diamond geezer

 Monday, February 28, 2005

The Count 2005

During February 2003 on diamond geezer I kept myself busy counting things. Ten different counts, to be precise, in a thrilling daily feature called 'The Count'. A sort of 28-day tally chart. Last February I decided to count those ten categories again, just to see how my life had changed, and this February I thought I'd repeat the exercise. And, blimey, things have changed (and not always for the better). Below are my counts for February 2005, accompanied by the previous statistics and some deep, meaningful pondering. You'll probably be most interested in count number 7. I was most illuminated, however, by count number 5.

Count 1 (Blog visitors): Over the last year the monthly number of visitors to diamond geezer has risen from about seven thousand to about ten thousand. That's roughly 350 visitors a day, not all of whom arrive here by accident. Thanks to you the reader for dropping by, and to all those of you who link here from your blogs and keep the visitors flowing. 350 daily readers eh? Peanuts on a global scale, but still enough people to fill three bendy buses.
Total number of visitors to this webpage in February 2005: 9636 (2004: 6917) (2003: 2141)

Count 2 (Google searches): Those Google robots will link to anything, like the bindweed of the internet. Many's the bewildered soul misdirected here in search of some nugget of information that I know nothing about, or that I covered in depth months ago but is no longer on the front page. Still, at least I've managed to cut the number of disappointed image-seekers sent here by Google, just by a little.
Total number of Google referrals to this webpage in February 2005: 908 (2004: 947) (2003: 316)

Count 3 (Blog content): Well that's a relief. I was concerned that I might be writing a lot more this year than I was last year, but this turns out not to be the case. Looks like I'm really very consistent - abut 500 words a day. Good, I'd hate to think my blogging was increasing out of control like an addiction or something.
Total number of words in diamond geezer in February 2005: 16016 (2004: 16214) (2003: 14392)

Count 4 (Spam): I salute my service provider, whose spam filter blocks almost all of the spam that the inhabitants of Boca Raton try to email me. A surprising proportion of my dodgy email is only intelligible to Russians, or sent by people with unbelievably unlikely names. But, only two spam emails a day - this I can cope with.
Total number of spam emails I received in February 2005: 54 (2004: 31) (2003: 30)

Count 5 (Nights out): Here's the biggest change in my life, and probably not for the better. I've only been out in the evening twice this month (both occasions being more than three weeks ago). Back in February 2003 there were only seven evenings on which I stayed in. That's one hell of a social decline. I thought something like this might happen when my best mate emigrated to America, but I must say I wasn't expecting to end up quite so introspective and hermitlike two years later. Don't worry, I do still go out, but I've sort of given up on going out after dark to be with other people. And I don't really mind either, honest. But, as gwplf warned in my comments yesterday, I must take care "not to become a cut-off pond in the river of life."
The number of nights in February 2005 I went out and was vaguely sociable: 2 (2004: 7) (2003: 21)

Count 6 (Alcohol intake): Whenever I'm in a pub, club, bar or restaurant, my alcoholic beverage of choice is a 'bottle of Becks'. The fact that my 'bottle of Becks' count this month is zero should give you a pretty good hint as to how many pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants I've visited recently. Anyone noticed if the Becks brewery's share price has dropped accordingly?
Total number of bottles of Becks I drank in February 2005: 0 (2004: 17) (2003: 58)

Count 7 (Tea intake): You'll remember that tea used to be an essential part of my working life. Then in September my employer changed and kettles were suddenly banned (supposedly for safety reasons). No way was I drinking tea from a machine so I had to learn to survive at work without this golden beverage. Then, just before Christmas, everyone at work was sent an email saying that kettles would be allowed after all! There was much rejoicing. Excitedly we waited for our kettle to appear but nothing happened, until last week when we decided to email the powers that be to ask them what the delay was. They replied by saying that we were welcome to provide our own kettle but that they wouldn't be doing so - and, if we did choose to bring in our own, could we please ensure that it was safely unplugged and put away after every use? All extremely nanny state, but we do now have our own kettle and our own tea again. At last. Just slightly too late to affect this month's brew total.
Total number of cups of tea I drank in February 2005: 81 (2004: 135) (2003: 135)


Count 8 (Trains used): See, I told you I was still going out.
Total number of trains I travelled on in February 2005: 117 (2004: 109) (2003: 103)

Count 9 (Exercise taken): There used to be four escalators on my journey to and from work, but now there's only one. Admittedly it is the extra-long escalator at Holborn, but I'm really not getting the stair-climbing exercise I used to. But don't expect to see me working out at the gym to make up for it.
Total number of escalators I walked up in February 2005: 38 (2004: 72) (2003: 73)

Count 10 (Mystery count): I never did tell you exactly what I was mystery-counting, did I? I said I would if the count ever crept above zero, but it never has. Not in any of the last three Februaries anyway. So I'm still not going to tell you what the mystery event is. London - it's overrated.
Total number of times that the mystery event happened in February 2005: 0 (2004: 0) (2003: 0)

 Sunday, February 27, 2005

Some technical queries for the IT-literate amongst you:
1) Why is Adobe Acrobat Reader so slow? Whenever I want to access a pdf file it takes ages to load up (and stops me from browsing on my computer while it does so). Ditto on trying to shut the program down. Is there any way to stop Adobe Acrobat from being such a processor-hungry beast? [Solution 1: Adobe Reader SpeedUp speeds things up enormously - thanks Dave]
2) My PC was set up with a C:drive (10 GB) for storing programs and a D:drive (28 GB) for storing data. My C:drive is now pretty much full, whereas my D:drive is only 10% full. Is there an easy way to switch some of my D:drive's spare capacity (25MB) over to my C:drive? [Solution 2: Partition Magic, except this costs, so thanks to Douglas for helping me to clear out my C:drive for free]
3) What's up with Technorati these days? It used to be a pretty accurate and up to date way of seeing who was linking to my blog, only listing new links. Now it insists on repeating old blogroll links all the time, and my link count almost never changes. Wassup?
Any assistance gratefully received.

Retail therapy (results 4)

Thank you for your nine different nominations in the category "something for the weekend". For once I found it quite easy to cross almost all of your suggestions off the list. So here's why I'm not spending £40 on eight of them.

Problem 1: I just don't do that sort of thing (for example, driving a JCB at Diggerland)
It's not the JCB I have the problem with, nor the fact I'd have to go to Kent to drive one. No, I have a problem with the driving. I sold my car back in 2001 after a unimpressive 2½ years behind the wheel, and I've never looked back. I'm transport passive (remember?), so I'd not want to spend even one more weekend pretending I have driving ambition. Sorry.
(See also: hiring prostitutes, magic mushrooms, eating Chinese food, a massage, a facial)

Problem 2: It wouldn't be good for me (for example, sledging after the thaw)
Remember this time last week when snow was a meteorological rarity that you only saw in the sky about once every couple of years? Remember how excited you were when you looked out of the window and saw those first magical snowflakes falling from the clouds, dancing in the wind like a distant childhood memory? Remember how the second snow shower a few hours later was more of a repeat performance and not quite so evocative? Remember how, by the fifth snow shower, you'd become completely blasé about those falling flakes as if they were the most normal thing in the world? And remember how, by the twentieth shower, you'd gone off the whole snowfall thing because of the associated Arctic chill and increased central heating costs? In fact I bet that, now the thaw's arrived and all chance of sledging has melted away, you're really rather pleased to see the back of the white stuff. Until winter 2007, when no doubt those first flakes will be just as magical as before.
(See also: eating four thousand penny sweets, watching three consecutive IMAX films)

So just one thing remains on your list of submissions - a a vintage (1965) bottle of wine. So that's what I'll be buying, thank you (and thank you ew). I plan to store my birthday vintage in the kitchen next to my three unopened bottles of champagne. Then all I'll need will be therapy to encourage me to finally open one of them and enjoy the contents.

 Saturday, February 26, 2005

The real EastEnders - could be why EE is getting it so wrong?
Read the debate in the Digital Spy forums (and at Talk Walford).

Bow Road station update: Development work at my local tube station continues apace (and I never thought I'd be able to say that). Not only is stuff happening, but there's finally evidence that other stuff has been happening behind the scenes. The blue walls all over the station are starting to disappear one by one, and you never quite know what will be appearing behind each one. Will it be another 21st century white wall perhaps, or just a repainted grey Edwardian door? Or will it be the sudden and wholly unexpected emergence of a never-before-seen room lurking behind an enormous square sheet of glass, as it was last Thursday. I thought they'd installed a giant mirror to start with, just inside the station entrance, until closer inspection revealed an empty room behind that might one day be the new nerve centre at the heart of the station. Or not. And I must also mention the new lighting they're in the process of installing above the two stairwells. As a Grade II listed station, I was expecting that Bow Road would be filled with sympathetic period illumination. But no, we're getting nine beachball-sized spherical alien globes containing giant ovoid lightbulbs instead, just like the Victorians didn't have.
If all this redevelopment enthrals you, I must apologise that you can't pop down to Bow Road and take a look for yourself this weekend because the station is closed. This'll be the eleventh weekend since October that the station has been closed to the public, but at least it should also be the last because there are no further closures scheduled. But who's to say that Metronet won't decide to add some more before this interminable business is finally over? In the meantime, you'll have to make do with my Bow Road blog page, now storming into its second year.

 Friday, February 25, 2005

Work Your Proper Hours Day

Do you work too much? You probably do, but have you ever worked out exactly how much extra unpaid overtime you do? All that working through lunch and going home late, it all adds up. The TUC have worked out that the average Briton works the equivalent of 55 unpaid days a year, which means they stop doing unpaid work (and start getting paid) on February 25. Which is why today is Work Your Proper Hours Day, a day for the downtrodden worker to reclaim their contractual rights. The TUC urges all of us to take a full lunchbreak today and to go home on the dot for once. And then we'll see if the country grinds to a halt as a result, or not.
Working hours - your rights
Calculate your annual overtime payday
See the full professional overtime league table (and read the fascinatingly prejudiced discussion underneath)

I work too much. I have a salaried contract with a notional number of hours to complete each week, but I'm still expected to put the work in until the job is done. So I do. That would explain why I'm usually one of the first people to arrive in my office in the morning, and often one of the last to go home in the evening. Either that or it's the word 'mug' stamped on my forehead. Things are especially bad at the moment. There are looming deadlines that 'must be met' (and yes, trust me, they must), so this week I've managed to exceed my weekly contracted hours in just three days flat. I've been in the office at 8am, watching everyone else stumbling in all bleary eyed. And I've been in the office at 8pm, well after everyone else has buggered off home to have a life.

There's a lot to be said for working late in the office. After the place has emptied out you get to have all the facilities to yourself. You can spread out and use everybody else's deskspace. You can take a look in the stationery cupboard and see what goodies are lurking at the back of it. You can make friends with the cleaners (assuming you and they share any language in common). You can plug yourself into your iPod Shuffle and boogie round the floor to Franz Ferdinand while nobody's looking. And, best of all, you can get twice as much work done as you can during the day because nobody's interrupting you with endless emails, unwanted phone calls and urgent demands, or occupying your time by bleating on about their latest home DIY project.

I shall be celebrating Work Your Proper Hours Day by doing 60% unpaid overtime for the fourth day in succession. I have tons of stuff to do, and either I get it done today or there will be unpleasant consequences. I would walk out of the door tonight at 4pm, just to make a point, except that my boss is on leave and wouldn't notice. Hmm, I think he's planned today better than I have...

Retail therapy (category 4)

Today's category is "something for the weekend".
What weekend treat can I give myself as my birthday approaches? Any ideas? Aim for something around the £40 mark. You can suggest as many things as you like, and interpret today's category as creatively as you like. Nominations close after 48 hours (ie Sunday morning). Your suggestions in the comments box please. For the full rules, see 8th February.

 Thursday, February 24, 2005

Retail therapy (results 3)

Thank you for your 15 different nominations in the category "something to play". You proposed a wide variety of amusing diversions to keep me entertained, each costed in the region of £40-ish. Here's why I'm not buying 14 of them.

Problem 1: I've already got one (for example, descant recorder)
I'm sure there's a conspiracy in our nation's primary schools to foist this particular junior wind instrument on all children between the ages of 8 and 11. Whole generations of children then grow up believing themselves to be musical, when in fact all they can do is puff discordantly down a hollow tube to the tune of Frere Jacques. I was actually quite good at recordering and could probably still sightread U2's latest single pretty successfully, except that I've not taken my old instrument out of its box in the spare room for a good blow in years.
(See also: LCD Soundsystem album)

Problem 2: I'd neglect it (for example, kitten)
I had a kitten once. Or rather it was somebody else's kitten but I was expected to live with it and to attend to its regular demands. This furry scrap of a creature was of course completely lovable and endearing, but only to people who like cats. Which I don't. Our burgeoning tepid relationship wasn't helped when I wasted one entire Saturday hunting for the (charming and inquisitive) creature all over the local housing estate, only to discover her (eventually) grinning on the top shelf of the cupboard under the sink. So kittens aren't for me. But I do hope that this particular kitten cat is still happy and grinning, somewhere.
(See also: hamster, guitar)

Problem 3: I have nobody to play with (for example, Destination London board game)
There's no fun in playing Monopoly alone, or in trying to beat yourself at Scrabble. Solo football and individual cricket never took off as national pastimes either. So alas, much though I enjoy a good board game, there's no point in buying one just so that I can look at the pieces and chuckle at the Chance cards.
(See also: Trivial Pursuit, chess set, hopscotch)

I'm also saying 'no' to...
• anything I have to buy off eBay (not even retail therapy will get me interested in mail-order shopping)
• going to Blackpool to play Space Invaders (wrong time of year, and I suspect there are better diversions up there)
• iPod accessories (they're just not necessary are they, by definition)

So just one thing remains on your list of submissions - a Bedlam Cube. So that's what I'll be buying, thank you. Although I do appear to have undershot my £40 target yet again, and by some considerable distance. Now, how do I find one of these cubes without having to wait for my postman to scribble me a note telling me that it's too big to fit through my letterbox?

Vote050505: I know it's not been officially announced yet, and probably won't be for another month, but the next General Election is precisely ten weeks away. I only mention this now because the tabloid battlelines have already been redrawn. This time last year, you may remember, the Sun was praising Tony Blair to the skies over his stance on Iraq. Not any more. The paper is now 100% behind Michael Howard, praising to the skies his policies on Europe, immigration and taxation, whilst simultaneously lambasting anything and everything Tony says. You probably don't read the Sun (and neither do I - I just scare myself occasionally by checking the 'news' on their website). But millions of Britons read its oversimplified bigoted ramblings every day, and for the past few months they've been dripfed the idea that the Tory leader is somehow the anointed salvation of Britain. I just thought I'd mention it. It might be important later.

 Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Wired for sound

My new iPod Shuffle and I are getting on famously. We first met last Friday. By Saturday our relationship was fully charged, on Monday we hung out in public for the first time and now we go everywhere together. This isn't the first time I've gone out with an mp3 player. I recently had a three-year fling with a Sony, but the whole affair had limited capacity and we soon got stuck in a groove. But now I've ditched that old streetwalker in favour of a sexier lightweight model. I'm rediscovering lost passions and breathing new life into old memories. My partner is forever whispering sweet nothings into my ear, and I never quite know what delights are lined up for me next. Ours may be a random romance, but I think we have a great future together.

And now you can keep tracks on how my new iAffair is proceeding. I've signed up for Audioscrobbler, which is a great little service for monitoring the music played on your computer. Attach Audioscrobbler to iTunes, or Winamp, or Windows Media Player (or a number of other less well known bits of musical software) and it will keep count of every song you play, forever. Each song registers in some huge central online database somewhere and this builds up into a fascinating summary of what people are listening to. Here's a link to what I've been listening to: audioscrobbler.com/user/dgeezer (9:30pm update: link now works, sorry)

I should point out that I've only had Audioscrobbler running for a couple of days, so my figures are a bit low at the moment. Come back in July and they'll be a lot more representative. And I like to listen to my music with the random shuffle feature turned on (it's more like listening to the radio that way), so don't read too much into the rank order of my top tracks and top artists. To make the list a bit more interesting I've decided to leave iTunes playing (with the volume muted) while I go to work today, just to give you something to watch. Or you can go and look at the audioscrobblings of some other bloggers, like Geoff (here), Gordon (here), Fraser (here) or Adrian (here). Audioscrobbler - it's a guilty pleasure, like flicking through someone's record collection while they're out of the room.

One of the joys of Audioscrobbler is being able to see what the rest of the world is listening to. For example...
• The most played track in the UK at the moment is The Killers - Somebody Told Me, and the most played artist is Radiohead
Germans prefer Green Day, Brazilians are still big on the Beatles, and Metallica are still big in Finland
• The world's favourite David Bowie song is Ziggy Stardust, while the world's favourite Smiths song is This Charming Man
• Other people actually listen to the same obscure bands that you do (in my case that includes Denim, Spacehog and New Musik)
• If the Top 40 isn't enough for you any more, try the Top 1000

Google quiz (update): Yesterday we found out that the shortest word not to appear in Google is (thanks Dave). Unfortunately, now that I've written akzzw on this page, akzzw will almost certainly appear in Google before the end of the week. So, can anybody beat akzzw? In particular, are there really no four letter words that don't appear in Google?

 Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Retail therapy (category 3)

Today's category is "something to play".
If you remember, you're looking for something I can buy me for my birthday. Aim for something around the £40 mark. You can suggest as many things as you like, and interpret today's category as creatively as you like. Nominations close after 48 hours. Your suggestions in the comments box please. For the full rules, see 8th February.

Google quiz: What's the shortest word not to appear in Google?
1) That's the full Google (not the UK national version)
2) It doesn't have to be a recognisable word, just a combination of letters [example: "zkqxkjq" is allowed]
3) Only the 26 letters a-z may be used (no numbers, punctuation or squiggly things) [example: "a↑3@é" is not allowed]
4) In the (likely) event of a tie, alphabetical order will be used to determine the winner [example: "abc" beats "xyz"]
5) I have no idea what the shortest word is (hopefully you'll tell me).
6) Have as many guesses as you like.


So, to kick things off, can you beat ?
Your search - zkqxkjq - did not match any documents.
No pages were found containing "zkqxkjq"

 Monday, February 21, 2005

Everybody's doing it. So I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon and launch...

the diamond geezer Book Club
Ladybird Key Reader 1a: Play with us


I'm sure most of us have read this seminal novel, a hardback classic which opened up the world of literature to a new generation. Play with us was one of the first books to tamper with conventional plot development. In just 56 short pages it redefined pre-conceived global perceptions of contemporary fiction. Strong characterisation and dramatic story-telling were the hallmarks of this literary masterpiece. Carefully chosen vocabulary made this a book that demanded to be read and re-read, and no doubt you can still recite every word from memory. We thank author William Murray for his clarity. Praise too for Harry Wingfield and Martin Aitchison whose illustrations brought the text so vividly to life. Please join me in the comments box to dissect and discuss the complex narrative.


The year is 1964. It is a time of social change and political upheaval. Enter the Ladybird Key Reader series, holding up a mirror to the evolving cultural environment and reflecting the cultural zeitgeist to a new audience of enquiring minds. The cover illustration deftly alludes to struggle and inequality, depicting contrasting attitudes to both race and gender. Central character Peter surveys the new world order from beneath the head-dress of imperialism. Beneath him lies downtrodden Jane, preparing for the day when she and the rest of the female population will rise up and reclaim their rightful position in the wigwam of power.

In his concise opening line ("Here is Peter"), Murray introduces us to an urbane young man with a chic taste in red jumpers. Jane's debut ("Here is Jane") is relegated to the second page, trailing limply behind her dominant sibling. Before Jane's limited impact can be consolidated she is upstaged by the pair's ambiguously-named canine companion ("Here is Pat the dog"). Murray invites us, in an unseen subtext, to picture Peter taking this loveable mongrel out for a long walk while Jane stays at home to open a can of dogfood and mop up any resulting stains. A repetitive verse structure is then established as the characters are reintroduced ("Peter is here. Jane is here. Here they are") and Jane's position as the underdog is reinforced. In just six lines Murray has summarised Sixties society. Here is the pre-feminist world in microcosm.

Plot development continues unabated. Peter, Jane and the dog spend several pages establishing mutual admiration ("Peter likes the dog. Jane likes the dog. The dog likes Peter. The dog likes Jane") before everyone goes on an unsupervised excursion to the toy shop. Peter eyes up the train sets, cricket bats and plastic rifles ("Peter is in the toy shop"). Jane has her heart set on a new doll, or perhaps a pram, or perhaps some nice washing up gloves like the ones Mummy uses ("Jane is in the toy shop"). But the author has cleverly manipulated our perceived expectations and the children proceed to buy a toy for the dog instead ("Pat has a toy. Pat likes the toy").

Murray delights in leaving clues for the reader to follow ("The dog likes the ball. Here is a tree"), before moving towards the inevitable plot denouement ("No, Pat, no. The ball is in the tree"). True to character it is fearless Peter who springs to Pat's rescue ("Peter is in the tree") while wretched Jane watches helplessly from the ground, no doubt afraid of snagging her yellow cardigan on some sharp branch. A satisfactory conclusion is reached ("Peter has the ball. Pat has the ball"), but at what human cost? The three characters then take their leave in a cliffhanger ending ("I like Peter. I like Jane. I like the dog") and natural order is restored. 35 follow-up episodes were to follow.

Global allegory or misunderstood classic? Please share your thoughts in the comments box. Because anyone can talk bollocks pretend to be a book critic these days.

Ladybird links

• three great in-depth Ladybird sites
• collect the full set of Ladybird Key Readers
Adrian Heath, the boy who was the real-life model for Peter
a real cultural analysis of the Peter and Jane books
• a spoof Peter and Jane story, and poem
Ladybird still sell Book 1a today

 Sunday, February 20, 2005

Retail therapy (a success)

I surprised myself last week and went out and bought something without your assistance. No, really. I ventured into the Apple Store on Regent Street, queued for less than 10 minutes and walked out with a iPod Shuffle. It's taken me years to finally buy something with an Apple logo on it, probably because I knew that if I waited long enough they'd eventually come up with a product that was both useful and inexpensive. And now they have. My new iPod Shuffle is tiny - essentially a white memory stick attached to muggable headphones - and weighs less than a packet of crisps. Here's a quick product comparison.

iPod Shufflepacket of crisps
weight22g30g
cost£99.0130p
tunes stored240 (1GB)0
longest dimension8.4cm20cm
battery life12 hoursnil
flavourcrunchy plasticcheese and onion

I installed iTunes on my computer (which works tons better than the previous Sony crap I had to use). I managed to stop QuickTime launching every time I reboot (because I'm not an complete iDisciple yet). I downloaded selected highlights from my CD collection onto my hard drive (because life's too short to download every CD I own). I then transferred nearly 18 hours of music onto my iPod Shuffle (once I found a USB port that actually worked). And now I'm primed with a random selection of top audio highlights that I can listen to while pounding the streets of London. I'm looking forward to hearing Prefab Sprout in Piccadilly, Scissor Sisters in Soho, Dubstar on the District line and the theme from Nationwide while stuck on a bus in Neasden. I suppose I ought to swap the headphones for something less conspicuous before I risk wearing them outdoors, though.

3links
nethouseprices: Discover how much your neighbours paid for their homes (ooh!), how much your childhood home is now worth (blimey!) and how much your landlord paid for the place you're now renting (pah!)
namevoyager: See the most common (American) first names over the last 100 years in a fascinating layered format.
azunderground: Two Edinburgh fringe performers visit 26 tube stations, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet, and then write about them. With photos.

 Saturday, February 19, 2005

The real EastEnders
Albert Square


Estate agent: As you can see madam, this is a very desirable terraced property close to all local amenities.
Sonia: Oooh very nice. It's perfect for me and my Martin.
Estate agent: There are two bedrooms, a small garden and a knocked-through lounge.
Sonia: Great, we can spend all our weekends down at B&Q and IKEA.
Estate agent: And there's a fitted kitchen complete with washing machine.
Sonia: Excellent, I won't need to use that bloody launderette ever again.
Estate agent: And the whole house is fully double glazed.
Sonia: Brilliant, that means the neighbours won't hear me practising the trumpet.
Estate agent: And it's perfect for the first time buyer, just so long as they're a big City hotshot earning at least 60K.
Sonia: I'm training to be a nurse, and my Martin sells vegetables.
Estate agent: Sorry dear, East London is way outside your price range.
Sonia: Bugger. Looks like we'll have to commute from Weatherfield.

There really is an Albert Square in East London, and it's in Stratford. Sorry, you're probably pig sick of hearing about Stratford this week, but rest assured that this particular street is located on the non-Olympic side of town. Albert Square E15 isn't so much a square as two sides of a rectangle. It's a dead ordinary street landlocked into the residential jigsaw to the east of Maryland station. The Victorian terraces are owned and rented by a cross section of London's multicultural population. Their not-quite-identical houses have tiny front gardens full of wheelie bins, bushes and pieces of old carpet. Some of the front windows have well-scrubbed leaded lights, while others are covered by faded sheets of old newspaper. A big red skip halfway up the road is filling up with broken masonry as the street slowly evolves. And, down on the corner where the Albert House once served beer, a new 'exclusive selection of luxury 1 & 2 bedroom apartments' is being erected. This new development is playing heavily on the Albert Square name, pretending to potential buyers that the pub here has always been called the Queen Victoria. Somehow I doubt that Alfie, Frank or Peggy would ever want to live in something quite so characterless.

All this week's posts in one omnibus edition

 Friday, February 18, 2005

The real EastEnders
the community centre (also the surgery, the playground & the war memorial)




Den: Doctor Doctor, I only have six hours to live.
Dr Legg: I'll get the bodybag ready.

Before we leave Bromley-by-Bow there's just time to drop in on a local success story (I thought we ought to, before you all got the wrong idea about the place). The Bromley-by-Bow Centre is a pioneering community regeneration project, its chosen aim to bring about social change through 'collective enterprise'. Twenty years ago this was a new project housed in a couple of rooms in the local church hall, but now there's a health centre, youth club, nursery, cafe, 'skills hub' and 'ideas exchange' on the site, employing more than 100 people. It all sounds desperately worthy but it works, and this building has been the model for more than 150 other Healthy Living Centres across the country. However, I wish I'd been warned before I signed up here that the GPs like to prescribe "gardening, exercise in a gym, homoeopathy, counselling, aromatherapy, acupuncture or employment training" in addition to traditional medication. I'm now making an extra special effort to stay healthy in order to avoid all of the above - which shows just how well the place works.

The real EastEnders
the caff


Lofty: I'd like a Full English please.
Mam: One Full English kebab coming up. Hang on while I stand in the window and scrape some reconstituted meat off the big swirling stick.
Lofty: No, a Full English breakfast, please.
Mam: Two pieces of unrecognisable chicken coated in artificial breadcrumbs and deep fried in greasy fat coming up.
Lofty: No, I want bacon and egg with tomatoes and mushrooms please.
Mam: The only vegetables I serve are chips. I can do you a salty burger though, or a rather dodgy looking saveloy.
Lofty: Maybe not. Can you brew me a cuppa instead?
Mam: I've got the complete range of Panda Pops. Will cherryade do?
Lofty: You're not a real caff at all, are you? You're just a glorified falafel shop.
Mam: Sorry, but nobody eats traditional English food any more. The ethnic takeaway is king around here now.
Lofty: I suppose I'd better have a Pukka curry pie then.
Mam: Would you like your heart attack wrapped, or open?

Mam cuts a strange figure standing beside her deep fat fryer. It's not her height you notice first, although she's certainly on the tall side. It's not her smile either, although that's always warm and genuine. No, the first thing you spot when you pop in for a takeaway is Mam's unfeasible shock of red wiry hair, swept back and piled high on top of her head. But it was Mam's siren smile that first drew me inside the door of her deep fat emporium. I used to buy all my fish and chips here, grunting my assent as she ran through all the possible condiment options. And then one afternoon I came home with a piece of undercooked cod and spent most of the following night rushing to the toilet with diarrhoea. The two events may not have been linked, but I've never been back to visit Mam since. She still remembers me though, and usually smiles through her window whenever I walk past. I got a particularly wistful stare as I stood in the middle of Bow Road taking today's photograph. I just haven't the heart to tell her that I've defected to the fish shop in Bromley High Street instead. Mam's had her chips.

 Thursday, February 17, 2005

The real EastEnders
the arches


Bianca: 'Ere mate, is my Vauxhall Nova ready yet?
Lee: Still working on it luv. Just trying to make it roadworthy for round here.
Bianca: Did you fit the blue neon lights to the windscreen washer jets?
Lee: No, but I scraped my keys all along the paintwork on the passenger side.
Bianca: Did you attach that huge wing-like spoiler to the back of the car?
Lee: No, but I bent the wing mirror and smashed the headlamps.
Bianca: Did you install the turbo woofer sound system?
Lee: No, but I took your car for a joyride and wrecked the gearbox.
Bianca: And did you attach those shiny alloy wheels?
Lee: No, but I removed all four tyres and left the car standing on bricks.
Bianca: Sounds perfect.
Lee: Any time darlin'.

I don't think the local grease monkeys appreciated me taking photographs of their nefarious under-arch activities. I got some very pointed looks as I aimed my lens down this car-strewn backstreet, which made me wonder exactly what might be going on inside each of the nine brick caverns beneath the railway line. A radio blared out from the central arch as blokes in overalls busied themselves spraying paint and peering under bonnets. It looked legal enough, but I could only guess how all these semi-repaired cars had been acquired. As I rounded the bottom of the road I realised that I was being followed, so I made a hasty exit before someone fed my camera to the crusher and tinkered with my bodywork.

The real EastEnders
Pauline's house


IOC inspector: Hello madam. I wonder if I might come in and ask you a few questions about London's 2012 Olympic bid.
Pauline: Yeah come in, but mind the piss-stained tramp lying comatose in the stairwell.
IOC inspector: How long have you been living here on the 23rd floor?
Pauline: Ever since the BBC axed my home due to falling ratings and redeveloped the area as these three bleak tower blocks.
IOC inspector: Is that football pitch down there part of the council's new sporting facilities?
Pauline: No, it's just a slab of concrete where the local kids ride supermarket trolleys, shoot drugs and shoot one another.
IOC inspector: And is that an athlete in training for 2012?
Pauline: No, that's my Martin running away from a mugger wielding a large knife.
IOC inspector: And is that an Olympic flame bringing hope to a downtrodden neighbourhood?
Pauline: No, that's just two bored teenagers setting fire to a stolen car.
IOC inspector: And do you back the Olympic bid?
Pauline: Oh yes. From up here I'll have a perfect view of the new stadium and all the other facilities? It'll be great.
IOC inspector: Ah, sorry madam, but we're going to have to demolish your home for security reasons.

These tower blocks are the crumbling centrepiece of the Crossways Estate, a 1970s sink development with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever. It's not somewhere you'd want to find yourself after dark (and maybe you'd feel safer giving it a miss during the day too). Not that I've found Bromley-by-Bow to be a particularly dangerous place. Maybe I've been lucky, but I've yet to see a murder, a shooting or a stabbing, or to be on the receiving end of violence, crime or prejudice. It's certainly not as bad as this newspaper article makes out (note to my parents: please don't read that link, please read this one instead). OK, so I did get home last Friday to find the pavement in front of my house sealed off by police tape, and I did have to be escorted to my front door by a very cautious policeman who told me there had just been a "serious incident", but that's a rarity round here. I hope.

 Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The real EastEnders
the market


Ethel: I'm after a treat for my Willie.
Hussain: I hope he likes onions. We have a lot of onions.
Ethel: Ooh no, I couldn't possibly forcefeed my Willie like that.
Hussain: Sorry, we only sell a limited range of fruit and vegetables, especially onions.
Ethel: I remember when Lou's Pete ran this stall. He had cauliflowers, melons and pineapples.
Hussain: We do have a few small boxes of other fruit and veg down here on these palletts.
Ethel: I can't bend over that far. Pete had a lovely barrow, everything at chest height.
Hussain: We also have some bananas hanging up on this washing line. They're part of our accessible fruit range.
Ethel: Hmm, are there really no other stalls in this market?
Hussain: Sorry, we're the only one left now. The bric a brac man vanished, the cheap tea towel bloke disappeared and the fake wristwatch geezer scarpered.
Ethel: Your mate doesn't say much, does he?
Big Ron:

There are some great street markets in the East End. Petticoat Lane is world famous, Columbia Road should be world famous, and even Roman Road has its advocates. Unfortunately Bromley-by-Bow market isn't great at all. You'll find it in Stroudley Walk, once a thriving Victorian high street but now just a bleak parade of retail spaces battened down behind thick metal shutters. Post-war planners earmarked this area for economic regeneration, and a huge paved expanse was set aside with space for at least 100 market stalls. But today just one single stall remains, the ill-stocked fruit and veg stall you can see in my photograph. Here a couple of Bangladeshi gentlemen eke out a living selling limited produce to those who can't quite walk as far as the nearby Tesco superstore. Alas, it can't be long before a local market tradition vanishes for good.

The real EastEnders
the launderette


Dot: Hello gentlemen, what can I do for you?
Dizzee: The Bow Massive is in the house, innit.
Dot: Ooh I say! (lights up another fag)
Dizzee:
Can me put me Mercury Music award up here on the shelf next to the detergent?
Dot: You'll all be wanting those baggy hooded tops machine-washed, ironed and folded, I bet.
Dizzee: Nah grandma, grime is where it's at.
Dot: Don't you dare stand on that spin drier young man. Mr Papadopolous will be furious!
Dizzee: I'm just a rascal. Fix up, look sharp.
Dot: You don't scare me with your clever words, you young rap scallion.
Dizzee: We is taking over your launderette. We is gonna hang out in here all day and play well banging tunes.
Dot: "Thou shalt not hang out all day and play well banging tunes in the house of the washerwomen" - Proverbs chapter 14 verse 11
Dizzee: Oh alright then. Just a service wash please.

As you might expect in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood, we're well blessed for launderettes round here. The one you can see in the photo is my local, a welcoming place despite the smell of detergent and the harsh strip lighting. It's run by Lil, a hassled lady in a pinny, not quite Dot's age but just as helpful. She gossips, she mops the floor and she'll iron your shirts if you fork out a little extra. Her launderette is a little palace. The tops of the washing machines are covered by a jungle of well-watered pot plants. Paintings of sheep (and other rural idylls) hang from a fake marble wall. And a row of old brown leather chairs by the door makes a cosy place to sit while you wait for the spin cycle to finish. As I remember.

All this is in sharp contrast to
The Powder Room, the other launderette across the road on Bromley High Street. This is a much more utilitarian facility, just a white shell housing two rows of machines separated by an empty gangway. The building is open 24 hours a day, which probably explains why it's become the chosen hangout for gangs of hooded local youths. Not that they frighten me or anything, but I've noted the two security cameras pointing at the door and I've read the police warning notice stuck to the window, so I keep away.

 Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The real EastEnders
the allotments


Rupert: Excuse me old man, what are you doing on my land?
Arthur: This is my allotment. I've come to be with the vegetables.
Rupert: Sorry, I'm the new chairman of the Walford Allotment Society and I don't believe you've paid your £100 annual subscription.
Arthur: A hundred quid? But that's four ponies!
Rupert: Keeping animals on your allotment is forbidden under subsection 3a of the new membership rules that our lawyers ratified at last week's extraordinary general meeting.
Arthur: You're just a load of bankers.
Rupert: We accept direct debit, you know.
Arthur: I'm not allowed credit, not after the Christmas Club embezzlement fiasco.
Rupert: Look you oik, either you pay up or we'll turn over your plot to a local yuppie who really deserves it.
Arthur: I suppose you posh newcomers want to hijack our ancestral lands to grow your own organic fruit and veg.
Rupert: Heavens no. My Jocasta gets all our groceries delivered by Waitrose, online. This is for my hemp farm.
Arthur: Fair enough. Got a light?

The Reeves Road Allotment Society owns a narrow strip of land beside the railway just to the west of Bromley-by-Bow station. February may be the fallow season but there's still plenty of evidence of horticultural endeavour along this 200 yard vegetable patch. Some carefully-tended plots boast freshly-tilled soil, cane-supported netting and ruler-straight edging. Other less-loved plots appear more successful at growing crops of straggly weeds and blue plastic bags. A few ramshackle wooden structures stand (for the time being) along the far side of the allotments beneath the embankment, but alas I saw nothing to compare to Arthur's beloved shed.

The real EastEnders
the Queen Vic


Angie: 'Ello me old mucker, what can I get you?
Ismet: Can of Red Bull, please.
Angie: Sorry luv, we don't sell anything with a recognisable brand name.
Ismet: OK, a tall blue and silver metal tube of generic energy drink containing taurine, glucuronolactone and caffeine, please.
Angie: We ain't got that. We got lager.
Ismet: I'm Muslim, I don't do alcohol.
Angie: We got pork scratchings.
Ismet: You're having a laugh, ain't ya?
Angie: We got roast beef crisps.
Ismet: Are they halal?
Angie: How the heck would I know, I'm completely Brahms and Liszt.
Ismet: I'll just go and sit in the corner with a glass of water and wait for the next slanging match to break out, then.

There really is a Queen Victoria pub opposite Bromley-by-Bow station. It stands completely isolated from any other building, cut off on the wrong side of the A102 Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. From the outside it's a traditional looking East End pub - with brightly painted frontage, chalkboard adverts for live music and a compact landlord's flat upstairs. A faded sign stuck behind a barred window announces that the pub is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Unfortunately it's also closed for the rest of the week, and has been since May 2003. This is a ghost pub, and the former regulars are probably now to be found across the dual carriageway at the downmarket Duke of Wellington (beneath the England bunting in "Frankys Bar" doing "Kareoke").

In common with much of the rest of the capital, if not the country, more than half of the pubs round here have been closed down during the last 20 years.
RIP to the following Bromley-by-Bow locals: Bird In Hand (demolished), Bombay Grab (once the local Smith Garrett Brewery, now the Bow Muslim Cultural Centre - there's irony), Bromley Arms (converted to flats last year), Caledonian Arms (still being converted to flats), Imperial Crown (nearly finished being turned into flats), Moulders Arms (recently closed and boarded up), Pearly King (a pub existed on this site for more than 650 years - until the 1990s), Priory Tavern (converted to flats in 1997), Queen Victoria (see above), Rising Sun (demolished 1997), Ye Olde Three Tuns (would have been my local, turned into flats 1999)
.

 Monday, February 14, 2005

The real EastEnders
the tube station


Kat: I'm going shopping up west. Gimme a ticket.
Tube operative: Which zone do you want?
Kat: I'm gonna buy me a little red dress and some tottery shoes.
Tube operative: Single or return?
Kat: And then I'm gonna get blind drunk.
Tube operative: Do you have an Oystercard?
Kat: I'm a Slater I am, and don't you forget it.
Tube operative: Excuse me, but you need a ticket to pass through that gate.
Kat: <squeezing through> You want a slap in the face, mate?
Tube operative: You'll never make it down the stairs in those heels.
Kat: Ooo-err <smash>
Tannoy: "Due to passenger action at Bromley-by-Bow, all services on the District Line are suspended."

Bromley-by-Bow station was opened by the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway in 1858, although the Underground only reached here in 1902. There are four platforms, but the two alongside the Southend line are now derelict and overgrown. The ticket hall is rather more modern, but not modern enough to be attractive. Just inside the entrance is a newsagent's kiosk which is only open during the morning rush hour (and stocks rather more tabloids than broadsheets). At least, unlike the special effects used at Walford East, the trains running through this station are real and appear more often than once a year.

EastEnders
20 years of E20


The London borough of Walford, E20, first appeared on our TV screens 20 years ago this week. The now-familiar EastEnders signature tune and swirly map were first broadcast on BBC1 at 7pm on Tuesday 19th February 1985 (although some of you may have been busy watching Whistle Test on BBC2 instead). Within months the show had become the BBC's most successful programme ever, and Albert Square, the Queen Vic, Ali's caff and Arthur's allotment were famous across the country. But where exactly is Walford? The show's creator Tony Holland provided the following clues in the launch week's edition of Radio Times.
Ask any EastEnder for directions to Albert Square, London Borough of Walford, E20, and they'll tell you "Straight down Turpin Road Market, turn right into Bridge Street, and there it is, with the Queen Vic pub on the corner.
Which isn't particularly helpful. There are no Turpin Roads listed anywhere in the London A-Z, whereas there are four Bridge Streets (all to the west of London). And there are no East End postcodes any higher than E17. Anybody would think that Walford was purely fictional.

The biggest clue to the soap's true location came when the local tube station first appeared on the show in 1996. You won't find Walford East on any published tube map, but a close look at the map outside the on-screen station would reveal that Walford East is located on the District line between West Ham and Bow Road, taking the place of Bromley-by-Bow. Which is where I live, near enough. I am an EastEnder.

Bromley-by-Bow is one of the poorest council wards in the country. It has the highest unemployment rate in London. Nearly half of local residents are of Bangladeshi origin. Most of Bromley-by-Bow is covered by postwar apartment blocks. Nearly half of the housing is council owned. The area is hemmed in by a screaming dual carriageway, several railway viaducts and a polluted canal. Bromley-by-Bow does have its own shops, caffs, launderettes, pubs and allotments, but not in the way you've become accustomed to seeing on TV. There are no cosy Victorian squares surrounded by gentrified terraces. There are no nail bars where idle wives waste away their empty lives. There are no bigshot gangsters in trenchcoats on every street corner. In particular, nobody around here ever disappears off on a Caribbean holiday and returns six weeks later with an orange suntan.

So, this week I thought I'd take a look at the real EastEnders in the real East End, in and around Bromley-by-Bow. My East End. Walford it ain't. (expect twice-daily updates this week)

EastEnders links
Official site, and some unofficial sites
Fassett Square (Hackney), the inspiration for Albert Square
Interactive map of Albert Square
Missed an episode? Read a synopsis here (1985-2005)
EastEnders spoilers - read the plot three weeks ahead

 Sunday, February 13, 2005

the Bid

Anybody want an Olympic Stadium in their backyard?

Apparently not. Motorists passing Bow Bridge yesterday would have seen these two homemade banners strapped to the roadside, denouncing London's 2012 Olympic bid in no uncertain terms. What motorists wouldn't have seen however, unless they'd been crossing the Bow flyover in the cab of a particularly tall articulated lorry, was the unusual protest being staged a few feet below.

A flotilla of anti-bid boaters assembled on the River Lea at 1pm yesterday afternoon. The protestors chugged down the Bow Back Rivers alongside the proposed Olympic zone and then tied up their narrowboats three or four abreast close to the flyover. They were demonstrating as part of the NoLondon2012 campaign, an outspoken pressure group intent on whipping up public opposition to London's Olympic bid. Not that yesterday's floating protest was in any way a bad-natured affair. The campaigners may have tooted their boats' whistles for a few minutes, but otherwise they just stood around on their barges or wandered up and the towpath a bit. Other protestors arrived on foot, or by bike, and some kept busy by taking photographs of the assembled gathering. Most appeared to be committed environmentalists rather than frustrated taxpayers - I saw rather more hand-knitted jumpers than I would normally expect to see along the banks of the Lea. It was certainly a colourful affair but, out of sight beneath the roadway, the participants appeared to be preaching only to the coverted.

There were muted jeers as a blue 'Back the Bid' double decker passed the site of the demonstration. Protestors will be hoping to make themselves heard more loudly when International Olympic Committee inspectors roll into town this week for their four day scrutiny visit. A much bigger demo is planned in Meridian Square in Stratford next Saturday, and one of those Critical Mass civilly-disobedient bike rides is scheduled to head this way on Friday evening. Expect to hear well-rehearsed arguments that money frittered away on the Olympics could be better spent on local hospitals and education, that a unique wetland habitat is under threat and that the promised influx of jobs, tourism and sporting facilities will do nothing to help local people. Speaking as an extremely local person myself, I must say I disagree.

After a sunny start to yesterday's demonstration, the heavens suddenly opened and sleet hurled down from grey clouds. Most of the protestors scuttled inside their narrowboats and waited for the wintry squall to pass. While they weren't looking a perfect rainbow appeared in the sky, spearing the ground precisely where the proposed Olympic Stadium would be built. I reckon this was a sign from above. There's a buried golden future here, but only when this grim industrial wasteland is earmarked for total regeneration will the financial rewards ever surface for the benefit of the local population. Don't get me wrong, I do love walking the deserted footpaths alongside my local rivers, but decades of urban neglect have scarred the environment here to the point where wholesale Olympic renewal can only be a good thing. A few riverbanks may be sanitised and a few moorhens left homeless, but what this area needs is progress, and lots of it.

After the sun came out, the protest resumed. I left quickly, before anyone thought I was one of 'them', and walked the short distance back to reality.

 Saturday, February 12, 2005

Retail therapy (purchases 1 & 2)

1) "something for the kitchen" = George Foreman Grill
Price:
£34, Allders Oxford Street closing-down sale price £27, minus 10% closing-down discount = £24.30
Sales assistant: about to be made redundant.
Slight problem: I don't have anything that needs grilling.

2) "something to watch" = Baskerville Liverpool Street clock
Price:
£35.25, Purves & Purves sale price = £25
Sales assistant: very willing, but utterly clueless.
Slight problem: clock doesn't appear to be working.

Retail therapy (results 2)

Thank you for your 23 different nominations in the category "something to watch". You were wonderfully creative in your interpretation, suggesting a wide variety of £40 items I might want to buy. Here's why I'm not buying 22 of them.

Problem 1: I've already got one (for example, DVD player)
It's not my DVD player, you understand, I'm just babysitting it for someone who's been off living in region 1 for the last two years. I probably wouldn't have bothered buying one otherwise because I only use the loaned player about once every two months. DVD-viant, me.
(See also: bathroom scales, pair of binoculars)

Problem 2: I've already sort of got one (for example, Oggz)
Oggz are egg-shaped colour-changing lights, which means they're rather too similar to the Mathmos lightbricks I bought as the outcome of this project two years ago. And those lightbricks don't function properly any more because they now only glow for about five minutes before they need charging up again. So no Oggz.
(See also: lava lamp thingy, wireless electronic weather station)

Problem 3: I'd neglect it (for example, goldfish)
Not intentionally, you understand. But I don't have a very good track record with goldfish. When we were very little my brother and I had two goldfish who we named Pip and Pop. They'd swim around their tank all day, occasionally gawping open-mouthed through the glass before going off on another circuit of nothingness. One day we found Pop bobbing at the top of the tank in a very dead sort of way so, after a quick prod to check for rigor mortis, we buried him/her at the bottom of the garden in a plastic bag. Pip followed soon after, and then every goldfish replacement seemed to live for less time than the last. So it's probably best if I don't risk owning another.
(See also: kitten, Antarium, gaggle of geese, Sea Monkeys)

Problem 4: I don't have anyone to go with (for example, a night at the opera)
These events are all very well, but they're not quite the same when you can't turn to someone after (or during the performance) and discuss how good/bad/indifferent it all was. So no.
(See also: London Duck Tour, 'Festen' at the Lyric)

Problem 5: I wouldn't watch it (for example, DVD box set of the West Wing)
If I'd wanted to watch an American drama about American politics then I'd have watched it when it was on television. I always thought that was the point of having a TV set. I don't see why I should fork out one-third of a licence fee so that I can devote an entire weekend to watching 22 consecutive rerun episodes. The real American election dragged on quite long enough thank you.
(See also: Blake's 7 DVD set, complete set of "The Prisoner", goldfish videotape)

I'm also saying 'no' to...
• watching paint dry (it's a rented flat, so painting it isn't my responsibility)
• a SAD full spectrum lamp (winter darkness doesn't get me down)
• a piece of art (good idea, maybe, but not quite specific enough)
• sponsoring a third world child (very worthy, but I'm supposed to be spending the money on me)

So just one thing remains on your list of submissions - a clock. So that's what I'll be buying, thank you. I own far too many clocks already (there are 5 in this room, 4 in the bedroom, 2 in the bathroom and 1 in the kitchen), but maybe now is the time to replace the £2.99 Woolworths value clock above the bed with something a little classier. Time to go shopping.

 Friday, February 11, 2005

Her Majesty Lizzy Queen
requests the honour of your presents
at the marriage of
Chaz and Cammy
on Friday 8th April 2005
at the Moat House Hotel, Windsor
and afterwards at the Prince and Dragon, Slough

Civil ceremony 2pm, Uncivil bust-up 3pm
Referee: Archbishop Rowan Williams
Standing room only (this marriage is a bit crowded)

Wedding video directed by Martin Bashir
Ms Parker-Bowles' wardrobe by Barbour Bridlewear
Creche for hounds provided by the Beaufort Hunt

Please note that Reception may be frosty
Gatecrashers welcome (especially those in unconvincing Osama Bin Laden costume)
A brief honeymoon period will follow

Wedding List held at Poundstretcher of Tetbury
Start your commemorative thimble collection in this Saturday's Daily Mail

Stag night: Best man Harry invites you to goosestep along to Adolf's Bar
Hen night: Ceremonial opening of Camilla Memorial Horse Trough, Hyde Park

R.S.V.P
(assuming you give a damn)

 Thursday, February 10, 2005

Retail therapy (category 2)

Today's category is "something to watch".
Your suggestions in the comments box please. Aim for something around the £40 mark. You can suggest as many things as you like, and interpret today's category as creatively as you like. Nominations close after 48 hours. For the full rules, see Tuesday.

Retail therapy (results 1)

Thank you for your 30 different nominations in the category "something for the kitchen". What a choice! All those fantastic labour-saving gadgets and cooking utensils that no good kitchen should be without. Which should make it really easy for me to select one forty-quid item from your selection and then go out and buy it. But no. Your list of kitchen 'essentials' has demonstrated perfectly just how much my shopping habits diverge from the mainstream. How could you have got it so wrong? Let me cross off your suggestions one by one...

Problem 1: I've already got one (for example, toaster)
I already have a toaster. I use it whenever I want to crisp up the outside of some bread, and it does a perfectly good job. I don't need another toaster, even one with a covetable chrome finish, because my existing toaster works perfectly well enough. Unlike some people, I don't upgrade for the sake of it.
(See also: fancy see-thru kettle, smoke detector)

Problem 2: I had one once and it was rubbish (for example, breadmaker)
I had a breadmaker once. I was cajoled into buying it and it cost me rather more than £40 at the time. Despite instructions explaining that breadmaking was simply child's play, I never once managed to produce anything more impressive than a warm lump of stodgy dough. So I shan't be buying another, not even if it smells nice.
(See also: sandwich toaster)

Problem 3: I don't eat what they produce (for example, smoothie maker)
Why buy expensive processed fruit drinks when I can make my own? Because I don't like fruit drinks, that's why, especially ones with pulped skin and pips floating around in them. I know these things are good for me, but that doesn't mean I have to like them.
(See also: yoghurt maker, rice steamer, strawberry huller, pump-driven espresso machine, herb garden)

Problem 4: It's easier to buy the finished item (for example, lemon squeezer)
I value time over money. I could squeeze my own lemons, but Jif make a perfectly acceptable substitute.
(See also: pasta-making machine)

Problem 5: I don't need one, because I don't cook (for example, a really good knife)
I don't cook in the same way that you lot cook, anyway. I don't want you to get the idea that I exist on takeaways and ready meals, because I don't. But my version of cooking doesn't actually involve mixing ingredients together, at least not before they reach my stomach. So I have no need of anything that chops or slices or combines or minces because it would just sit unused in my kitchen cupboard for the next ten years. I know this is extremely retro of me, and that all decent modern human beings follow Nigella or Delia and whip up their own haute cuisine masterpieces on a regular basis, but I don't.
(See also: food processor, steel whisk, steel grater, swivel peeler, recipe book)

I'm also saying 'no' to...
• £40 of chocolate (yummy but waist-damaging)
• 266 tins of value beans (positively life-threatening)
• a bottle of malt whisky (I hate the stuff)
• a DAB radio (my windowless kitchen has no reception)
• a goat (alas Oxfam appear to have stopped selling them)

So just one thing remains on your list of submissions - the George Foreman grill. So that's what I'll be buying, thank you. Something to brown my fish fingers on. Not that I have any spare worktop space in my kitchen to stand it on, you understand, but I believe you should never let a small fact like that get in the way of a top retail purchase.

 Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Horoscope quiz: The Chinese New Year always coincides with the second new moon after the winter solstice. So it's today. In celebration here are clues to the twelve animals featured in the Chinese calendar [C1-C12]. To double the fun I've also written clues to the twelve signs of the zodiac [Z1-Z12]. I've used the English name for each sign (e.g. ram, not Aries). Most of the clues are synonyms. How many can you identify?

C1) twist
C2) natter
C3) snitch
C4) glutton
C5) shadow
C6) follower   
C7) 2/3 stock cube    
C8) like a brother
C9) woody golfer
C10) kanga mix
C11) voiceless
C12) spin out
Z1) STD
Z2) tank
Z3) pairs
Z4) angle
Z5) thrust
Z6) rubbish    
Z7) try=have a -- --
Z8) beardy airline
Z9) lying politician
Z10) fishy skin
Z11) mendacious
Z12) aqueduct
Answers in the comments box.

Bow Road update: It was exactly one year ago today that the renovation of Bow Road station began. The arrival of four blue portakabins heralded the dawn of London's first PPP-funded station upgrade, and also the start of my regular blogging updates on daily progress. For the first eight months there was little progress. For the last four months stuff has actually happened. But still not much. For the full annual overview, please visit my special dedicated webpage.

And then last week, finally, all of a sudden, we got the first glimpse of the new improved Bow Road station. Overnight workmen whisked away the long blue wall that's been stretched along the eastbound platform since May, revealing the new completed station wall behind. The old wall used to be covered by peeling off-cream paint. The new wall is covered by 79 panels of gleaming white plastic-y stuff. There are eight red and blue station roundels spaced out along the full length of the wall, which is topped off by a row of repeating station names beneath a green and pink strip. Step off an Upminster train and your eyes now meet this elegant modern canvas, free from adverts, graffiti and clutter. It can't last.

But, quite frankly, one nice wall and a few repainted pillars isn't much to show for a year's work. There has been a lick of paint throughout the ticket hall and across the upper reaches of the station, there are several new cameras and loudspeakers in every nook and cranny, and there are two rows of new lighting along each platform that maybe one day will be switched on. But take a look at the ceiling in this photograph and you'll see that most of the station is still as grimy and unloved as it used to be twelve months ago. You might also be to spot that the blue walls are still fully intact on the westbound platform (right), and I can assure you there's absolutely no evidence whatsoever that any gleaming white walls are ready to emerge from there in the near future. In fact I've not yet seen one single innovation at Bow Road that actually improves anyone's journey. If you want to know when the next train is due or where it might be going, you're still better off peering down the tunnel to see if there are any headlights in the distance. Transport for London say that the whole Bow Road upgrade project will be complete by next May, maybe. Don't be surprised if my updates are still continuing this time next year.


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