2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 20,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 5 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

6 ounces of butter

I am addicted to The Great British Bake Off – to all of it’s sieving, shaking, folding and whisking – to the extent that last winter, delving into the cupboards to stave off a seismic episode of the winter blues, I went doolally.  I baked every weekend, large victoria sponges with vanilla buttercream and expensive, out-of-season berries.  I forgot that my husband didn’t eat cakes, thereby leaving me to eat a third of it over the next few days and then throw the lot in the bin.  I used to stand, sentry-like, against the door of the oven in our old flat, to ensure it stayed properly closed so that the aeration effect of the self-raising flour would not be jeopardised.  Choux buns launched themselves out of the kitchen and landed, coolly glazed with organic dark chocolate and edible gold baking stars, to be munched and savoured through repeats of Downton Abbey on ITV3.  I fretted over the state of my ginger nuts.  I baked chocolate roulades in feverish, hasty bouts of pre-menstrual madness.  And then, at some point during the spring, I came to my senses and got a life.

Did get me wondering though.  Surely I could brave the interrogation of Mary Berry and that strapping Yorkshire bloke with the thick, grey spiky hair.  Would my drop scones pass muster, or could I meringue myself into a frenzy, whilst staring out Sue and /or Mel with the soundbite “I like to bake IT RELAXES ME.  During baking I fantasize about living in the 1950s and I find this rewarding.  Why are you standing on my vanilla essence?”  It amazes me that, tortes whirling through the air like plates, the bakers keep their cool in the final moments of the ticking clock whilst Sue  and/or Mel ask them questions like “You’re struggling a bit today aren’t you?  Your muffins flopped and your crumpets defied belief. You remember where you parked your car, don’t you?  Don’t bump the SMEG fridges on the way out.  They’re hired.”

Amongst all this cutesy-cutesy, retro, pastel-coloured world in which the GBBO lives, is the repeated, heraldric message of the triangular Union Jack flags, floating above the cinnamon musk of sweet bagels and looking like last year’s bunting.  One entrant was criticised this week by producing a cake dotted with so many crescents of clementines he was accused of being “too 1970s”.  Such are the highly-ranked standards of the GBBO, however, that this entrant still was awarded the much-desired title of “This week’s star baker”.  1970s is bad.  The GBBO is about harvesting ideas of 1950s retro, and don’t you forget it. It’s about romanticising and slightly fetishizing the golden glamour of the perfect English housewife, the Betty Drapers who didn’t turn to the bottle,  the wide-skirted ladies with the permanent red lipline who appeared in adverts for estate cars, three piece suites and caravan holidays.  In the safe smog of the baking fumes in the kitchen we can return to our true domestic selves.  We shall bake our way through the recession.  In fact, we already are – what with sales of cake stands and baking utensils up 10% in John Lewis over the last twelve months.  Running through this is a restorative red, white and blue ribbon of Britishness.  We find solace, as ever, in golden age fantasies of the past, feeding our Caerphilly and rosemary scones to the blushing cricketeers who team from the cricket pitch on the village green on cloudless, ever sunny, English afternoons.

The problem is, the 1950s weren’t actually like that (No?  Really? I hear, shouted from the back).  Firstly there was polio, which really disturbed your Battenburg skills and left you with a permanent limp, if you were lucky to survive it.   Heroin was legal, which probably explains why all those housewives in adverts in magazines are smiling.  Corporal punishment was still the law in all schools.  But perhaps most cripplingly for our national bakers, tea was on ration until 1952 and eggs and sugar until 1953.  How would Mary Berry cope with producing an ideal meringue or a creme caramel of crippling beauty with the dredges of bastardised powdered egg that lurked at the bottom of the housewives culinary arsenal?  It wasn’t until rationing was completely lifted in 1954 that people were able to focus on getting fat again, and buying as much butter, sugar, eggs and sugared, decorative swans etc as they wanted.

During rationing, bakers had to get inventive.  Margarine or dripping could be welcome substitutes for butter, but margarine doesn’t bake brilliantly or produce a richness of flavour.  Dripping just makes a cake feel unrelentingly suet-y.  But it is the eggs where the problem really arises.  Eggs are incredibly versatile – especially on their own, whether you fry them, poach them, go all continental and produce an omelette or scramble them.  The alchemy they perform in a cake cannot be echoed by any other foodstuff, hence the fact that ration era recipes from the 1940s and 1950s don’t even try pretending to imitate the noble egg and leave it out altogether.  Try this ration era recipe:

Eggless Sponge Cake
Cooking time: 20 mins Quantity 1 cake

6 oz self-raising flour with 1 level teaspoon baking powder or plain flour with 3 level teaspoons baking powder
2 ½ oz margarine
2 oz sugar
1 level tablespoon golden syrup
¼ pint milk or milk and water jam for filling

Sift the flour and baking powder. Cream the margarine, sugar and golden syrup until soft and light, add a little flour then a little liquid. Continue like this until a smooth mixture. Grease and flour two 7 inch sandwich tins and divide the mixture between the tins. Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until firm to the touch just above the centre of a moderately hot oven. Turn out and sandwich with jam.

When you’re feeling festive you could even attempt the Wartime Eggless Christmas Cake.  Note use of carrots, a common wartime substitute for everything it seems.  This cake seems incredibly dense, so may come in useful in the event of an enemy attack, whereupon you can pelt unwanted German interlopers with slices of it:

  • 1 large carrot finely grated
  • 2-3 tablespoons of golden syrup
  • 3 oz sugar
  • 4 oz margarine
  • 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla essence
  • ½ teaspoon of almond essence (or 1 teaspoon of rum extract)
  • 6 oz dried fruit
  • 12 oz self raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 small teacup of slightly warm tea or coffee (with milk in)
  1. Cook the grated carrot and syrup over low heat for few minutes
  2. Cream the sugar and margarine until light and fluffy
  3. Stir the bicarbonate of soda into the syrup mixture and then beat it into the sugar and margarine as if adding an egg, bit by bit 
  4. Add  the vanilla and almond essence
  5. Add dried mixed fruit
  6. Fold in the sieved flour and cinnamon
  7. Add some of the tea or coffee if needs be.  The batter needs to be thick but moist.
  8. Put the mixture into a greased tin
  9. Smooth the top
  10. Place into pre-heated oven at 200C for 15 minutes
  11. Reduce temperature to 160C and cook for 45 minutes
  12. Cool and decorate with edible toppings

The recipes fail to comment that you won’t have a bowel movement for the best part of a fortnight, but I suppose that’s not important if there’s a war on.  You would also have to contend with mockeries – mock marzipan, mock meringue, mock icing.  The closest thing Mary Berry or Baker Paul would get to a dark chocolate gateaux with blackberry and vanilla coulis and a rose-infused sponge in 1952 would have been “Duke Pudding” which is like Duke Ellington except it is made of cake.  It was the closest a housewife could get in 1944 to a “chocolate fix:

Duke Pudding

  1. Soak 2 breakfast cups of stale bread (about 5-6 slices) in a little cold water then squeeze the water out until it is as dry as possible.
  2. Beat out lumps with a fork
  3. Add two tablespoons of fat or margarine , 2 tablespoons of sugar, 3 tablespoons of dried fruit , small teacup full of grated carrot, 1 teaspoon of mixed spice or cinnamon.
  4. Stir 1 flat teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda into a few teaspoons of milk and mix and then blend well into the mixture
  5. Spread evenly into a well greased tart tin or pie dish and cook in a moderate oven for 30-40 minutes.

Whilst a noble attempt at a sugary cake, this appears to have no sweetness in it all, except that which comes from the cinnamon or the carrot.  Mary Berry would show it the door, particularly if some wartime housewife presented this during the “Technical Challenge”.  But it is the biggest challenge of all – to create a foodstuff associated with plenty and luxury when you have neither of those things.  Amidst all the gingham patterns and the Americana 1950s refrigerators, there is some things in The Great British Bake Off that would be foreign to any housewife of the post war years – the waste inherent in chucking away unsuccessful cake mixes without a second glance and the pure, wonderful glory of actually having six ounces of butter.

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

Customer Service Pay Pal style

I have to post this.  This is my experience this morning, of dealing with PayPal’s idea of customer service, where I needed to change my account to my married name. “Louise” is their automated computer assistant.  

Louise  Hello, I’m Louise and I’m here to answer your questions about PayPal. Even though I’d like to be a real person, I’m not. I’m programmed to answer your questions. How can I help you?


You  change of name


Louise  You can change the name on your account only for typographical errors or a legal name change. For security reasons, you cannot change account ownership (you can’t change your name to another person’s name). To make a name change, please submit a request through our secure form

To complete your name change we may require that you fax or upload some current photo proof of your identity. Please note that it normally takes 3-5 business days to review your documents.


Was the information I gave you helpful?
– No


You  No.  I  haven’t used my PayPal account since before I got married. I need to amend it by the end of this month?


Louise  Can you give me some more information about your problem?


You I thought I just did

Louise I’m not sure I’ve understood. Could you please rephrase that?


YouI need to change my bank account name that takes automatic PayPal funds to my married name


LouiseYou can view, add, remove or select your primary bank account from your account Profile:

If there is an error in the bank account information you have added you must remove the bank account from your PayPal account and carefully re-add it with the correct information.

– Each bank account can only be added to PayPal three times
– You can add up to eight bank accounts to your PayPal account.
I’m right here if you have any other questions.


You What?!


Louise I’m not sure what you’re saying. Could you please rephrase that?


You Louise – I need to change my PayPal name to my married name.


Louise You can change the name on your account only for typographical errors or a legal name change. For security reasons, you cannot change account ownership (you can’t change your name to another person’s name). To make a name change, please submit a request through our secure form


To complete your name change we may require that you fax or upload some current photo proof of your identity. Please note that it normally takes 3-5 business days to review your documents. Let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.


You Louise – this is not at all helpful. You say the document can be scanned but you do not say where to?


Louise  Great! I’ll be here if you have any other questions.


You Yes, you are there. Very much so.  But you’re not at all helpful. You’re about as useful as a milk chocolate teapot.


Louise I’m sorry I haven’t been able to assist you.  I’m not sure I’ve understood.  Could you please rephrase that?


Then, these bastards give you an online CODE that is only valid for 60 minutes.  Once you ring the overpriced helpline you are put through to a woman who always sounds like Carrie Fisher before she gave up drinking.  Then, if you have had the cheek to get married they require FOUR types of proof for verification.  Why?  Do they think I am too ugly to have ensnared a husband?  Presumably they think I am pretending to have got married in order to enjoy the thrill of this disgusting, fucked up bureaucratic nightmare. I feel I have lost a skin or three this morning through these people and am now off to take up heavy drinking.

Planes and Boats and Trains

Isn’t the best part of planning to go away buying those Lilliputian shampoos and conditioners from Superdrug?  As the threat from terrorism gets bigger, our cosmetics get tinier.  Soon we won’t be able to see them at all, or we will be carrying them around in small phials like vitamin capsules.  The British high street chemist knows well how to exploit customers and neck massive profits in the face of possible terrorism : “AHA, can’t take anything on an aeroplane larger than 100mls, eh?  Well, have this widdly diddly Aussie shampoo bottle for £2 SUCKERS.” My world has descended into miniature as I am going away on a short flight in a small plane, but my make up bag is full of extraordinary small things.  I have tiny bottles of nail polish remover, tiny bottles of moisturiser, itsy bitsy Impulse sprays which when made smaller look bizarrely like sex toys, teeny weeny toothpastes.  I feel I should be travelling with a small plastic doll, who will use these products.   When I say this is the best part of going on holiday, it’s mainly because everything else is tedious and unpleasant.

So, here’s the thing : it takes three days to get over the travel involved in a holiday.  If you need to have a proper holiday you should add about four months on to that.  That way you’re suitably rested.   But after a couple of weeks you’ll start complaining, be bored and miss the telly and decent tea.  Plus sand gets everywhere.   There is also a limit to how happy a breakfast pineapple cut into a tessellated crown shape can fulfil you in this world.  Plus there are things that make a feast of your body.   How many times have you flopped down into a well-made hotel bed somewhere exotic where mangos grow and people wear straw hats all year round and say “I can’t believe I was in Gatwick this morning!  Oh look it’s a mosquito come to eat my blood.  God, I love holidays!” 

Time stretches and does awful things to you.  When you move in physical space you seem to fall into a space time continuum where the usual rules don’t apply.  Maybe that’s because I have had so many rubbish holidays.  I once went on a week long holiday to Malta that was so horrible it lasted a month.   With an ex-boyfriend I spent two weeks in Sherborne, Dorset, but it felt like about a year.  But then again, I went to America on a holiday for three weeks but I’d swear I was only there for about 15 minutes.  And a week in Mexico flew by in a riot of wave surfing and alligator-avoiding and seemed to last about two and a half hours.  As for the time zone shift, is that not nature’s way of telling us that we are not designed to travel?  It completely ruins everything.  One moment you are toasting your new holiday under star-kissed skies, smugly bathing under the first glorious sunset of the holiday you’ve spent all year saving up for, and the next moment you are asleep with your face in a strawberry daiquiri, snoring loudly.     Jet lag takes you at about 6.30 in the evening and pushes you into bed like an irascible toddler.  On the up side, you then have the violent  inner alarm clock which sets itself in the morning, propels you out of bed, makes you think you are late for work and tells you in its own unique little way that it ain’t going back to sleep any time soon, all at 3.30am.   It’s just not worth it, jet lag.  I paid £700 to get to Mexico and what did I buy?  I bought a horrid reminder of the fact that my body owns me and not the other way around.  I had been deluded into believing things were the other way around for years.  When my body decided it was hot-chocolate-and-night-night-beddy-byes time there was no negotiation with it.  I was hostage to my own body clock.  This, for reasons I cannot understand, reminds me of death.  So, yes.    Highlands.  Yes, I’ll go to the Highlands instead!  Brilliant.  I may come back without my skin as I shall be eaten alive by midges but I won’t have to deal with the jet lag…zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

You haven’t travelled until you’ve travelled with someone who is scared of flying.  The only time I managed to distract my husband from the fact he was in a machine travelling through the air which was using engines to defy gravity was the time I taught him gin rummy.  Like a child being distracted, he suddenly turned around and said “Have we landed? Oh I hadn’t noticed”.  But the Gin Rummy Teaching Episode was a high point, and it’s been downhill from there, mainly because once you’ve taught someone gin rummy once you can’t teach them again, and I only know one other card game, and I don’t think RyanAir will let you play strip poker.  I actually quite like the flying bit – give me a ham sandwich and a bit of turbulence and I’m very happy – because at least it’s better than the insufferable awfulness of the airport.  I only ever had one positive experience in an airport, which involved a hearty dinner and some gin and tonics with a dear friend.  We were there for hours.  Eventually our names were announced over the tannoy as our flight was about to leave.  We legged it to the Gate, only to find the Italian pilot and accompanying staff lolling about as if to say “What’s the rush?  Otherwise, airports are decidedly vile places where they trap you in somewhere called a “Lounge” for 90 minutes after the bit where they’ve decided you are / are not a terrorist.  “Shall we go through?”  “Yes, shall we go through and SIT AND EAT CRAP FOR AN HOUR AND A HALF?”  Yes, let’s.  Let’s go through where the air is so full of perfume sprays that my eyes water.  Let’s watch fat people in Wetherspoons.  Let’s queue at W H Smith and buy magazines we would never buy when we are in Sainsburys, and in our right mind, because it’s special, innit?  You’re going on holiday, aren’t you?  Oh, and let’s buy a ladies scarf from Tie Rack that no one will wear.  And then let’s sit in Pret a Manger surrounded by people who are going on holiday but who have eyes of death because they clearly don’t want to go to Majorca again.  And then – yes! – let’s kill ourselves to get away from the sheer, shuddering awfulness of it all.

I like trains.

Once, on a school ski trip, an incident involving a lost passport at an airport culminated in the Head of Physics having to smuggle me into France.  I thought this was very exciting.  The French allowed me to pass through undetected.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t allowed for the fact that after this bizarre episode the school trip had a theme  : the idea was they’d strap two slats of wood to my legs and propel me from a mountain.   Not likely, I thought, promptly feigned ‘flu and stayed in my bunk bed for 5 days, my only comfort being a bright pink-jacketed novel by Barbara “call me Babs” Cartland and the occasional Surgical-Spirit scented visits of the school matron.  It astonished me then and it continues to astonish me now- people go away in order to throw themselves off mountains.  And – worse still – they call it a “holiday”.

Whenever I am away from London ,and particularly in the countryside, I basically turn into the Scottish croft-cottage-living wife that Peggy Ashcroft plays in the original film of The 39 Steps. There she is, all Scottish Presbyterian modesty and trying not to be impressed by the dashing, delightful Robert Donat as he chases spies across the Highlands.  She asks him about London and what it’s like.  She is agog whilst gutting a fish.  Off he goes, making her salivate with the descriptions of Piccadilly Circus in 1934, of late Saturday nights, of the theatres turning out and Quaglinos beckoning them in, and general city stories of gentlemen “larging it” 1930s stylee.  Eventually, carried away by the robust mental picture he is painting of Londoners going out and getting mullered, she asks “And is it – and is it true that in London – the ladies PAINT THEIR TOENAILS?”

“Some of them, yes….” he says, looking suave and attractive and not a little cosmopolitan.

When I’m away, London is a place of painted toenails.  There is a slither of a sense that something exciting is going on just out of reach. When we are away, London gets ludicrous.  We think it exists, I mean, it must exist, mustn’t it?  But we can’t quite imagine it.  In imagination, it becomes so much pleasanter.  If you are travelling to a remote countryside area, London seems an unreal universe, thousands of light years away, impossible to conjure.  For a big city, it gets smaller and smaller, until it fades out of our sensory world.  Crumpled Costa loyalty cards and Oyster card payment receipts flutter out of our handbags onto countryside floors as if they were remnants of another era and another people.  What is this? Stamp for each coffee and get a free coffee? It is covered with the grime and the rush of Bond Street station at 3.23 on a Tuesday afternoon.  It speaks of rapidity, noise and muggy, twice-breathed London air.  It seems to come from another time.

London from a distance is a city of gold and beauty, because your memory decides it’s going to forget the bad bits.  I don’t know why this is, but I would like to believe that it is because our minds have a chemical balance towards optimism.   The word London invites some kind of special promise and weight if you are in Lisbon.  This is odd, because we certainly don’t think that when we are on your way to our busy offices in the morning.  But there are transcendental moments here, in this grand city of ours, just as there is in the countryside.  And it is these transcendental moments that make our lives here somewhat giddy and glorious, and worth living. Being Londoners we are moulded by its stone.  We begin the dreaded holiday resolution list, the one that starts “when I am back from holiday I shall….”  We shall return to the City, and we shall make anew our bonds of loyalty to London.  We shall go to a museum.  We shall eat sandwiches on those pretty benches in front of the Thames outside the National Film Theatre.  We will stop to look at the river.  We will inhale the scent of the ground floor of Selfridges. We won’t waste the city.  We shall go to the theatre and walk more.  Won’t we?

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  The blog is usually updated every single Thursday, but this week I decided to be perverse and posted on a Wednesday instead.  Please return on Thursday 21st June, unless you are a pagan and will instead by busy dancing on Primrose Hill and beckoning in the Summer Solstice.

Phew! Smokin’ hot.

Oh Londoners, Londoners – gather round, kids.  I’ve got a fan at my desk, you see.  No – not a worshipping chap hysterically holding out paper printouts of The London Bluebird blogs desperate for me to add a flourishing signature to them – but a fan to circulate air over our molten, stagnating third floor office.   Outside, smokers bluster about in dry heat, battling for shade under the awnings of EAT.    I haven’t smoked for nearly nine years, but still when I am writing an essay I feel the old, familiar nicotine tug.  I don’t get this at any other time – I gave up the Alan Carr Easy Way which reprogrammes your neurological pathways and self-hypnotises you into thinking that you aren’t a smoker, which is utterly mad.  In other words, it has a strange, divine lunacy that encourages you to think you are not yourself but someone else.  Someone puritan, whose nasal passages have never known a Marlboro Lights Menthol.  It worked, which was somewhat startling.  Other attempts to quit had lasted an average term of three and a half weeks, and would be ended with a flourish of a Chianti bottle in a local Italian restaurant run by Swiss Cottage Germans which I used to patronise, with an illicit smoke with a coffee.  The moment would be divine but, needless to say, you’d hate yourself by morning.   This happened repeatedly throughout my twenties.  Eventually, the self-hate generated by the weakness for Mr Cigarette overwhelmed any pleasure derived from the act of smoking and if you’ll pardon the pun, my smoking gradually got filtered out.  Also, I used to have my moustache removed by a formidable lady in the beauty department of Harrods.  After one trip, smarting and hair free, I realised I could fully see my upper lip and it had LINES around it.  All those years of sitting on concrete floors outside college drawing in smoke had aged me.  This was inexcusable.   Never mind the fear of the tumour.  It was more about vanity in the end.  I was furious that smoking had dared to take on my youthful good looks in this impertinent manner.

Smoking was one of my great talents.  I was extraordinarily brilliant at it – not least because I used to spend ages in front of the mirror in my first flat practising the French inhale.  This was a rather vile thing in retrospect, but it was about letting a small greyish balloon of smoke fold out from your mouth before slowing sucking it back in again, preferably before it made your eyes water.  You were sort of creating a Gallic, oddly-shaped, cancer-esque balloon.  I once had tea with Christopher Cazenove who had a decidedly creepy French inhale featuring an ominous glottal sound in the back of his throat each time he slowly inhaled.  This made him seem like an evil dictator.   I was a Silk Cut smoker for a long while, then someone gave me a Marlboro Light in my early twenties and it was like discovering crack.  I became hooked on them, before I discovered the deliriously fresh Marlboro Lights Menthol, which were like having a really cold cigarette in your mouth that tasted strongly of Trebor mints.  The filters were white, which added to the drama.  At seventeen I came home from a Florida holiday with a dark, wooden cigarette holder which I thought made me look quite the business. 

“Do you think you’re in a Noel Coward play, or something?” said my brother in the Lansdowne pub in Primrose Hill.

“Yes,” I said, and sparked up a white-filtered Cartier in a regal manner. 

Cigarettes were an excellent prop for the aspiring actress.  With me, the practicalities were in the way.  I had to devise a plan to develop a nonchalant actor’s smoking habit whilst in a house full of non-smokers as a teenager, and the plan was tiresome to say the least.  It involved a whole new outfit, comprising of gloves and a bathhat, to conceal the smell of smoke.  I would then have to climb out on a window, stand on a (probably unsafe) roof that extended below my bedroom window for a cigarette break during my A Level revision, but this was a system that was delivered a mighty blow one evening when a parent accidentally locked me out of my own bedroom, leaving me, banging on the window, resplendent in evening gloves and shaking a box of matches.  Oh, how we laughed.  No, of course I didn’t.  I was reprimanded and felt almost guilty.  Apparently parent went back to the marital bed, shared the news and the two of them laughed like drains, not that I knew.  On leaving home, of course, the world was my ashtray, but even then cigarettes were pricey.  As a student I realised you could get three roll-ups at least from one shop-bought filter pack.  They also used to have these cigarettes called 100s – which were longer.  A well known actor used to come round to our house and smoke them.  He used to rakily extinguish them after smoking only a third of these eerily long tabs, so I’d usually relight them later in the evening when no one else was looking.  Didn’t I say I was classy?

What set me to thinking about cigarettes last night was standing around outside waiting for the online shopping delivery.  I realised the feeling was familiar – standing loitering outside a building, staring into the summer sky, thinking of nothing in particular and doing nothing in particular.  I was revisiting the stance of the smoker, albeit sans cigarette.   I was experiencing the life of the city flaneur, the observer who sort of potters about, strolling, watching, standing.  It is a lazy predicament, that of the wondering flaneur.  In our working lives we are too busy to let our minds breathe for a moment.  Unless, of course, you are a smoker.  Ironically, smokers, who do the most to prevent themselves from being able to breathe sufficiently, are the ones whose minds breathe in city mornings. Society has decreed that smokers are the new junkies, and totally banished them to the outside spaces.  Only smokers have the time, it seems, for flaneur moments.  Now me and most of my contemporaries are no longer smokers, we sit at our desks all morning with no little nicotine peak to look forward to and no time out to stare at the sky and do – well, nothing, actually. 

From something that was merely casually disgusting, smoking has become absolutely filthy.  We gaze, hypnotised at the curlicues of white smoke above Don Draper’s head, as HBO dares, rakishly and prettily, to make smoking sexy again.  It is more verboten than ever.  In Mad Men the pull of the cigarette has become more fraught with sexual tension than Roger Sterling’s sock-suspenders.  We can flirt with an innocent time, draw a veil over the well-documented malignant dangers of the cancer stick, throw a retro-ironic gesture towards the days when doctors advertised the benefits of a nice cigarette after a lung operation.  Sometimes there is a strange variety and look of longing fired at a party towards the only smoker.  We did this ourselves, and we did this to our society.  We made smoking so goddamn nasty people are practically having orgasms over it.   The sight of a languid Lauren Bacall doing something as extraordinary as setting fire to some rolled leaves and then putting it in her mouth still has men salivating after seventy years.  In 1942, it was filthy, due to the clunking overtones of oral sex, now it’s really sexy because it’s so goddamn naughty.  The image is still charged, not only with sexual tension but with a hint of dark, social depravity.

No one did it better than Lauren Bacall, obviously.  I certainly didn’t.  I was one of the few schoolchildren at my school who actually set fire to her own homework during a post-breakfast gasper.  But there’s something afoot in the cultural landscape.  Mad Men encapsulates this zeitgeist moment for nostalgia and retro-tastic hemlines, but it is not the catalyst.  Something intensely backward looking is going on in our current fashion and culture (one only has to look at the Diamond Jubilee themed artwork and street parties, which radiate 1950s characteristics in a way The Silver Jubilee in 1977 did not) which perhaps is about grasping on to something in the past for reassurance and comfort in times of economic difficulty.  Smoking is coming in on this tide, this pre-Pill, halterneck, cocktail hour, filled with tinkling glasses and soundtracked by bossa-nova on Verve, which has been swinging in ever since the credit crunch.  If we had allowed smokers to cower in pub corners we probably wouldn’t have thought about it much.  If we had taken the Victorians advice, and had a saloon bar and a public bar in one public house as they did, we could have one room for the smokers and one for the non-smokers.  We could have all been happy. But we had to fetishise them, didn’t we?  The draconian smoking laws have had the unintentional result of making the smoker a rare and exotic beast in television and film culture.  Actors have difficulty getting laws passed where characters can smoke cigarettes on stage.  This is stupid.  I’m not saying we should shove Rothmans King Size into the mouths of five year old children on the way out from school, but we have failed to be sensible and created a retrotastic, dangerous daft taboo. 

I’m not going to start again, don’t worry.  When I gave up my singing voice improved dramatically.  Suddenly it could do vocal gymnastics it couldn’t do before.  It was going well, before the neighbours complained.  So that’s a plus.  Oh, and I still have no wrinkles (tick) don’t have to spend what appears to be about a tenner these days for 20 cigarettes (tick) and have not hankered for a smoke since 2003.  See?  I’ve given up for eight years, ten months, two weeks and four days 45 minutes – and I haven’t thought about it once.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  I’m off for a fag now, but if you’re interested this blog is updated every Thursday.

Roundhead or Cavalier?

On Tuesday night BBC4 quizzed Britons, and challenged us to answer which one of the above we were.  Were we a penny-pinching, over-controlling, sanctimonious puritan Roundhead nation?  Or were we intent on supping deep red wine from crystal glasses whilst foppishly flinging our hair around in a free-living, libertarian, patrician Cavalier state?  It was a pretty slim premise for a programme, to be honest.  It was rather obvious to repeatedly flash up the faces of Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, when the voiceover asked which of us was Roundhead and which Cavalier.  I mean, that’s like suggesting one was a moany, puritanical, chippy Roundhead and the other was a Cavalier sex pest of the aristo variety.  Madness!

A cavalier.   Now, as far as my sensibilities can tell, this is the late Stuart equivalent of Justin Bieber.  Early 17th century high class totty would have been falling over their crinolines to just get a touch of those fetching, velvet leggings.  Unsure whether this man is pregnant or whether he has a large squirrel stuffed under his waistcoat, to use in the event of being accosted by a violent Roundhead in the local hostelry, he was one of the King’s men.  Probably a Duke.  With a Dutch name.  And a Barbra Streisband, circa “I am A Woman in Love” wig. 

A roundhead.  Oh dear.  His face looks like he’s suffering biliousness or seasickness. Maybe he’s just spotted a group of ladies sitting beside a Christmas tree and illegally watching “Love Actually” and it makes him MAD with RAGE.  Obviously, he’s upset as some dastardly Cavalier has painted a vertical stripe in permanent black marker down the length of his parliamentarian visage.   Hang on,  that’s disgusting!  Oh – wait it’s his sword. For a moment there I thought he was about to impose his Puritanism in a most direct and unpleasant manner.

The answer of course, was a conflicting one.  Which was I?  Halfway through the programme I threw caution to the wind and decided, crazily, to have two custard creams.  Did that make me an indulgent Cavalier?  However, I did accompany it with a play-it-ever-so-safe low calorie hot chocolate from Options, a decidedly Roundhead choice.  Despite my terror and hostility towards state interference of any kind, surely I do not support absolute monarchy or wish to return to a country without social welfare.   So am I a Roundhead or not?  I like horses.  I enjoy the sight of the aristocracy on horseback in historical palaces and stately homes in England, mainly for laughs.  I approve sartorially of the 17th century bonkers clothes choices.  I like the freedom that choice of what you wear and who you are entails. I cannot be cavalier about this decision.  Or can I?  Apparently, during the brief and rather nasty interlude of the English Republic in the 1650s, it became illegal to go out on a Sunday and do anything.  So intent were the Lord Protector and his killjoy cohorts on creating an island full of people weeping and praying over holy books on the day of rest. that two women were arrested for going out for a walk.   Surely my fondness for tap-dancing would have ensured I was killed during the first year.  At the end of the programme I was pleased that both the Roundheads and Cavaliers have died out.  Or, as the programme asked, had they? 

Two years ago, whilst being academically serious, I wrote an essay for an MA about theatrical nudity and dancing in the 1890s.  During that research, I discovered the the “improving” elements of the first London County Council, somewhat influenced by strange combination of the National Vigilance Association and pure socialism, tried to stop more or less everyone from having a good time.  Theatre was immoral and dangerous.  Alcohol was even worse.  And sex?  Oh, dear, don’t get them onto that.  So brisk and intolerant was the apparently progressive moral arm of the LCC that it marched forward in the name of municipal control and banned tableaux vivants,  (ladies in all-over flesh body stockings striking poses of classical statues) and other robust enjoyments of the London populace, without realising that the urban, theatrical culture didn’t at all want it.  The LCC.  Honestly, the MCC could have done a better job of civic policing.  It was the first, but it wasn’t the last, time the bastion of municipal control known as the LCC interfered with, passed judgement on, and morally structured aspects of London that they should have kept their noses out of, but the episode above is one of the firmest and strongest examples of Roundhead moral indignation in late-19th century London.  This was, of course, nearly 250 years after the dissolution of the Parliamentarians’ Republic.  Ever since 1650, it seems the morally-improving elements of British municipal culture have been intent on finding bits of filth and flamboyant freedom, putting them in the bath for a jolly good wash and then sending them, naughtily, off to their rooms and not letting them come back down again until they have really thought about it.  The industrialised, bourgeois classes hate being policed in this manner.

Dickens, along with any other two-nation, patrician Tory like him, was essentially a Cavalier.  But didn’t his concern for fairness and justice, particularly in the case of juveniles make him a person with Roundhead tendencies, I thought?  No, because Dickens was a great sentimentalist.  And the Roundheads would have sooner have bashed you on the head with their no-frills metal sticks than tolerate having their heartstrings pulled by the Daddy of all television drama adaptations.  As a satirist, does he exclude himself from membership of both camps?   Clearly, the 19th century had its own motley crue of Puritans, a great, insane streak of Roundhead parliamentarianism rearing its head up through the evangelical movement and into parsimonious pamphlets and legions of busybody Mrs Pardiggles, whose skewered objectives in saving people’s souls failed to address bodily starvation.  Clearly, both the Cavaliers and the Roundheads were absolute rubbish at the basic job of looking after people.  The modern age would be aghast, of course, at any political ethic that didn’t account for social welfare of one kind or another.  This is something which doesn’t translate into our modern age.  But so much of the other aspects of the characters of the Roundheads and Cavaliers do.  You can easily tell which people in our popular culture exhibit their personality traits :  Jessie J – Cavalier.  Masterchef’s John Torode – Roundhead.  John Humphries – Roundhead.  Katie Price – Cavalier.  Johnny Depp – Cavalier.  Paul McCartney – Roundhead.  Noel Edmonds – Evil Troll, ineligible for either category.  Flamboyant, jaunty indulger or revolutionary, moral Puritan seeking a different standard.  Which one are you?

Whilst not being a complete nutter, or indeed any supporter of absolute monarchy, I do think the Roundheads were utterly off their trolleys.  Their failure to comprehend the English character ensured their downfall ; rope upon rope fell down and the English Republic gloomily hung themselves on it.  The only thing the English love dearly is organized sports, drinking, Christmas, more sports and more drinking.  And occasionally watching cricket and “The Antiques Roadshow”. As far as I can see those silly Roundheads abolished all of the above, with the exception of “The Antiques Roadshow”.  No wonder the English welcomed back that rancid, syphillitic shag bag, Charles II, with open arms from his exile in France.    No wonder he went about twirling his lascivious mustachios, still fragant with the odour of French perfume of actresses, and the English just couldn’t get enough of it. Theatre, with it’s thigh-slapping cheekiness, it’s gumption and kick and wink towards religious (or any other) control resurged, abandoning its restraint and roaring forward in audacity to the Restoration.  Suck on that, Cromwell.  His mode of living wasn’t going to last.  After all, this is a nation that enjoys eating curry whilst shouting and then urinating in public.  The English, with delicious superiority, refer to the English Republic as the interregnum; literally, “between kings” and therefore wipe away the seriousness of the republic as nothing more than a moment connecting one king to another, a hiccough, a whiteout, an embarrassment – a Puritan interval in the theatre of monarchy.

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

On The Line

My commuter life has turned from bus-centric to tube-centric, so there’s no better time to catch up with BBC’s The Tube on iPlayer.  For those of us intent on cursing through gritted, irritated teeth each time the tannoy tells us we are delayed due to technical issues or signalling faults, watch this programme.  The army of diligent night workers repairing tracks, ensuring safety with deft experience would chastise anyone.  One of the world’s most efficient transport networks runs with a 99% safety and delivery record thanks to the army of technical staff who maintain tracks and trains at night while London sleeps.  Then we wake up, chuck back a coffee and hop on the network without thinking twice about the nature of the work involved.  Perhaps this says something about the blase attitude of the urban traveller.  Perhaps this says something of the culture of the declining of respect in our public services.

Take, for example, Mike, who has an air rifle and ten children.  He also appears to have only ten teeth.  Mike was seen at 4 in the morning in Acton Town station, taking part in the war against pigeon crap as the only way to stop the line becoming filled with bird shit is to shoot the pigeons.  Their crap gets everywhere, making tracks and lines filthy and dangerous and occasionally, I learned, even managing to get into the tubes and shit on the seats.  “Shoot ’em straight in the head to go for the kill,” said Mike, as one perky pigeon bought the farm and flopped down out of the eaves.  Mike is one of 20,000 people trying to keep 4 million of us moving safely and swiftly throughout the network.

On Friday nights, the engineering works that cannot take place during commuter travel begin.  There is a 52 hour window in which vital work must be completed before the morning commute on Monday,  Harrow-on-The-Hill, Ealing Broadway, High Barnet – these suburban outposts suddenly get temporarily shut down so an army of bright-orange-jacketed men descend below stairs with hard hats to resolve track issues, replace electrical wiring and dance around the rats.  The words “Rail Replacement Bus Service” are usually enough to bring any suburban Londoner out in hives.  Such was the damage of the tube infrastructure during the years of fundamental under-investment in the 1980s and 1990s, that a fortune is now being poured into the system, and every single weekend vital – and expensive – works take place to render the underground truly fabulous.  £10billion will be spent over the next 15 years.  The chief engineers monitor progress scrupulously.  None of this explains why my morning train between Euston and Oxford Circus smells of undigested pie and week-old urine, however.

We saw a train announcer drily stating over the tannoy to a late Friday night crowd that he was sorry the last train was cancelled, but there was “significant vomit” in the carriages.  Other Friday Night Liverpool Street Station specials included people playing plastic guitars whilst dancing the wrong way down / up an escalator, random strangers hugging ticket inspectors and announcing they “loved” them,  and kindly, concerned Underground staff asking boozed up insurance brokers who were dribbling into the Burger King bags on the Westbound platform whether they were okay.  Most people, when alarmingly drunk, are very apologetic.  They’re sorry about the can of Grolsch they accidentally brought into the station and started swigging from.  They’re sorry they used their Visa Debit card to tap into the barriers rather than the Oyster, meaning an Underground employee had to run down the escalator after them.  They’re sorry they sang “Happy Birthday” to strangers six times before passing out in a puddle of their own bodily emissions.   Jane, the Station Supervisor, has a natural authority about her.  “It’s concerning really,” she says.  “These people hold our financial world in their hands,” she noted, watching a City broker fail on his fifth attempt to press his Oyster card against a barrier reader.

The Network Operations Centre stands as some kind of Orwellian omniscient eye over the entire network.  It’s like their masterminding a war from there.  A buzz of efficiency dominates the atmostphere as unintelligible, miniscule lights flash and beep and make pretty patterns.   All of London Underground’s 500 individually numbered trains are monitored and buzz around the screens like little underground PacMen.  Back at Liverpool Street, a station controller confirmed the tannoy codes:   Cleaner Code 1 = blood.  Cleaner Code 2 = urine / faeces.  Cleaner Code 3 – vomit.  90% of tourists to London brave the tube.  89% of them haven’t got a clue where they’re going and are convinced of mysterious truths, such as Big Ben being a station.  One French woman lost her husband, but then the tannoy told her they had located him at Goodge Street.  A station worker accompanied her to the right platform to be reunited with her family.  The map, although a feat of design (as covered in these blog pages before) heralds nothing but confusion and frustration to those unfamiliar with it’s eccentrities, line branches and short cuts.  “I don’t understand it at all,” announced a worldweary Newcastle housewife, seemingly close to tears.  One Australian man, who looked like a spitting image for Danny Baker, thought that the platform numbers on the indicators were train numbers and couldn’t understand why all the lines had to be different colours as well.   The fact that the Northern Line also runs south is a real bone of contention.    Fair enough that the tourists are confused but the natives?  Why are they so dim?  In The Tube it showed all kinds of people, most likely indigenous to these islands,  running like nutters because they had not realised that the last tube was at about twenty minutes after midnight.  The last tube has been at about twenty minutes after midnight for about 60 years, but you’d be amazed at the people who turn up at stations at 1.30am utterly dumbfounded, only to be faced with a disgruntled cleaner.

When I was a child I was always misspelling the word “modern” as “morden”in my homework and would then get irritated notes from the schoolteacher in the margin saying “You don’t mean Morden!  Morden is in SURREY.”  There are many randoms who get the last tube home on the Northern Line and end up falling asleep and waking up Morden, the Northern’s last stop.    “Wakey Wakey, rise and shine! It’s the end of the Northern Line!”  announces doughty Mark Jenner, Morden’s station supervisor, to three slumped figures, worse for wear, dressed in high street suits and clutching Sainsburys bags.   Most of his night routine involves waking North Londoners up to tell them it’s 1.30am and they are in Zone 6 at the wrong end of the city now unable to get the tube back in.  “I was at Chalk Farm.  I went out to dinner with some friends and then fell asleep, ” seems to be the most popular excuse.

After service, the 250 trains go into a depot to bedrooms and have a little sleep.  That’s of course, after the revellers have gone home.  On Saturday nights, Leicester Square station has the biggest incidences of crime related callouts, with almost Dickensian levels of pickpocketing through the evenings.  One Saturday evening at 11.30pm, a stabbing on Platform 4 of Leicester Square turned the station into a crime scene and left hundreds of revellers forced to seek alternative transport.  This crowd, the tired, drunk, surly, disobedient one,  renders the tube station supervisor most at risk from physical attack.  It was odd that the station supervisor at Leicester Square called patrons psychological states on entering the system as featuring  “tunnel vision.”  He believed that travellers see no other objectives other than their need to get to where they want to go.  His story about once witnessing patrons stepping down an escalator over a corpse, was offered in support of this, without ever realising that most of those travellers probably thought they were just stepping over another drunk.     Regular readers to this blog may have detected The Bluebird Ethic : not for us the prurience and macabre rubber-necking of some of our most blighted journalism.  Whilst certain daily periodicals in this green and pleasant land are intent on convincing you that society has self-combusted, that there is no such thing as decency any more, that we are all powerless in a vortex of mediocrity, fake tits and dysfunction, and that we have nothing to feel but futile negativity, we aim to show the fundamental decency in most of the population – and most of Londoners – and celebrate the aspects of our city life that work, that should be celebrated and that cause pleasure in those about their leisure, and how, put simply, if all the 70 million people on this island were flailing in their own moral vacuum, wearing hoodies, obsessing about the X factor and smoking crack whilst downloading porn then we wouldn’t actually still be here.

The patience, tolerance and humanity of those who work in the stations was a humbling thing and one that deserves to be celebrated.  It is difficult to think of a public service system that generates less grace or thanks than the London Underground service.  What this programme reveals is that none of us truly get the work that goes into settling us into our migraine-patterned seats.  Perhaps that is merely the blase attitude of the citydweller.  We have adjusted to excellence and subsequently none of us appreciate the excellent qualities of standards that go into a system that, despite its legions of men crawling around amidst electrical cables and wiring and signals, despite its unwillingness to truly burrow into the heart of Londoners with any sentiment or affection at all, despite the complaints so drearily heard about the heat of the Victoria Line, or the delays at Camden Town, remains one of the world’s safest, cleanest and most prompt subway systems.  Unfailingly polite in the face of the most jaded, hysterical and paraletic of our citizens whilst maintaining the kind of cleaning, safety and checking standards that I have yet to witness in any other profession, both tube drivers and frontline station workers see more madness than airline hostesses or transatlantic pilots.  The loneliness of the long distance tube driver must be a difficult aspect of the job to tolerate.  I doubt that the average pilot has 41 people try to kill themselves by flinging themselves under their mode of transport every week.   It seems peculiar that the public begrudges tube drivers their salaries whilst no one points out the cost of pilots flying everybody out around the world and destroying the environment in the process.  This programme succeeded in several ways : by painting a fascinating picture of the life lived underground by a section of society rarely seen and never praised, and making Joe Public realise the amount of tolerance and strength required to deal with all of us, and perhaps learn to respect it.  They deserve every penny they get.

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