed with sympathy regarding the civic implications of charging for university education.  London and Londoners would suffer.  It should be our civic duty to care that the only noble people in last night’s Evening Standard were not capable of receiving respect for what they stood for, irrespective of what the readers’ views on student fees may actually be.   The Evening Standard‘s careless riposte was chilly, derisive and abrupt, and to mock those who are less cowardly and more hopeful than the rest of us is morally reprehensible.  Our city’s only evening newspaper should be ashamed of itself.

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

How much?!

And so a beleagured and recession-clad nation may rejoice, as the Great Bonnie Prince Balding of Wales is to be betrothed to Kate Middleclass who comes from a place that sounds so Miss-Tiggywinkle-ish it must have been made up.  Bucklebury, Berkshire sounds like the beginning of a limerick (“There was a young girl from Bucklebury….”)  but is in fact the birthplace of the lady who hath no upper lip and shall be Queen.  She has good legs, though.  Well, better than Prince Balding anyway.  Not that I’ve seen his legs.  Well, not since that night at Mahikis when Prince Harry filled the fish tank with vintage champagne and then poured the contents on top of a selection of proles hired for the occasion, while dressed as a member of the Third Reich.  Ah.  Halcyon Days.  Dear Harry and his funny ginger hair.  Mostly, I remember the laughter.

Now, the thing about Royal Weddings is they are very seductive to the British people.  Out comes the bunting.  Out comes the trestle tables and the belief in all things English, out come the sandwiches and buckets of fizzy pop for the youngsters (steady on Harry) and everyone gets to pretend that we still have an Empire.  For about six hours.  Everyone pretends they are in fact someone else.  This someone is usually a village spinster circa 1920, who spends her life baking pies, making jam, believing in “lovely Queeny” and cups of English tea and living in a thatched house in the Cotswolds.  Nothing can excuse the British, who are I believe are a stylish nation, and who have been at the forefront of fashion, music art and design for half a century, for the absolute bloody awfulness of the Royal Wedding celebratory mug.  I still have nightmares about the over-twee Times New Roman 10 font royal blue writing on our celebratory mug from the village post office on the wedding of Andrew and Fergie.  I believed it damned their union.   No marriage could grow from such crass kitchenware.

We are all mugs it seems, as Queenie here – who has estates, property and land worth about £348 million – is not entirely footing the bill.  Added to this £348million of estates and property and land, she has a “personal fortune” of £350million.  This does not include her art collection which runs to a modest £10billion.   And don’t give me that fluff about the gold-plated HM tax return, because it’s actually voluntary whether she fills one in and pays income tax at all.  Estates passed sovereign to sovereign are also ineligible for inheritance tax.  If a commoner attempted to avoid either of these things they would be imprisoned immediately.  Astonishingly, HM is still at large.   “She’s self-sufficient,” many say, “as her income comes from her land haha.”  WHOSE land?    Oh hers, apparently.  Not ours.  It’s decidedly odd, that people in this country go looney-toon crazy when they find out that someone from Lithuania has got a council flat or something, and there’s an old German lady (immigrant! foreigner!  Guards – seize her!) who is grazing on vast swathes of  land (800,000 acres to be precise) that would be very productive in an era of rising population and home shortages.  This has always struck me as decidedly peculiar.  Suggest at a social gathering that we ought to get rid of them in one fell swoop and an uncomfortable silence descends, as if you’ve gone a bit potty.  Whereas, I think it’s rather mad, in this day and age, to have a monarchy at all.

But you see, they may have zilch fashion sense but they are clever.  Because they distract us by street theatre and the clever placing of horses.  Watching the change of the guard, seeing those funny soldiers outside St James’s Palace with those bearskins that look like enormous vaginas on their heads, it’s the ultimate in British class performance art.  As the lyric from Razzle Dazzle says “How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”  As far as I can see, the German – sorry, British – Royal Family have got this art down to a tee.  We may be angry about the 800,000 acres, vast wealth and making our taxes pay for maintaining police and doing a massive preparation and clean up for the Prince Balding / Kate Middleclass nuptials, and then the Royal Family show us a golden coach, show us marching shiny soldiers and horses from the Household Cavalry with pretty ribbons in their plaits, and we have sequins in our eyes.  It drugs us with fairy dust.  It prevents us from standing stock still in the middle of The Mall and saying to our fellow commoner:  “It’s 2010 and one in ten children in London live below the poverty line.  And we’re standing in front of a coach made of gold to take a girl from Bucklebury Berks to marry a prince.  And we PAY for it.  And they’re fucking minted.  We really are a bunch of stupid, monarchist arse kissing cretins.”

London, austere and depressed, foots the bill alone for the security.  Whoops.  That’s about £30million or £80million, depending on what newspaper flopped through your letterbox this morning.  although the Standard announced yesterday that Jenny Jones, the Green Party member on the Metropolitan Police Authority, has suggested that it would be unrealistic to expect London taxpayers to foot the bill in a time of austerity and has suggested “the royal family can contribute”.   This morning Jones said “The Queen’s personal wealth is estimated at £290 million. I just think she has got to pay for it.” Oh well, bang goes Jenny’s invitation (she probably didn’t want one anyway) but she ain’t half right, even if she underestimated the Queen’s personal wealth by £60million.   The Standard also predicted that consumers will spend an additional £360million on groceries and provisions for the big day.  Champagne, bunting, celebratory tea towels, street parties, barbecues and a bucket load of ibuprofen for the morning after will all be bought.  But this is a “consumer spending boost” to the limping British economy.  So we are going to have to spend £360million to enjoy the privilege of celebrating a wedding we have already paid for.   And this is a country where we can apparently no longer afford to send students to university for free.   Today the Daily Snail reported in its usual bovine and recidivist, no-words-of-more-than-four-syllables, lazy journalism that Prince Charles was going to spend “millions”.  But surely if he actually had millions he would have already had that operation to have his ears pinned back.  I suggest a straight swap:  Queen’s personal fortune £350million.  Oh, consumer boost to the economy £360million.  DOH?  Obviously pleasing mathematics.  In return for being award-winning citizens of this ‘ere green and pleasant land I would like the Royal Household to furnish us with the appropriate refreshments for Royal Wedding Day, free of charge.  It’s the least they could do.

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