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…


I realise the International Year of Chemistry is now over but, after hearing several programmes with Professors Tony Ryan and/or Andrea Sella in recent weeks, it is my considered opinion that every year should be both international and about chemistry.  As my modest contribution, I thought I’d introduce a couple of the members of the Platinoids to a wider audience.

The Saturday before last, I visited the Gallery of the Courtauld Institute, home to one of the largest collections of Cézanne’s work in the UK, which allowed me to do a little bit of homework for my Open University course.  Oh yes, I have managed to convert part of my OU coursework into the I-Spy Book of Cézanne and so am educating myself and dumbing down at one and the same time!   Splendidly, my membership of the Art Fund allowed me to enter the gallery for nowt.  Less splendidly, my mobile phone tried to auto-correct nowt to Moët when I tried to update my Facebook status with this breaking news – clearly a soft, southern device with champagne tastes.

To reach the gallery, I had to walk from Embankment tube station (as a result of planned engineering work) and passed along the side of Somerset House facing the river.  This was a bit of a struggle as the whole area had been taken over by London Fashion Week.  The place was heaving with people who looked as though they had dressed in the dark, surrounded by more normally dressed men carrying vast quantities of photographic equipment (and, in many cases, short step-ladders – it’s tragic how many ladders come from broken homes).  I have never been “papped” so often over the space of 5 minutes – though I’m sure I will be cropped from all the pictures, quick and lively.

Amidst this hurly-burly was a temporary structure, which I presume contained a catwalk (or similar), that proudly claimed to be sponsored by the International Palladium Board. As I’m sure you all know, the group 10 metal has its primary use in the catalytic converters fitted to motor vehicles – important for pollution control, but hardly high fashion.  I was thus at a loss to know how the IPB hoped to benefit from their largesse.  Upon my return from town, I was forced to seek out the IPB website to try and discover their angle: apparently, platinum jewellery is so last year and the well dressed fashionista should be wearing palladium (well, according to the IPB – who may not be entirely reliable as a source).   It may also help that palladium is only a fraction of the cost of platinum (or, indeed, gold) at present – however, I should warn you that as it can discolour above 400ºC and reacts with concentrated nitric acid it may not be the ideal choice for the chemistry teacher in your life (though, I suspect that chemistry lessons today are much less exciting than in the days of my youth).

Whilst listening to the triumphant return of Shaun W Keaveny from his break, I heard a name check for another platinoid in the music news.  Mineral extraction has not been a major theme of the rock or pop world in recent years (only Clementine and Big Bad John sprang to my mind – both of which are recent only in the geological sense), but the latest release from the Arctic Monkeys may be set to rectify this lack.  I believe their new song is about quarrying for Ruthenium – or so I assume as is is entitled Ru mine.  I’ll be interested to find what they’ve found to rhyme with Ruthenium – if you exclude other chemical elements, my rhyming dictionary only offers proscenium, so I’d be looking to introduce a theatrical reference myself (palladium would have made this so much easier…).

I bet we all wish I could have found a way to fit the RU Mine “gag” into 140 characters, but as I couldn’t we all had to endure more than 600 words.  Perhaps I should launch an appeal to fund a course in précis for the author?