Capital ambivalence

fear not, i shall not be continuing in the style of e e cummins or of archy (cockroach friend of mehitabel, the moth): i have no real objection to capitalisation of text.  THOUGH I PREFER TO AVOID SHOUTING!

This post will instead explore my ambivalence about visiting (or indeed residing) in the capital city of these diminished isles.


Neither to scale nor an actual vista

Readers may wonder why I have included an extremely dodgy image of the London skyline, which at best bears a passing topological similarity to the actual city and suggests an entirely unrealistic calm and clarity to the River Thames.  Well, I am now using a WordPress feature whereby these posts automatically appear on my Facebook feed and have discovered that unless a post includes an image, my Facebook massive are exposed to a giant image of my crumbling visage: and nobody wants that…

On Easter Monday – a concept which Biblical scholars, theologians and those from outside the British Isles may find hard to understand – I went up to London after lunch for an afternoon and evening of “fun”.  This reminded me of both what I love and find really irritating about visiting the big smoke.

The inbound journey is generally fine as one is filled with hope and excitement for the activities to come.  This feeling survived reasonably well until I reached the British Museum.  New security arrangements mean a long queue to enter that august repository of stolen goods.  Once through the security cordon, the museum was heaving with other people – which makes me wonder just how good the security can have been.  I love the concept of other people, but the reality of them en masse and dawdling around does rather test this love.  I was at the BM to see the American Dream exhibition of 20th century prints.  This had much to enjoy and a fair chunk of works which struck me as a waste of materials: my taste in the visual arts definitely has limits, even if I’d be entirely unable to describe where they are.  I also strongly suspect that my taste in more modern art is an expanding (or at least morphing) envelope: today’s waste of wall space may be tomorrow’s masterpiece.  I think I’d feel cheated if I went to an exhibition and loved everything, there would be something important missing.

From the BM, I headed over to Islington to the Bill Murray (from one BM to another!  I don’t just through my time together you know): a pub which is now (mostly) a comedy venue.  It is still a small pub and offered a very potable pint of Marston’s 61 Deep – albeit at a price I would associate with drinking in Scandinavia (but that’s London for you).  I had not journeyed just to enjoy over-priced pale ale, but to see the comic stylings of young Ivo Graham.  Don’t tell the lad this, lest he lose the run of himself, but he was the “hook” on which the cultural coat of my day was hung.   He was very funny, even if I did form rather more of the act than I’d expected or than he had intended: I provided rather more filler to his work-in-progress hour than necessary.  I even had a brief chance to chat to him after the gig – before he had to race to Hatfield (not to the world-famous poly but to watch a netball match).  I am pleased to report he is as charming a chap in person as I had imagined having seen and heard him (from a distance – and in his professional capacity, I am not stalking the young lad) over the last 3.5 years.  As a further bonus, he provided an opportunity for me to use the phrase “vespine foe” in a tweeted reply later that evening as I sat on a bus passing St Paul’s: for which I remain in his debt.

I too had to leave the BM(2) reasonably promptly to head over to Dalston, for a quick bite of supper and a play at the Arcola.  I supped at Café Route which offered a splendid selection of vegetarian (and even vegan) friendly salads and small plates coupled with a huge range of cakes.  Reader, I rather over-indulged as not only were things very reasonably priced but the slices of cakes were pleasingly generous: consuming two might have been verging on gluttony.

Suitably stuffed, I then waddled the short distance to the Arcola Theatre to see The Plague, based on Albert Camus‘ 1947 novel.  Well, I do like to mix light and shade on an evening out.  The play was very well done and only mildly harrowing.  I’ve been meaning to read some Camus for years, and this was probably a good substitute and takes some of the pressure off me for a while.

The bus ride back to Waterloo was fun, traversing parts of London I’ve never visited and offering an excellent view of St Paul’s.  I always find that it is the journey home which is the key downside of going out in London.  If I go out in Southampton – which I do no more than five times in a typical week – when the fun comes to an end, it is a mere 10-15 minutes before I’m home enjoying a herbal tea before being tucked up in my trundle bed.  If I go out in London, there is 2-3 hours of post-fun time-wasting before I am reunited with my straw palliasse.  This is too long at my advanced age and it somehow takes some of the gilding off the earlier fun.  I think this is why I find myself going to London less and less often – though there is also the sheer number of reasons to stay in Southampton for my culture and the desire to support the local product.  Still, I fear unless there is significant progress on the transmat in the near future, my visits to the capital may remain a rare “treat”.

Chamber pot

The angst-ridden last post may well be nature’s way of suggesting that I’ve been spending too much time in my own company and that it is time to get a job again.  Actually, the Last Post is usually the signal for a good, long lie down – though probably only if you were in the military and when delivered by a Bb or Eb bugle.

This post will be substantially more frivolous – though I like to think lays out a rather sensible thesis (and one which will NEVER be taken up).

It has been reported that the Houses of Parliament are in a bit of a state – and, unusually, this is referring to the fabric of the buildings rather than our elected (and unelected) representatives.  Apparently, it will cost almost £6 billion to put this to rights – which does seem rather a lot of money (it’s around a seventh of an HS2, for instance) and suggests some rather serious neglect over the years.  I reckon the Westminster work of Pugin and Barry could be worth a few quid to developers.  I’m not suggesting we demolish the existing buildings, but I’m sure they’d be worth a fortune as exclusive riverside apartments or an upmarket hotel.  Rather than costing money to maintain them, I reckon we could net a tidy sum by selling them off.

With this nice little nest egg, we could build two brand new chambers and ancillary office space at much lower cost.  Despite its appalling extravagance and terrible cost overruns, the new Scottish Parliament only cost around £0.4 billion.  However, I think we can do much better than that.   I’d say either of the Houses could be slotted into my local branch of Dunelm Mill – a building which I reckon only cost a few thousand quid to build.  Even with the costs of fitting out the interior, I’d suggest that by using retail or light industrial park units we could knock up a new parliament for significantly less than £10 million – and there would be plenty of onsite parking.

As we are starting from scratch, it seems lunacy to build the new parliament in London with its sky-high property prices and high costs of labour and living.  I suggest we take this opportunity to move somewhere cheaper and more central to the nation.  I was thinking about Stoke as a possibility: it has decent road and rail links and I seem to recall they were recently selling houses off for under a fiver.  If the State bought a few of these and converted them into flats for MPs, parliamentary expenses should tumble.

Some may worry that this plan wouldn’t work with parliament being so far from the financial and cultural hub of the UK, but many other countries have proved this can be really quite successful: the US and Germany spring quickly to mind.  We could also move the key ministries out of London and sell off those buildings as well.  At this rate, the deficit will soon be a distant dream and all without having to cut any services (though we could still do with delivering them more efficiently and effectively – so there will be no opportunity for laurel resting in my brave new world).   As an added bonus, a new powerhouse for the north (well, north Staffordshire) would be born.

As a good citizen, I offer this wizard wheeze to my country with no hope of personal reward: the knowledge that I will have helped the nation that nurtured me will be payment enough.  I keenly anticipate the establishment of my planned Parliament in the Potteries!

Geography vs Topology

As a pure mathematician with two (count them, two) O levels in Geography, I should be reasonably strong in both areas, but this has not always seemed to be the case. I think my brain stores information about places in a very topological fashion. As a result, when I was living in the north a few years back, when I had occasion to visit the south, I would arrive (almost) everywhere late. At some level, my brain had clearly decided that everywhere in the south-east was very close together and so I constantly under-estimated transit times between locations.

Of late, I have realised I still suffer from a similar disability with respect to London. Some places I assume to be central and easy to access, and others I assume to be very distant and too time consuming to ever visit. Into this category, fell most of east London – but then I visited the Arcola Theatre in Dalston and discovered this was less than 30 minutes by bus from 10 Greek Street and even closer to Liverpool Street station for my train home. Recent use of the London Overground (someone really has to build an interchange with the underground at Wimbledon Common) and a trip to Haggeston has shown that even more of the east is within easy walking distance of places I view as pretty central.

In the run up to Christmas, and as part of my plan to visit theatres outside the west end (usually cheaper, more intimate and with quirkier fare on offer), I decided to bite the bullet and go to the Bush Theatre. This lies in bosky Shepherd’s Bush which I have always considered to be a huge trek out of town. I soon discovered it was barely 20 minutes by Central Line from Liverpool Street (and only 15 from 10 Greek Street) – and so substantially easier to reach than many places I consider central and which I have been visiting for years. The Bush is very nice – with mulled wine and minced pies on offer in the interval (for the longer visit, the bar/café looked rather good and you get to sit in a library of plays to enjoy the victuals). The play, Straight, was extremely good – definitely in my top 5 of the year and the second play I saw in 2012 directed by Richard Wilson. The first, Lungs, was at Shoreditch Town Hall – another location much less remote than imagined – where I bumped into the great man himself (almost literally). I also found myself milling around before the play with the rest of the audience and standing next to Alan Rickman (and his wife) – so quite a day for celebrity spotting (though I do worry that I only recognise the more mature celebrity). Lungs was also pretty good, so I may have to keep an eye out for where Mr Wilson’s directorial hand falls next and I shall definitely try and engineer another visit out to the Bush!

Topology is sometimes called “rubber sheet geometry”, in which case I think my rubber sheet could so with some serious starching so that it more accurately represents the real world (rather than the one in my head). Maybe it’s time to risk a visit to a venue in South London?

Five old rings

I am hoping this title will allow me to stay free of the clutches of the LOCOG brand police, but this will be a post about the orgy of sport (and pseudo-sport) about to engulf London.

This evening we will have the Opening Ceremony, though this seems slightly tardy as the sporting events started a couple of days ago.  Oddly, these events, which form part of the London Olympics, have been held in places as far afield as Cardiff and Glasgow – the latter being almost 350 miles from London.  I think that even Ryanair would be a little embarrassed to land in Glasgow and claim it was a London airport – or perhaps not, “Welcome to London Prestwick”, anybody?  Forget building new airport capacity in the Thames estuary or expanding Heathrow, let’s build the new London airport in South Ayrshire!

I had thought that hiding out in South Cambs, I would be relatively unaffected by the “games”, but it seems not.  Strange foreign and retired buses have been sighted around Cambridge this week – visitors from Lincoln, Northampton and the scrap-yard – and I had vaguely wondered why: there had been no obvious increase in service frequency that would require extra vehicles.  My local free paper explained the reason: our nice new buses have been taken to ferry athletes around “London” – though if they were real athletes they’d make their own way (though I will accept it is quite a long walk/bike ride/swim to Glasgow).  Surely, athletes (and officials) cycling (or walking) along the special Olympic Lanes around London would be a much more inspiring sight than seeing them imprisoned within buses or limos?  Would this not provide a stronger message leading to a long-term boost to the nation’s fitness and cleaner air through reduced car usage?  Let’s keep the Olympic lanes, but allocate them to human-powered modes of transport!

However, the final straw came earlier in the week when I bought my copy of the Mortician’s Gazette (aka The Radio Times) – still the only listings magazine which gives any degree of coverage of he radio.  The price had increased by more than 40% – not because it was listing any more television or radio, in fact, in many ways rather less as several channels are showing nothing but the extended sportsday – but presumably to fund the unwanted Olympic supplement.  Surely, as little more than extra advertising, this should have reduced the cost of the publication rather than increasing it?

My own protest is limited to refusing to buy anything from any company sponsoring the games – not much of an imposition as I would be avoiding the vast majority of the corporations involved regardless of their sport-bothering commercial activities due to more quotidian issues with the products or ethics.  However, in conjunction with a refusal to buy bottled water (we have perfectly good di-hydrogen monoxide available from the tap) or any liquid which claims to provide some health benefit, this did make it rather tricky to acquire a cold (non-alcoholic) drink on Tuesday night to refresh me after a rather warm ride into Cambridge to see an excellent concert structured around Paganini’s time in the UK.  Some days, I do wonder if I suffer from a form of OCD…

Still, I wouldn’t like to leave you with the impression that the Olympics have brought nothing positive to the country.  As an all too regular visitor to Woking, I had almost grown inured to the quality of the roads in that Surrey town: roads that most developing nations would be embarrassed to host, roads so poor that the speed bumps provide the smoothest portion of any driven or cycled journey.  Well, some sort of sporting endeavour is taking place in the environs of Woking, and the good burghers of that town were concerned that the world-at-large would seem their secret shame were there to be any helicopter coverage – and so, by the last time I visited many of the worst offenders had been miraculously re-surfaced.  £15 billion well spent.  (OK, perhaps they could have re-surfaced the roads slightly more cheaply – but it’s the thought that counts!).

London calling

Not to be confused with  2LO (or, even 2MT) or the excellent album by the Clash, but the lure of the capital.

I have twice lived in London, once on each side of the river, on each occasion for around five years.  I found that after this period, the desire to escape became quite strong – though after a similar period was lured back once again.  I have now been away for seven years, but the last few weeks have reminded me of both the reasons to return and to remain in my current rural idyll.

Only yesterday, I found myself in Canary Wharf for much of the day.  I realise that the mining industry in this country is much diminished – a fact I find hard to regret given the appalling damage to human lives and landscapes that mining caused, though the needless continuation of the tribulations visited on our mining communities caused by the lack of planning (or caring) about what would happen after the end of the industry does provide a reason to lament.   Nevertheless, it seems hard to imagine that the UK ever required so many yellow song-birds that such a large area of docklands real-estate could be justified for their importation – especially given Sir Humphrey Davy’s sterling work with the safety lamp.  With the end of the canary trade, the area now resembles some slightly dystopian architect’s view of the future – with most human life consigned to great subterranean malls or vast towers of glass and steel.  Over the years, I have been into a few of the towers – but I can’t say that any appeal as a place to spend much time (and not just because of my quite rational fear of heights).  I recall one that had windows coated so that however strongly the sunshine was splitting the paving stones outside, inside the day would always appear overcast.  Yesterday, I visited a building which had a largely open-ground floor, with walls clad in shining marble, and of a scale to put most medieval cathedrals to shame.  However, it contained little more than a rather nice lecture theatre/cinema, very modest reception desk and the lift shafts.  I presume this was designed to make the owner’s clients feel that they were in the presence of greatness – though it only made me feel that such clients were being massively over-charged to finance such opulence.  In fact, I tend to view the whole of Docklands as a rather eccentric theme park: with the DLR riding through the sky like a monorail, the whole place has somewhat the feel of the Epcot Center.

Whilst on the subject of towers of steel and glass, yesterday saw the official opening of the Shard.  I’ve tried hard to like this new addition to the London skyline, but so far its charms elude me: perhaps I have yet to see it from the right angle?  I also remember that it used to be incredibly windy as one tried to leave London Bridge station for Borough High Street by foot, and I suspect this new addition is only going to make matters worse.  I can only hope that they have provided anchors for the merry commuters to grasp as part of the development, or they will start to collect in untidy heaps against the glass walls of the new billionaire’s gin palace.

As a new-made country bumpkin, I don’t miss the crowds that are so much a part of the city: especially when you are pressed up against them in a packed, but static, tube train (a privilege for which one must pay very dearly these days).  I also miss my usual travel companions: the skylark and yellow-hammer and, at the moment, the great swathes of poppies scattered like blood from an ex-sanguinating giant (which metaphor suggest a new TV series, CSI: Jötunheimr a franchise yet to be tried by Jerry Bruckheimer and which finally brings together the popular genres of fantasy and forensic procedural).

On the plus side, living in London reduces the need to worry about the running times of theatrical, musical or comedic productions to ensure that one can still make it home.  Very few venues seem to consider that many people’s visit will involve a day trip using the railways and that the last train for many departs soon after 23:00 (and often before).  Even where a last train is achievable, on a school night it is nice to be back in one’s trundle bed rather earlier than 01:30.  When the reins of power are finally placed in my deserving (but so far cruelly overlooked) hands, events will only be allowed to run beyond 22:00 in exceptional circumstances.  This would allow everyone to retire to their straw palliasse by a sensible hour, and could well see a dramatic improvement in the sleep and productivity of the nation (or is this just my age talking?).  At the moment, a disproportionate volume of my theatre going exploits the matinée performance as this allows me to enjoy both the live theatre and an early night (it also helps me to feel comparatively young).  Still, despite these concerns I have a theatrical marathon lined up for the weekend – with the play on Sunday covering eight hours (though there is an interval for dinner), recalling my days as a fan of the operas of Wagner (a man who was as much a stranger to concision as am I).  I may not be at my best on Monday…

In contrast, last Saturday, I was reminded of the joys of London.  Arriving at King’s Cross, a short bus ride brought me to a beautiful Victorian pub, in a quiet back-street area of Camden, with a fine selection of well kept ales (the Price Albert in Royal College Street).  Sitting with a pint in the small, peaceful beer garden in the sunshine made me feel that London-life could be really quite acceptable.

I was then able to stroll along the banks of the Grand Union canal almost all the way to the Roundhouse for my afternoon’s entertainment.  Without the need to commute, and keeping away from the busier streets and tourist traps (which always seem to have caught a large haul of their prey, despite the apparent absence of cheese), living in the city looked surprisingly attractive again…

With child

No, I have not defied medical science and managed to fall pregnant (and to be honest, this is one boundary of science against which I have no intention of pushing), but I still have an exciting week ahead of me.

Talking of children (or at least their production), I do worry that my last post – encouraging the slaughter of rabbits as it did – might be considered inappropriate the day before the Easter Bunny is due to visit.  In my defense, I did suggest waiting until the shops open tomorrow – by which time he would have executed his chocolate ovoid delivery duties (and so be ready for execution of a different feather).

But let’s return to my week (hush your moaning, it has been clearly established that this blog is all about me).  I am planning to take my avuncular duties to a whole new level and entertain my nephew in London for a day (or die in the attempt).  Lest you fear for his safety, I have done this once before when a friend left his son in my custody for a whole day in London.  I feel this went rather well, and the object of my attentions escaped unscathed from the experience.  He has even subsequently managed to grow into a well-balanced adult (it was a few years ago, but I reckon parenting is like riding a bike).  That day taught me two important lessons about parenting: (i) don’t buy a long island iced tea for a 10 year old (luckily I realised the rather high alcohol content of this particular beverage just in time) and (ii) if you try and fill the child’s entire day with excitement you will end up very tired (as, it transpired, did he).  Let’s just say, I put the loco into in loco parentis (in its Spanish sense at least).

So, roll on round two!  I have a full day of entertainment planned and all the main activities have been vetted with real parents.  As a further safety precaution, my nephew will be bringing his mother with him.  So, that should limit my opportunities to corrupt the young (unless I’m quite subtle about it).  The Uncle of the Year Award must surely be within my grasp.  Well, what could possibly go wrong?

Watch this space…

Going underground

Yesterday, I was once again required to visit our nation’s capital: though I initially only attempted to traverse it on my way to the fleshpots of Woking.  This time, the cattle of Essex were safely imprisoned in their fields and so I made it to the city in good time.

At Tottenham Hale (named for the days when goods were haled from boats on the nearby river Lee), I left the realm of daylight and descended into the netherworld that is the Tube.  As with Napoleon, all went well until I approached Waterloo – in my case, this was with a Bakerloo line train rather than a sizeable French army.  A mere stone’s throw from the London terminus most often immortalised in chart hits (OK, I have not checked this in detail – but I can think of two hits for Waterloo and nary a one for any of the other termini), my journey came to a premature halt.  The signals had failed – and it soon became clear that switching the PC off and then back on again was not going to be enough to fix the problem.

A 40 minute wait ensued, as the Bakerloo’s boffins tried to get us on our way again.  The driver was very good at keeping us informed, but had little good news to impart for quite a while.  At one stage, it looked likely that we would have to disembark (or de-train, to use the rather ugly railway jargon) and walk along the tracks to achieve our destination.  Part of me was disappointed when this didn’t happen: it would have been quite exciting, but I was wearing a suit and my best shoes both (all three?) of which I fear may have suffered from contact with the filth that I strongly suspect lines the Tube’s tunnels.  The passengers (or should I say customers nowadays?) of some other trains did apparently have this additional experience (at, no extra charge!) – and this rather held up the resolution of my own journey.  Eventually, the train in front of mine pulled a little beyond its normal stopping point on the platform at Waterloo, just enough so that the first carriage of my train could pull into the station.   We could then walk through the train and disembark from the one set of doors with access to a platform.

While we awaited this solution, our train became a liminal space (it would be embarrassing to admit how long I have waited for the opportunity to use the word ‘liminal’ in a post) and so we passengers were able to talk to each other (an activity so outré that it is normally only practised by the foreign or insane).  In my little area of the train, we all (students and men of business alike) agreed that we much preferred the bus – it may (usually) be slower, but if anything goes wrong you can just get off (de-bus anyone?) and walk.  You can even notify anybody that you might be meeting that you will be late – or you can if you are carrying a mobile phone, carrier pigeon, distress flare or other aid to communication.

On my return home some hours later, my Victoria line train started going very slowly – with many an unscheduled stop (well, I assume they were unscheduled).  I did begin to wonder if I was cursed: had I offended Hades or Persephone and was doomed to remain trapped in their realm?  Was I in need of rescue by my own Orpheus-analogue? Though, had that been the case, I would insist he was fitted with a neck-brace before the rescue commenced to prevent any looking back: I’m no Eurydice (whatever you may have heard).

I think the driver of this Victoria line train also tried to keep us informed of what ailed the line, but whereas the Bakerloo train (built in 1972) had a clear public address system the Victoria train (built in 2010) could barely produce a whisper, so I have no idea what he was trying to tell us.  So much for the cult of youth, mark up another victory for the middle-aged!