Snapshot of a street : West End Lane

Yesterday evening I went out for supper in West End Lane, West Hampstead for certainly the first time in a decade, and possibly even longer than that.  In fact, I lived just off it two decades ago, and continued to live off it, on and off, for eight years.  But there is a cold feeling in the bones when you are girding yourself to rock on up to an old London district these days, and that cold feeling is solely due to the onslaught of changes that you will be forced to reckon with that are a result of the Blistering Boom.  During the Blistering Boom swathes of London have remade and remarked their territories whilst not giving a backward glance and – as if we need further reminders that we are all getting older – turning up in a neighbourhood you thought you knew is an alarming thing to do.  Great swathes of picket fence white estate agent signs illuminate previously hellish suburban streets where the homes of the Victorian lower clerk class robustly push the £1million mark and a Costa Coffee appears where before there was a local grocery store.  It’s the smooth, granite slickness of everything that sits badly.  The past, razor thin, has slipped beneath the paving slabs and everything looks as if it makes, breathes, sweats and spins money.  Well, West Hampstead has bucked the trend and seems to have missed the boat so completely I thought I’d got off the Jubilee Line in 1993.

West End Lane is a bottled up, diesel rich thoroughfare that celebrates a riot of transport networks.  You can get anywhere in London from West End Lane.  The Jubilee will take you through the West End and out to Canary Wharf, the Thameslink promises the delights of Luton Airport and Borehamwood, there is the Overground  London line that spools up from Richmond Park, out through Willesden Green and then on to Highbury and Hackney Fields, and there are about 5 bus routes, the most useful being the 328 that cuts it’s essentially useful path from Golders Green to Chelsea, which no tube line does.  Because of this, even in dire economic circumstances, the received wisdom was that any investment in this area was a good investment.  This idea held true during the last recession of the early 1990s, when this district was one of the few in London that had rising values.

So, they continue to rise – so far so normal in London – to these catastrophic heights we keep reading about on the news. But the central artery from which all the veins flow, West End Lane, remains a sluggish, despondent place.  The tarot shop next to the tube station has – bizarrely – stayed open all this time, and raven-haired women in the 40s descend upon it hoping to find hope and solace amidst the dusty silver trinkets in the window for at least twenty years now.  Caspian Travel still sits on the bridge, dispensing travel advice and booking air fares.  This in itself is bizarre : surely the one species relegated to extinction the moment the internet was founded was the travel agent?  Not in West End Lane.  Travel agents sit, perkily slurping instant coffee, arranging holidays that cost more than TripAdvisor to a generation of people who are scared of the t’internet and the ludicrously cheap holidays it promises.  The Bridge Cafe is still there, presiding over the ever weak bridge (the bridge used to be constantly closing due to efforts to strengthen it) and doling out food directly from 1985.  Travis Perkins’s soulless yard sits where it always did, next to Wickes.  The only change in the first parade of shops was the absence of Cafe Rouge which, in the 1990s, looked faintly exotic in an aspirational, Parisienne sort of a way.

The flats above the shops remain stuck in the 1980s – gruelling stairs, blackened windows, chipped paintwork and a lady, resplendent in a onesie and a towelling dressing gown, climbing out from the window onto the miniscule fire escape to smoke a fag.  The properties are long term unloved, and poignant with unrealised potential.  Someone should do them up and rent them for a song in a district like this.  Landlords are greedy and open to opportunity.  Why in the boom years has no one done this?  The smoke from the lady’s fag billows up and out until it hovers over the new gleaming Thameslink building down on the West Hampstead platform.

If the landlords ever did want to get themselves sorted out and develop these properties in this district, they’d treble their rents.  Plus they’d have no shortage of people to help because the one thing the West End Lane has bred more of in the last two decades is estate agents.  Behind the main avenue are the real deal monied flats: late 19th century red brick mansion blocks at exorbitant prices, these swoop up and over to Finchley Road in two directions – one towards West End Green and the other to South Hampstead.  They are packed, preened, painted and pretty.  West End Lane sits like a plain sister at a wedding who no one is asking to dance.  Tesco Metro has cropped up since I left (of course) and a Sainsburys Local, but the road is congested and blatantly refuses to take part in anything.  This is not simply about gentrification, this is also about things looking nice.  A shop can look nice without selling gentrified products, but it is alarming how hopeless West End Lane feels.   The restaurants are changed a little, but La Brocca remains, with its televised football bar and its mind-boggling toilet provisions.  West End Lane Books still trades – although I forgot what a small book shop it is – and whilst the cafes have changed their names, the manner of the clientele and the shabbiness of the menus appear to have defied time.

If I appear a little bit attached, its because too much of this lane – the lane that was so quiet in 1815 it was said you could hear the guns of the Battle of Waterloo whilst standing in it – runs through my blood. My grandparents met here, grandpa renting a flat at the time in West End Lane, shortly before being taken off to the war that would kill him, my parents courted off Iverson Road, my own brothers and me descended on the area like a rash in the mid-1990s and stayed until we were priced out, and our great great grandpa lived in Brondesbury Park, just down the road, in the 1870s.  So often in London we are visited by the shining gleam of the new rich, the mindless pursuit of money having challenged many of the neighbourhood eccentricities that not only do we hold dear, but show that once we passed this way.  I was depressed, frankly, that West Hampstead had so alarmingly and with such apparent visceral intent, missed the boat.  It’s odd to return somewhere you used to live, and find that you are changed, but London has not.  Usually its the other way around.  I wouldn’t mind so much if West End Lane was stuck in a slightly more pleasant timewarp.  Perhaps its destiny to be dreary is attached to the very thing that makes it a desirable location in the first place – the railway.  But this was a depressing sort of discovery that here there is so much wealth and so much care pouring into the homes in the district, but next to nothing pouring into the local thoroughfare and the flats above the shops.  This is a loveless, lovelorn street, and its report card for this term sounds much like my school reports card twenty years ago – it really must try harder.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday 6th March.  Thank you 

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Queen For A Day

We all do it.  Don’t tell me you don’t.  An idle coffee break, or that lazy forty five minutes just  before The One Show.  What would you do if you were Queen for the day?  I would:

1.  Abolish the ukelele

2.  Make a Frenchman cry

3.  Shave off what paltry remains of hair Phil Tufnell possesses

4.  Get religion off public transport.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses that have recently started blocking up all the exits of Oxford Circus tube station every rush hour are only witnessing a series of disgruntled commuters who wish to elbow them out of the way.  At 8.12am on a Monday, no one on London Underground wants to hear about Judgement Day.  Too many of us are en route to a building where our employers judge us, and anyway, Judgement Days are SO last millenium.  That’s the JW’s tactic,  I reckon.  They get you when your soul is at its lowest ebb, first thing on a slightly hungover morning, when your  sleep deprived mind is dreaming of a better life.  After all, the JW’s are never there when anyone is actually going home, because that is when we feel happy.  “The end is near!  It’s the end of the line!” their faintly ungrammatical literature promises.  Well, they’re wrong.  It’s not the end of the line because everyone knows the Victoria Line terminates at Brixton.  Duh.

Recently I was opposite a faintly sickmaking advert for sex buddies.  Oh no, hang on, it was internet dating, you know the one for people who are too ugly or terrified to chat up strangers in pubs.  But this was no ordinary match.com scenario, my friend.  It was for a faith-based internet dating group.  Now, whilst I am not against that at all, I found their statement not only objectionable, but utterly devoid of meaning.  “Christians make better lovers”  it said.  Do they?   How many Hindus or Sikhs has this poster had intercourse with?  Have I missed some demon cunnilingus tips in the Book of Apostles or something?   Shall I carry out some market based research on this?    As a Jew I found this mildly upsetting, not to mention  a falsehood : you only need a brief perusal of the novels of Mr P Roth to see that we are, as a people, a vibrant mix of perversions, onanism and hair.  But the paucity of the statement was peculiar : on what basis are you judging whether someone is a better lover dependent on whether or not they follow a religion where a carpenter became a messiah?   This website is called Christians Connect.  Or something.  But you bear this in mind : somewhere there is a timid, churchgoing man about to go on his first date in six years, terrified that the Pentecostal lady he is about to take out for a light Italian meal will expect bizarre types of horizontal bedroom acrobatics. as promised in the poster.  She could sue trading standards if not.  After the “Christians Make Better Lovers” claptrap it goes on to produce such vomit-worthy stuff as say that “Christians believe in love” and that to “Love one another” is in a Christian’s code.  Is it?  What about the code of the other world faiths?  Does that sentiment not exist?  Oh yes, of course it doesn’t silly me!  All those violent, hating Buddhists, eh?   It’s a fucking outrageous advert.  Apparently Christian Connect say it is a joke, but even so it isn’t even a funny one, so what is the point?  They should have made a better joke.  (Jewish jokes tend to be better, perhaps they could have asked us for one of ours?)

On the Christian Connections website it states “Those in small churches often find it hard to meet enough single people” (why?  Are they hiding behind the altar?)  Surely if you have a religion then the first point of call to locate a husband would be the church.  The one thing you are guaranteed to locate inside a church is Christians.  Just like in the 1970s the one thing you were guaranteed to locate within the Geography department of a minor boy’s prep school would be a gentleman sadist with latent paedophilic tendencies.  It’s their lair.  It’s my guess that this was the original marketing ploy designed by the Romans in the first century AD.  “Climb on board this bizarre Levantine sect cult – we call it Christianity!  At least one climax guaranteed you lucky little lady – just sign on at the third chariot on the left”.  

There’s at least one other religious dating website (at least I think it’s religious) which is so covert and insiduous it fails to mention the religion it represents (my money’s on Occultists) but it doesn’t really matter which one it is because all these posters make you want to throw up.  Whilst I understand that some people are too stupid to Google “Where can I find people to date who might be of the same faith as me?”  and need this glaring posters, the whole thing is faintly bizarre.

Eighteen months ago, The Core Issues Trust were banned from using the sides of London buses to advertise gay therapy in a direct response to, and using the phrasing and colouring of, a Stonewall campaign that had just run.  Thinking that the sentiment of Stonewall’s “Some people are gay.  Get over it.”  was threatening somehow and might make people want to be divinely gay just because of what they had seen down the side of a No 98, Anglican Mainstream rubbed its three brain cells together to produce “Not gay, ex-gay, post-gay and proud! Get over it!”  which promoted spiritual and pastoral therapies to “cure” gay people, in an advert that made little sense to anyone on the planet.  I have met many gay people.  However, I am yet to meet a “not gay”, or “ex-gay”, or perhaps, most compellingly, “post-gay” person.  I have a “post-man” but somehow I don’t think that’s the same thing.  “Post-gay” sounds like a historical period – like post-war or a Victorian mode of transportation – post-chaise.

Boris Johnson banned the advert that the Core Issues Trust had created, stating it was offensive to gays.

Unsatisfied with this, and believing that they had been treated unfairly, the Core Issues Trust stated that Boris Johnson had unlawfully used his position as Chairman of Transport of London to get the advert banned.  They stated Johnson had used the banning of the advert for political gain : he had done it shortly before the 2012 Mayoral elections and then telephoned The Guardian to tell them he had done it.  So, as far as I can tell Johnson assured a newspaper’s reporters that London was not Sochi, and therefore not a suitable stage for gay “cure” propaganda and then attended an election.   Arrangements had also been made for Johnson to attend a Stonewall hustings the next day.

Johnson now has to go to the High Court to meet charges of banning this advert “improperly”.  

Let’s be clear :  Stonewall is a charity.  It works to ensure legal, social and cultural acceptance of all LGBT rights and eliminate prejudice.  It works to provide ordinary civil rights already granted to those who have them simply by the fact they’ve been born heterosexual. If a High Court seeks to define Boris attending a Stonewall hustings as political impropriety (there’s that Victorian word again…) is he also going to be accused of touting for votes from women who have had breast cancer if Marie Curie turn up?  Or of chasing the recovery vote if his hustings was to be sponsored by Alcoholics Anonymous?  Not really.  At what stage can a debate between a) accepting people and b) people who clearly have no ability to accept people, be played on a level playing field?  Anyone who refers to a person as “post-gay” needs their head examining.   Perhaps the most sinister thing about this case is that a basic affront to human rights, as attempted by the Core Issues Trust, has been turned into a political act. To use advertising to encourage bus travellers to punish a man for wanting to sleep with another man is not a political act.  It’s an inhuman one.

So, if I was Queen for the day, that’s what I’d do.  Give the Queens a break.  In addition, you’ll notice that the two examples I have given you today regarding religion on public transport have nothing to do with the word of God at all.  They are both selling sex, or lack thereof.  Because sex is the great litmus test : sex is the one thing that religions get a bit fuzzy around the edges about.  Only the Witnesses of Jehovah weren’t somehow sex obsessed in my sojourn around London’s religious fringes.  Perhaps religious advertising should come to terms with a home truth and admit they’re really just sex obsessed, and – like sex – be absolutely banned on public transport.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every other Thursday, so we look forward to seeing you on Thursday 20th February.  Thank you.

London Tube Lines – a definitive ranking

An almost unheard-of Friday update for us here at The London Bluebird but Tom Phillip’s definitive ranking of London tube lines drew a large Friday grin from us here at Bluebird Towers this morning.  You can see it here:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/tomphillips/the-definitive-ranking-of-london-tube-lines

Wet January

Of all the months to go dry – and there are a dozen to choose from – only the perverse go for January.  The reasons are made apparent by our climate and our own financial imperatives : tax bills, credit card bills filled with nonentities from Christmas, dreary rain splattered socks that clump into the front door at a dark and intolerant 6.35pm, clouds, frizzy hair and a lack of the green stuff characterise this most disgustingly Puritan of months.  The only recourse to leisure that many of us can afford at this time of year is a very dry, very cold, crisp Gordons & Tonic sipped in the loveliest of hottest baths.  Even this – dearest Londoners – the Puritan begrudgers wish to take away from us.  Even this.   If you want to select a 30 day period to drop the alcohol, select a kinder month.  July is simply the best.  September runs her a close, pretty-leafed second.  But at this time of year we need all the props we can get.  And London excels in the vintage art of getting mullered.

Now, let’s be clear : here at The London Bluebird we are not talking about out and out addiction, or serious ethanol abuse.  We are talking about the invigorating effects of a aperatif or two.  The way the parachute of the conscience gently floats down after a hard day’s graft with a heartening sip of Chablis, the fizz and buckle and spit of a giddy tonic water and the Nordic, slightly sweet tangy Gin flavour as it flows in dainty ripples over the tonsils and the gushy of lemony hope that is a mouthful of champagne.  We are talking about this mood-enhancing drug as just that – an enhancer.  However, to those of us who believe we actually live in a vibrantly multi-religious, sort of secular, sort of “well there might be something up there but I don’t know.  All I know is I love a Christmas carol” nation, be wary : there a few things more illuminating to the English moral view than its tidy and sick making thoughts on tipsyness.  Because the over-riding dominant culture of England is represented by an innate suspicion and a disapproval of anything associated with bodily pleasure.

Over at The Guardian, we’re getting conflicted articles about whether temporary “dry” lifestyles are counter-productive and dull as last January’s dishwater (see the wonderful Eva Wiseman’s column : http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/jan/19/giving-up-dry-january-eva-wiseman) or whether we should be supportive of those pillars of Puritan abstinence (see Lea Emery’s somewhat tooth-sucking article about how Americans think we’re all half-bladdered, vodka imbibing maniacs : http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/21/giving-up-alcohol-for-year).  Our society is embedded with drink and we are confused and exacerbated by the way we are meant to feel about it.   If you Google the word “Alcohol” you don’t get chemical information on its various components, as you would if you Googled “quinine”, or “lemonade” or “leprechauns”. It assumes you have a massive problem.  It assumes you don’t want to find out anything about alcohol, except possibly a way to stop imbibing it.  It assumes we are all crying for help.   “Stop drinking”, “What are you thinking when you’re drinking” “Don’t you know what a unit is you clump” and “I think you’re an alki” tend to be the top four websites.  Like pregnancy, that great biological phenomenon which would hardly exist if people weren’t unrelentingly mashed off their faces to start with, when it comes to alcohol intake everyone’s an expert.

What has happened in our culture is odd.  As we veer haphazardly through modern life, our ability to live in the moment becomes severely handicapped by the monstrous technical disturbances and social miseries of every day life.  Off we go, hurtling through that dust ridden tunnel on the District Line, fiendishly tapping our Waitrose shopping lists for later into the “Notes” app on our iPhones like some desperate, sullen Morse code.  This shift in failing to enjoy each moment seems to have gone hand in hand in Britain with a vast talent we have tapped in the last generation or so for caning it.  Never before the 1990s did the gutters of England become quite so congested with medical secretaries thighs rippling and falling into them having got munted on Vodka Red Bulls and AfterShocks.   But here’s the problem : in order to enjoy the physical and spiritual effects of ethanol, you have to live in the moment.  You can’t get drunk if you are stressed about the morning hangover that will follow, as the object has been resoundingly defeated.  Getting pissed / pixellated / tipsy / bladdered has been something we’ve done for approximately 10,000 years, ever since those first hunter gatherers returned from a hard day of animal slaying to be met by Wilma Flintstone standing at the cave entrance in a cardi made entirely from antelope’s testicles holding out a Slippery Nipple.  And that doesn’t look likely to change.

Now, a distilled beverage are our spirits – our 40%-ers.  Gin, vodka, whiskey, brandy and tequila being the main 5.  A fermented beverage is produced either from grain mash (beers) or grapes (wine).  With distilled beverages, the alcohol is concentrated and congeners are removed – and I believe that congeners is where the worst problems lie with the morning after.  Some of you would have been subject to having to listen to the most appalling old wives tales since infancy “You can get AIDS from cats” or “Tuesday usually comes after Monday”.  One of the silliest is “The darker the drink, the worse the hangover”.  Clearly, this seems barmy. The more you drink the worse the hangover, should be more accurate. But this does come from a kernel of truth : Congeners are a collection of chemicals that can contain other alcohols, and include acetone, acetaldehyde, esters and propanol.  Wine contains higher levels of them than spirits, and some believe that the hangover is worse if you down a bottle of something that contains higher levels of congeners.  This goes some way to explain my own inner chemical workings, which operate around the simple truth that if I drink half a bottle of red wine I want to weep all the way through the following day, but I can have four spirit based drinks, guzzle them back, go to sleep and wake up nearly fresh as a daisy.  In other words, spirits help you do what none of our hand-clenching, Protestant moral policeman wants.  The spirits help.  You.  Get.  Away.  With.  It.  Not completely – but it does go a fair way.  In short, you are allowed the euphoria without the misery which we feel, as guilty imbibers of the grain, that we need to experience for some sort of Victorian moral redemption.

In Plato’s Symposium the revellers placed their drinking firmly in a moral framework, conscious of the physical, spiritual and moral implications of alcohol, although it is key to remember that they did this specifically because they were hungover to start with.  Their intentions did win through – moderate drinking characterised the following night for them (that and the lovely stripper brought in from Mykonos)  but it smacks of the “oh, never again” sentiment that classifies those post-drunk mornings paved with good intentions.  The intentions vanish when the hangover clears up.  It is unfortunate that human nature is like that.  But  it seems we’ve been struggling to situate our drinking within a morally acceptable dimension ever since Plato.  Herodotus suggested that the Persians hit on a magnificent system : each political debate had to take place twice, once whilst everyone was drunk and once again when they had all sobered up, therefore relying on a full expression of the self.  The results were then collected and weighed up.   The Roman historian Tacitus stated that the Germans always drank whilst holding councils as they didn’t believe anyone could lie effectively whilst being drunk.  The Romans, of course, left us with our best known phrase about the 3am dark truth of the soul : “In vino veritas” (In wine, truth), and this is a very peculiar phenomenon.  As if the sober mind cannot see the wood for the trees, alcohol distils not only the grain, but the perceptive muscle.  We’ve all had that sneaky Chablis epiphany.  It comes in waves, and it’s not altogether to be dismissed that it comes only late at night.  But the truth, singed and tinged with old slices of lemon and found at the bottom of sticky glasses, will always come to you at some point.   The most brilliant recent case in point of shards of truth and perception coming crashing through Gordons and tonics was Caitlin Moran’s drunken New Year’s Eve advice to women this year, all of which was bang on the nose, and which I have referred to several times :  http://www.cosmopolitan.co.uk/_mobile/celebs/entertainment/caitlin-moran-advice-to-women

The glaringly efficient muscles of the day time consciousness don’t allow it to transcend oer your brain but if you’re slightly raddled and chemically compromised, it’s hardly surprising that the revelations come.  It’s not just the Romans who told us this either.  Take a gander at: 

Russian : Что у трезвого на уме, то у пьяного на языке» (“What a sober man has in his mind, the drunk one has on his tongue”).

The  Babylonian Talmud :  “נכנס יין יצא סוד”, ( “Wine enters, secrets exit”).

Persian :  مستی و راستی (“With drunkenness comes the truth”).

Chinese :   (“After wine blurts truthful speech”).

This, of course, all fails to take into account whether the truth is what anybody actually wants to hear, when it’s 3am, The Best of The Pet Shop Boys is bleating electronicially from someone’s iPad, the couple shouting in the kitchen have just agreed to a divorce in a very lively fashion and you are working out whether a minicab will, once you have located your other shoe, come out to collect you from Herne Hill.

I am not, dearest Londoners, all advocating we blindly career into the streets for a Dickensian Dog’s Nose (warm beer, cold beer and gin) nor that we should make January decidedly wet and hungover.  I am simply questioning the purpose of absolute abstinence for your brain or your soul, and suggesting we shave off the edges of our evenings with a civil imbibing session – for, if this was your last month on the planet you wouldn’t seriously expect to spend it sipping rhubarb and dead man’s pants tea whilst being scared of the scales cowering under the bathroom sink, would you?  Dear Londoners – eat, drink and make merry.   And take this closing advice from Yeats:

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
Bottoms up.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  Or not, perhaps, if you are too busy dousing yourself in liquor at the local hostelry, you slut.  We shall be back for another instalment two weeks from now on Thursday February 6th and very much look forward to seeing you then.  The London Bluebird x

Heeeeeeyyy! Whose been given the Freedom of the City then?

The Freedom of the City of London is one of the oldest surviving ceremonies, dating back to 1237,.  Among its privileges were the right to a walk the streets with a drawn sword or be hung with a silken rope.   The list of recipients contains no unifying characteristic – William Booth has received this illustrious Freedom, but so has Jimmy Choo.  Joseph Chamberlain received it, but so did Luciano Pavarotti, who I imagine was deeply comforted by such privileges as enjoying “the right to be drunk and disorderly in the Square Mile without fear of arrest” and an “exemption from being press ganged” although I consider it unlikely that anyone would have wanted him on their ship anyway because he’d sink it the minute he arrived on board. Someone, clearly drunk, saw fit to give it to Annie Lennox.  Now it is the turn of Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, who stars in pantomime every year in Britain, and who has been granted this bizarre, outdated honour due to the work he has done with children with learning difficulties here in London.

However, the idea of being a Freeman (which rendered the person free from medieval serfdom) is not any longer imbibed with any meaning.  Any medieval privileges that the title may have inferred are now obsolete.  It is therefore nothing more than a symbolic “Freedom”.  Not even the kind of Freedom that George Michael sung about.  Not even the Freedom of the Road that Nelson Mandela’s life story was about. Nada.  No longer can the Fonz drive his cattle and sheep over the bridge on his daily route to Smithfield Market.  Nor can he any longer have the right to walk around with his naked sword drawn in the City of London.  No longer is he, as a Freeman, in possession of the right to get married in St Paul’s Cathedral. So entrenched and restricted was UK democracy before the 1832 Reform Bill, that gaining “Freeman” status meant you reached the heady civic heights of actually having a right to vote, and be exempt from the tolls and charges that the City used to have over all its bridges.     As the current Freeman status has no literal meaning, the UK did what it remains good at to reinstate the law as a symbolic one – it wasted time creating an Act of Parliament.  The 1972 Local Government Act established honorary Freemen status to “persons of distinction and persons who have, in the opinion of the council, rendered eminent services” to the local area.  This has not been adhered to by the City of Salford, however, as it gave The Freedom of the City to Ryan Giggs in 2010, as clearly the Aldermen of Salford are not aware that sexual incontinence is not considered an “eminent service” to the local community – or even to your own sister in law.

But what is the point of bestowing an archiac honour that is ripe with meaning but low on practicalities?  Why does it mean anything to our civic lives?  Well, the Freedom of the City is the only honour that a local authority can bestow.  The only other authority who can bestow honours is The Queen.  Although the Queen’s honour lists are highly policed (I imagine.  I don’t know.  My hotline to the Palace was closed down since I made those calls to Prince Andrew) by the civil service and a whole host of doers, and thinkers, and advisors and counsels, the Queen’s honours is not a democratic process.  Bestowing The Freedom of The City onto the Fonz, however, would have been : council majority must be won by whatever local authority is proposing  any contender for The Freedom of the City.  The only obsolete privilege of a Freeman of the City which is occasionally resurrected for publicity or raising the profile of a charity has been driving sheep or lamb across London’s bridges.  This has been done seven times in the last fifteen years by Freemen of the City who were keen to draw attention to a number of causes, from Help the Aged to publicising the start of London Architecture Week.  The City Police are not keen on this, but yet they allow it as an occasional treat. In Millenium Year, Sir Clive Martin arranged for a professional sheep drive across London Bridge, subjecting the sheep to a high quality pamper first including blow drying their hair and polishing their hooves.  The sheep were then dressed in bright yellow bibs prior to their moment of fame.  Strangely enough, the certificate of Freedom of the City is still produced by the court calligrapher on sheepskin parchment.  I can only hope the sheep was not a cast member from the 2000 sheep drive.

I’m going to stop bleating on about sheep.  The only Freedom of the City for London that still exists is access to the Freemen School without a fee, and the right for the widow of a Freeman to live in the Freeman’s Almshouses, should she so desire.  Of course, the Fonzie doesn’t have the right to vote, as he is not a UK resident, and I would suggest that annual appearances in Hampshire pantomimes may serve to keep him safe from the charitable almshouse door.  Until 1996 you had to be a UK resident in order to have the Freedom of The City of London granted to you at all.  But in the late 1990s they just went mental and opened it up to anyone Tom Dick or Harry that fancies his / her slice of our gay metropolitan freedoms.  Fonzie is not real.  He exists in the baby blue and pink coloured 1950s jukebox of our collective teenage imaginations.  I for one am delighted that the City of London is open to him, as he had such a beneficial effect on all our childhoods.  He was the Cool Man, atop his throne in Planet Cool.  We as Londoners are proud as punch to have him.

Should the Freeman of the City be lucky enough to have his application accepted, he will be granted an audience with the Chamberlain’s Court Beadle.  This is always a problem in England, because as soon as anyone hears the word “beadle” in London they feel compelled to sing the entire score of the musical “Oliver!” ending in a rousing rendition of Mr Bumble, the Beadle’s “Boy for Sale”.  This is a song that is a bit like “Love for Sale” but it is about a boy.  The Chamberlain’s Court Beadle then presents the happy recipient of the Freedom of the City to a terrifying man in tights who is called The Clerk of the Chamberlain’s Court.  Then the applicant of the Freedom of The City must recite the following load of stuff.  But wait! It isn’t about the City!  It’s about the Queen!

Get this:

I do solemnly declare that I will be good and true to our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second; that I will be obedient to the Mayor of this City; that I will maintain the franchises and customs thereof, and will keep this City harmless, in that which in me is; that I will also keep the Queen’s peace in my own person; that I will know no gatherings nor conspiracies made against the Queen’s peace, but I will warn the Mayor thereof, or hinder it to my power; and that all these points and articles I will well and truly keep, according to the laws and customs of this City, to my power.

Non British and British Commonwealth Citizens have the option to substitute “our Sovereign Lady” with “Her Majesty”.

I mean it’s a bit of a mouthful isn’t it?  And it’s all about being obedient to Boris Johnson, and keeping tradition with our customs etc, but it’s a bit low to assume said applicant wants to blow the Queen up (“conspiracies made against the Queen’s peace) or start a war.  Oh.  Hang on.  They actually gave The Freedom of The City to Lord Kitchener in 1898.  Whoops.  So, what does this mean?  You are legally obliged to warn the Mayor if shit is going down to risk the Queen’s peace?  This is not an empty symbolic role about sheep!  This is someone playing an intricate part in the great court of our constitutional monarchy!  The way I understand it is this:  If stuff is happening that isn’t good and that is going to blow Parliament up it’s up to Henry “The Fonz” Winkler to detect it, with Annie Lennox as his second in command, arrange an audience with the Mayor and inform him of said plot against Queen in due course.  Right.  We can all rest easy then.  Happy Days.

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 January 23rd! 

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Should Auld New Year’s Eve Be Forgot?

You have to understand – I just hate it.  Some of my worst nights have been New Year’s Eve Parties.  I propose absolute abolition.  New Year’s Eve is the worst thing that happens to you all year.  At least when the tax bill has to be paid in late January you know you must have earned some money in the first place in order to be punished by HMRC, but New Year’s Eve is melancholic punishment with no pay off, standing in tight heels at a party given by someone you don’t like knowing you can’t go home for another four hours.  And you’re in Putney.  I hate the feeling of the year being sucked away from under our feet and the onward, terrible onslaught of time.  I also really resent the fact that, here in the northern hemisphere, New Year’s Eve more or less coincides with the shortest amount of daylight any one day can receive.  By 3.45pm, with our Christmas-full bellies regurgitating last night’s Rennie tablets and the cold, wintry branches of naked trees leering at us from cul de sac gardens, the year ends and the sky turns royal and then navy blue.  That’s it.  The end of the daylight for the year.  Always with a whimper rather than a bang, and usually soundtracked by ITV2’s fourth viewing of Mary Poppins of the holiday period.  I am not a depressive but am prone to occasional – and very attractive – outbursts of melancholia.  Nothing smacks of melancholia more than the timid, quiet fading of cold light on a dank and rainy New Year’s Eve and all the electric lights in your house burning wildly by teatime.

By New Year’s Eve your head and liver have had it.  They have, to all intents and purposes, planned to move on.  Your head is plotting miserabilist puritan lifestyles for January.  Your liver is essentially down on its knees, begging for milk thistle supplements.  You’re always thirsty.  Your family are everywhere, all of them, all at once in a way that makes everyone feels fifteen.  Somewhere in your PAYE-mind you were encouraged to look forward to this holiday all year, and yet now you are staring down the barrel at work starting up again, a torrid feeling of ennui launches itself out of nowhere and socks you on the jaw.  Another year has gone.  You’re older.  You have white hairs.  People have died.  Shit happens.  And now they want you to go out and celebrate it. 

The laws of New Years Eve are murky.  All year the clocks have been whirring along superfast – one minute it’s March and it seems only a moment later we are basking in the heat of August in the Med and it seems whenever it’s time to book another wax you’ve only just had one.  Then, as 7.31pm strikes in the suburbs, the clock that has been spinning fast all year slows to a painfully slow place.  You are standing beside a bowl of blighted peanuts in a house twenty miles from your own and people you used to employ on a semi-self-employed basis are on telephones trying to buy drugs as they think it’s 1998.  There are crudites.  There are neighbours and the insolent logic of time dictates that another 4 hours and 29 minutes of the insufferable indignity of watching middle aged people take illegal substances in that once-a-year way whilst everyone makes painful conversations with strangers must be endured before we can all go home and put our slippers on. That’s what we all really want to do.  But modern life is constructed in such a sick-making way that you are made to feel that if you want to spend a quiet evening at home with the cat and a good book, which is what you need after five days of festivities, you are a sad sack of a person.  The implication is you will be found, years from now, dead under the cat, (where you have been for several months, alone) with your bones poking through the elbows of your cardigan.   This is all topsy turvy kids.  It’s the people who want to propel themselves headfirst into the Trafalgar Square fountains whilst off their tits we should as a nation be concerned about.

I once saw the New Year in on the Northern Line between Hampstead and Belsize Park.  I once saw it in at a Covent Garden wine bar (remember those? It’s now a branch of Next) at a small table covered with a red cloth where I was watching my brother’s band lead the Auld Lang’s Syne rendition, which meant the only person I got to say Happy New Year too was a bass player called Colin who happened to be sitting at the table.  I saw one New Year in at a nightclub where people were having a variety of reactions to unsavoury pills on the worst patterned carpet you have ever seen.  I have seen it in twice in a Chinese restaurant.  I have seen it in once asleep.  I once choreographed being in the lav of a Mornington Crescent pub on the stroke of a midnight of New Year’s Eve six months after my father died so I didn’t have to have Happy New Year said to me.  I once saw it in in a chair in someone’s living room in Pinner.  The last party I went to was in 2001, somewhere in Parsons Green.  People are still recovering from that one. In 2002 I did something really outlandish.  I stayed in on my own.  And it was brilliant.

I shall never accept a New Year’s Eve Party invitation.  Even getting one brings me out in hives, so don’t send me one.  I have been to several of these dreadful events and always seemed to end up asleep under a fur coat whilst a happier couple would descend upon me and try to snog.  Someone also needs to explain to alcohol that it doesn’t work on New Year’s Eve.  Alcohol really shouldn’t be your drug of choice.  Because unless you are Oliver Reed, you will have a three hour period in which you feel bonny as can be on alcohol.  After the initial three hour period your stomach, which has been working overtime all week, starts to protest.  You start to worry about being sick, about having a nice lie down, about why the room has the audacity to keep on spinning.  Usually this would herald the end of the evening, and your butler would be summoned to saddle up the horses.  But it’s 9.49pm on New Year’s Eve and you have to stay there not only for two hours until midnight but for another hour after midnight, so it doesn’t look rude to your hosts.  So you have to sit there and feel like crap for three hours.  And it’s the worst start to a year when you have vomit drooling out of the corner of your over-stuffed mouth.  Then, annoyingly, after midnight people who are dealing with substances (and I’m not exactly talking about the icing sugar on top of the Christmas Cake) start becoming quite effervescent in their social excitement.  In fact, talking and drooling and boring is all they can do – and they are doing it – sometimes for hours.  The event ramps up to the awful horror of The Second Wind.  The Second Wind is like The Second World War but lasts longer and there are more psychic casualties.   Blabber blabber jabber jabber go the cocaine mouths in the corner, and you lie back on the Habitat sofa and pray for death.  They think it’s quarter past one in the morning, but it’s actually half past eight on January 1st and someone’s putting the bacon on the grill.

The worst thing of all was to be in your 20s on the New Year to end all New Year’s, a.k.a Millenium Eve.  Millenium Eve was a fucking appalling idea.  It was so awful that they thought planes would fall randomly out of the sky and everyone’s computer would explode.  Wow, that must be some party, we thought.  Being in your mid-20s, as I was, and not going out on New Year’s Eve to refresh your relationship with the stimulants of the day was unthinkable.  Social suicide.  Not that we had a clue what to do, of course.  We hadn’t had a Millenium Eve since before the Battle of Hastings, so weren’t sure what the dress code was (Saxon sack over Normandy shoes?)  But we knew we absolutely had to do something thrilling.  And it was going to cost a fortune.  And we thought it was going to be something we were going to tell our grandchildren about.  Although, why my grandchildren will want to hear about a vaguely damp evening in a big house in Reading that started with champagne in a chilly marquee and ended up with me watching Doris Day on ITV at 6am whilst carefully removing a smouldering cigar from my sleeping brother’s hand is anyone’s guess.  My friend had an argument with another friend, and having really stirred that up, had an argument with my brother’s friend for good measure.  We stared at a big television coated in a large white bedsheet (the theme was Arthurian legend.  I still don’t know what the bedsheet was all about) and watched stupid fireworks come out of the stupid Eiffel Tower in a silly line.  Earlier we had watched some hugely excitable people in a remote corner of the Solomon Islands or some such place giddily enter the new millenial age whilst dancing around in circles.  We tried to take Prince’s advice but partying like it was 1999 is a tall order.  You cannot command the entire globe to have fun just because some woman gave birth on a donkey’s bed to a carpenter two thousand years before.  It’s like forcing millions of people to enjoy themselves, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s people enjoying themselves.

Which begs the point – what is the point of New Year’s Eve?  I quite understand the point of Christmas Day if you are a Christian, but this New Year’s Eve bollocks is beyond understanding.  And it’s not just the excuse to have a party, because that’s what birthdays were invented for.  It’s like a festival with no saint, a party with no birthday boy, a celebration devoid of meaning.  And London gets treated like a whore, frankly.  People invade, fuck everything up and leave.  Most self-respecting smart Londoners head for holiday cottages, and those of us who are not smart stay behind and avoid the West End and it’s glut of out-of-towners intent on mayhem.  The city gets tense and braces itself for something that looks like the last days of Rome.   The next morning it smells like the last days of Rome too, with sick and broken Moet bottles cluttering up the gutters and St John Ambulance men on overtime.

The best way to celebrate New Year’s Eve is to celebrate New Year’s Day instead.  Go for a bracing walk in the bright winter sun and stride off whatever hangover you might have got by downing that extra vat of cherry brandy the evening before during Jool’s Hootenanny.  Because in England, telly is the thing.  Stay in.  Pull the curtains to.  Put the cat out.  Cook a little supper and toast the New Year with your loved one.  Get some rest before the year starts with riotous abandon a few days later.  You’ll be glad you did.  You can even go radical and go to bed at 10.30pm with cocoa, but because you’re nearer 40 than 30 no one cares.  Have a good one and a safe one.  Have a lovely break.  We at The London Bluebird look forward to seeing you in 2014, and wish a Happy New Year to you all.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is updated every two weeks, so we look forward to seeing you on January 2nd 2014 – unless you are still out caning it on New Year’s Eve, in which case we look forward to welcoming you back when you finally surface at some point in February.  xx