Saturday, April 30, 2005
The best of April
TV programmes of the month
1) Doctor Who (BBC1): There are several old programmes you remember only with a nostalgic glow. You thought that they were fantastic must-see television, but when you catch them again on UK Gold several years later you suddenly realise the plots were thin, the effects were shaky and your memories were false. It's usually even worse with revived TV series. Some producer decides that an old show is resurrectable, adds a dash of 21st century realism and the whole thing turns out to be unwatchable. I had precisely these fears with Russell T Davies' regeneration of Doctor Who, but I needn't have worried. The new series is fantastic, ironic, adventurous, witty, credible and, most surprising of all, a monster ratings hit. And there's a Dalek tonight. Unbeatable.
2) The Apprentice (BBC2): OK, so they're just a bunch of Gordon Gecko wannabes arse-licking their way to the top of Alan Sugar's greasy pole, but this bunch of bickering dysfunctional capitalists have certainly made for addictive must-see television. It'll be Tim winning next week, won't it? Surely.
3) End Day (BBC3): What if the world ended, today? Might be a virus, might be a super volcano, might be a tidal wave, might even be a black hole created in a laboratory, but none of us will be seeing tomorrow. End Day dramatised five very different routes to Armageddon, with the central character reawakening after every disaster in a Groundhog Day style. I found the pseudo-scientific hokum unexpectedly arresting, especially the shot of a huge asteroid emerging suddenly from a cloud to obliterate Berlin.
Paperback of the month: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. I think that's the first time a book about AIDS, toffs, drugs, 80s politics and shagging has won the Booker Prize, but it won because it's beautifully written.
Most clicked-on link of the month: UK Google Maps (210 clicks)
Single of the month: Avalon by Juliet (enthused about a fortnight ago)
Film of the month: The HitchHiker's Guide To The Galaxy (reviewed yesterday)
Gig of the month: I'm going tonight (review tomorrow)
posted 08:00 :
Bow Road station update: The never-ending renovation project at my local station might just be edging towards a conclusion. I suspect the disruption will last another month or two, but only a few minor things now look as if they still need to be completed. The stairs still look a bit ropey, the 'next train' indicators have yet to indicate any next trains, the control room still needs fitting out and the platform walls still lack a considerable amount of signage, but this looks as if it might be the end game. Certainly there are still plenty of workmen busy doing something somewhere. Maybe they have one last project up their sleeve, or maybe they're just ekeing out this modernisation project for as long as possible before they get sent to vandalise the heritage features at some other godforsaken station.
posted 07:00 :
Friday, April 29, 2005Screen 4: The HitchHiker's Guide To The Galaxy (PG)
27 years is a long time. A really long time. You just wouldn't believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly long it is. I mean you may think it's a long time from one bank holiday weekend to the next, but that's just peanuts to the gestation time of this movie. I was a little worried that the long wait might not have been worthwhile, particularly in the face of some tepid reviews, but I was pleasantly surprised by the screenplay's attention to detail and visual inventiveness. This is a film that really knows where its towel is. The script follows the original plot fairly closely, which helps when you're sitting in the stalls mouthing the words, but also adds a chorus of singing dolphins and even a requited love story that definitely weren't in the original, just for good measure. It's also a very British film, so goodness knows what American audiences will make of tea, caravans and a very brief shot of an extinct number 8 Routemaster. Martin Freeman is inspired casting as bewildered Arthur Dent, blundering around the universe in his crumpled dressing gown, and surely Stephen Fry was born to play the voice of the Book - erudite, sardonic and droll. Alas Zaphod Beeblebrox never quite convinces (rather like his second head in the original TV series) and rather too many scenes are cut short in favour of plot development. But do go and see it before it's too late - you never know when the Earth might suddenly be demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Mark out of 50? 42.
posted 08:00 :
Vote050505: X press
I saw the following information in a table in a newspaper earlier in the week, and I decided it would look much better reorganised into a graph. So here it is as a graph, and a fascinating graph it makes too. Any thoughts?
How newspaper readers voted in 2001
MIRROR Lab 71% Lib 13% Oth Con 11%
STAR Lab 56% Lib 17% Oth Con 21%
SUN Lab 52% Lib 11% Oth Con 29%
GUARDIAN Lab 52% Lib 34% Oth Con
INDEPENDENT Lab 38% Lib 44% Oth Con 12%
Lab 33% Lib 19% Oth Con 43% EXPRESS
Lab 30% Lib 21% Con 48% FT
Lab 28% Lib 26% Oth Con 40% TIMES
Lab 24% Lib 17% Oth Con 55%
Lab 16% Lib 14% Oth Con 65% TELEGRAPH
Thursday update: A special hello if you've arrived here after seeing this table in print in the latest edition of The London Line. Ooh how exciting.
posted 00:05 :
Thursday, April 28, 2005Vote050505: BBC Question Time
...is coming live right now from Stratford Circus, East London. I know where the BBC's secret location is because I've just come back from watching a film at the cinema nextdoor, and the forecourt outside is crawling with police. I counted at least 50 coppers, seven vans and one helicopter, and I suspect I missed several cohorts more. I also missed the arrival of the three party leaders because I was inside enjoying my film at the time, but two hours earlier I had caught the long winding queue of "a cross-section of typical voters" waiting patiently to be admitted. To be honest they didn't look as if they could maul anything, as the live programme is now proving. But at least they got inside to make themselves heard, unlike the Stop The War protestors who are still standing around outside to wave their banners at one particular departing politician. I wonder if he'll be driven past my house later after the programme is finished - maybe I should go out and wave too.
posted 21:00 :
Quiz français: Here are clues to 16 French numbers.
Each clue refers to how the number sounds, not how it's spelt.
The numbers involved are...
5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 25, 107, 1000, 1001, 2000
How many can you match up?
(Answers in the comments box)
I) Cecil B
K) on & on
O) feline blades
P) capsized truck
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, April 27, 2005April in Paris: et finalement
It's amazing how much you can cram into ten hours in Paris. All you have to do is to ignore the guidebooks. The guidebooks tell you to see Paris, go shopping in Paris, dine out in Paris and stay over in Paris. I disregarded the last three and concentrated only on the sightseeing. It's all a matter of priorities. But eventually, as the full moon rose over the eastern arrondissements, it was time to head back to the Gare du Nord for my return journey. A miraculous transformation took place as I passed through immigration at the Eurostar check-in. Where previously I had been in a vibrant multicultural city full of snogging couples, suddenly I was back in Little Britain surrounded by pasty-faced Englanders carrying duty-free wine and reading Heat magazine. I had the luxury of a first class seat on the journey home, thanks to a mysterious online sales glitch whereby the cost of a first class seat was £5 cheaper than a seat in second. I was treated to free drinks, a full three course meal (with proper crockery and non-plastic cutlery) and a very sticky after-dinner chocolate. The only child in the carriage was appropriately well-behaved, preferring to hug his cuddly Eiffel Tower rather than run screaming up and down the aisle. I took the opportunity to finish reading the latest Booker Prize winner, which I completed (conveniently) just as the train crawled back into Waterloo station. It had been a great day out, and I'd never have believed it was possible to cram so much into one day if I hadn't tried it for myself. If you'd like to follow in my footsteps, I see that Eurostar are currently offering "first train out last train home" on Saturday 4th June for £84 return (including first class upgrade on the way back). Go on. Vous l'aimeriez.
posted 18:00 :
April in Paris: et aussi...
Place de l'Alma: Princess Diana met her death in the underpass beneath this very ordinary riverside square. I thought the large 'golden flame' monument at the mouth of the tunnel must be a recent addition paid for by the grieving Parisian masses but no, it turned out to be a tribute to Franco-American relations placed there 10 years earlier. The low concrete wall behind the flame is still covered by pro-Di graffiti, and I bet if I'd turned up after dark I'd have seen a forest of cheap tealights here too.
Champs Elysées: The eastern half of this famous avenue is a tree-lined avenue of great beauty. The western half of this famous avenue is an overcrowded, overrated, overpriced shopping street.
Musée d'Orsay: London may have turned an old power station into an art gallery, but Paris has done the same with a real station and it's just as impressive. Well, it looked good from the outside anyway, but the queue didn't. So much to see, so little time.
Centre Pompidou: No time to look inside the largest collection of modern art in Europe either. But yes, the outside of the building does look as if it ought to be on the inside of the building, and it's all the more remarkable for it.
La Samaritaine: Apparently the view from the 10th floor terrace of this huge department store is the best way to see the very centre of the city. Unfortunately it's only open to customers of the terrace restaurant, so I had to make do with vague glimpses of distant rooftops hidden somewhere behind the maître d'.
Père Lachaise: I really wanted to look round the famous cemetery that provided the final resting place for Oscar Wilde, Édith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Molière, Bizet and Proust (amongst many others). Unfortunately I failed to do my pre-visit research properly and so arrived half an hour after the gates had shut for the evening. But, as I always say, "I am not young enough to know everything" and "punctuality is the thief of time".
posted 07:00 :
April in Paris: La Tour Eiffel
It's impossible to visit Paris without being drawn, mothlike, towards possibly the most famous monument in the world. You may mean to keep your distance but this 300 metre tall attraction always attracts, like a giant iron magnet. The best views are from the opposite side of the river, from the gardens of the Palais de Chaillot, although they were partly sealed off on Saturday to allow the filming of some enormous outside event. I couldn't decide whether the police surrounding the building looked frightening or farcical in their black McDonalds-style headgear with their crumpled trousers tucked into their jackboots. The crowds and souvenir stalls grew thicker as I crossed the Seine and approached the feet of the tower. I was really hoping to have time to climb this architectural marvel, at least to the premier étage, but even at nearly 6pm the queues were far too long. I'd have been waiting in line for half an hour just to use the stairs, and at least double that for the easier ascent in the lifts. I comforted myself with the thought that I'd made it right to the very top on my last visit in 1980, and that the panoramic view from the troisième étage was still imprinted on my memory. And anyway, my Mum already has one souvenir teaspoon from the giftshop at the summit, and she surely didn't need another.
posted 00:00 :
Tuesday, April 26, 2005April in Paris: ville Olympique?
Just like in London, there are reminders all over Paris that the city is bidding for the Olympics. Banners hang from lampposts, signs have been erected on public buildings and there are stickers on the doors of all the Metro trains. I spotted especially large 'Paris2012' logos on the front of the Parliament building and the side of the Eiffel Tower, each encouraging citizens to support "L'Amour des Jeux". Like us, Parisians are keen to host the world's premier sporting event because of the national prestige and redevelopment a successful bid would bring. The city exudes a quiet confidence, having barely put a foot wrong during the bidding process, but that's probably because civic leaders have learnt a great deal from two previous failed bids. While I was in town I took the opportunity to visit the site of the proposed Olympic Stadium, a short train journey to the north of the city centre. Just like Stratford in East London this is a poor multicultural neighbourhood of light industrial wasteland and low-cost housing, with noticeable redevelopment already underway. Unlike Stratford the Olympic Stadium already exists - the Stade De France, built for the 1998 World Cup. Late on Saturday afternoon it stood quiet and empty beside the Périphérique, just a circular concrete amphitheatre locked away behind tall metal railings. The only athletes out training in the sunshine were three young boys busy skating and laughing around the perimeter. The stadium already looked late 20th century to me, and by 2012 may feel positively archaic, but here was London's most fearsome opponent, prepared and ready.
posted 19:00 :
April in Paris: La Grande Arche de la Défense
In my continuing search for a Parisian building with a decent view and no queue I headed off to the new business district of La Défense. It's a bit like London's Docklands - a hotchpotch of late 20th century skyscrapers safely tucked away on the edge of town out of sight of the urbane city dwellers. La Défense boasts broad public precincts littered with modern sculpture, a huge shopping centre and, most famously, La Grande Arche. Paris is a planned city and one of its strongest architectural features is l'Axe historique, a perfect straight line of monuments and avenues stretching from the Louvre through the Place de la Concorde along the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe. Along the same axis (2km to the west) has been built this monumental modern arch, a hollowed-out marble cube which doubles as office accommodation for 2000 civil servants. It's 110m high, it looks like a giant white picnic table and, best of all, when I arrived on Saturday afternoon there was no queue at the ticket office.
The lifts to the top of La Grande Arche ascend straight through the gaping void at the heart of the building (see photo). Each narrow lift shaft is attached to the inside wall of the arch only by thin metal struts and each glass-sided cylindrical elevator holds no more than about ten passengers. I'm normally pretty good with heights but I found the whole uplifting experience unexpectedly disconcerting. At the summit, in the roof section, I was disappointed by a series of concrete rooms and galleries somewhat reminiscent of poor secondary school architecture. Even the art display looked like it had been put together by a couple of sixth formers on their afternoon off. More impressive was the sun-drenched view from the observation terrace. The full length of the Axe historique stretched out to the east, though the most famous monuments appeared a very long way away. The Tour Eiffel was also clearly visible beyond the Bois de Boulogne, its silhouette rather too perfectly aligned in front of the distant (and ugly) Tour Montparnasse. Much of the rest of the view might also have been excellent had there not been a ring of tall skyscrapers all around the arch. Sacre Coeur, for example, appeared only as a small white pimple erupting from the roof of a nearby office block. After a few long minutes I headed back to the lifts to return to ground level, and my rapid descent passed with barely a flutter.
posted 07:00 :
April in Paris: L'Arc de Triomphe
Another famous Parisian landmark that duals as a giant roundabout.
12 grand avenues meet here at the star-shaped Place de l'Etoile, including les Champs-Elysées.
Commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 after victory at Austerlitz, but took 30 years to build.
Used to be the largest triumphal arch in the world (50m tall) until North Korea trumped it.
In 1919 French aviator Charles Godefroy flew his biplane straight through the central arch.
A flame is kept constantly lit at the tomb of the unknown soldier, interred beneath the arch in 1920.
A huge tricolor flaps from the underside of the arch on special occasions, like the day of my visit.
For €7 you can climb the 284 steps to the top for spectacular views over Paris...
...only I didn't bother on Saturday afternoon because the queue was too long. Maybe next time.
posted 00:00 :
Monday, April 25, 2005April in Paris: Le Louvre et Jardin des Tuileries
The Louvre is famous for just one painting - Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of an anonymous smirking lady. It draws tourists in huge numbers to the north bank of the Seine, queueing to enter the gallery through the glass pyramid extension in the main courtyard. So many tourists, in fact, that I decided not to join them for fear of wasting too great a proportion of my ten hours in Paris standing in line. I've seen the Mona Lisa before anyway, back in 1980, and I got considerably closer to her elusive smile than today's visitors. The portrait is now afforded her own hi-tech spotlit room, a brand new permanent showcase which opened just a couple of weeks ago, complete with wooden crash barriers and protective glass screen. Me, I'm just glad I saw Mme Gherardini before her gaze was distracted by the modern onslaught of camera flashes and snapping mobiles.
Outside the Louvre, beyond the vast courtyard, lies the ornamental Jardin des Tuileries. It's very long and very pretty, and very definitely in the French style. There may have been several avenues of trees, each dripping with blossom, but there were very few lawns or flowerbeds. Instead there was was grey, gravelly sand in abundance, covering broad pathways set out in strict straight lines. It was perfect for strolling, but rather too formal for reclining, sprawling or lounging in the bright spring sunshine. In the centre of the garden was a large pond fed by a central fountain. Small boys hired wooden sailboats from a man with a big trolley, then shoved their chosen yachts with a big thick stick and watched as the wind whisked them across the pond. To the west of the gardens was the Place de la Concorde, which from its name sounded like it should have been be a haven of peace and harmony but turned out to be a giant roundabout with a big Egyptian obelisk in the middle. This was also the spot where more than 1000 aristocrats were executed at the guillotine during the French Revolution. I wouldn't be surprised if the traffic has claimed a number of lives here since.
posted 18:00 :
April in Paris: le Métro
Yes, of course I went on the Metro during my ten hour trip to Paris. I did try to walk around the city as much as possible whenever possible, honest I did, but I'd bought a 1-day Paris Visite ticket from Waterloo before I left so it would have been a shame to waste it. Metro stations seemed to be everywhere in central Paris, although the station name wasn't always obvious from the ornate sign above the entrance. Once inside, however, the signage was always exemplary, the station architecture often elegant, the platforms clean and the train service fast and frequent. On the downside there was a surprising amount of grafitti in the central tunnels, and rather a lot of passengers seemed willing to sneak over, under or through the ticket barriers without paying. I had a bit of trouble at first using the older metro trains, failing in front of a large audience to work out how to open the door (you lift the lever), but I soon got the hang of it. Thankfully the newer trains were fully automatic, including the futuristic service on fully automated Line 14 - Meteor. These trains zipped along at speeds unheard of on the London Underground, blasting out of every station with a rushing noise like a coven of hissing witches, although they only serve eight stations at present. For longer journeys there's also the RER (Réseau Express Régional), slightly shabbier suburban trains which stop less frequently but are still just as efficient. It all makes for a wildly complicated underground transport network, but it's still ten times better than attempting to drive through the lunatic streets above.
posted 07:00 :
April in Paris: Notre Dame et l'ile de la Cité
The Seine boasts what the Thames cannot - a central island in the centre of town. L'ile de la Cité is the site where the city's first inhabitants settled, the place where Caesar set up camp and the point from which all distances to Paris are measured. The most famous spot on the island is the cathedral of Notre Dame, thankfully not yet turned into a Disney theme park but there was still a hunchbacked woman sat begging outside. The cathedral is much larger than Sacre Coeur, much more angular, and much busier. It reminded me of a gothic Anglican cathedral in the UK, not surprising given that both would have been Roman Catholic at the time of construction. Again the building is a staple on the tourist trail, making the interior an uneasy mix of reverence and irreverence. It felt very wrong to see half the visitors kneeling in worship, many offering prayers to new pope Benoît XVI, while the rest of the so-called congregation ambled round taking flash photographs of every chapel, statue and window. When the tourists had stopped being disrespectful they headed across the sparkling Seine to wander the narrow lanes of the Latin Quarter. Most didn't get as far as the university, tiny galleries and arty antiques shops but were instead lured inside one of the many dodgy-looking restaurants offering €10 fixed menus. I'd recommend a walk along the riverbank promenade instead, along the edge of the Rive Gauche, out of sight of all the mucky commercial activity above.
posted 00:00 :
Sunday, April 24, 2005April in Paris: vive le français
It must be nearly 25 years since I was last forcefed irregular verb endings by overenthusiastic French teachers. I suspect Jean-Paul and Marie-France from my school textbook must be grown up by now with kids of their own, no doubt still busy "jouent dans le jardin" or "préparent le petit déjeuner". Thankfully I still remembered sufficient vocabulary to survive my ten hour walk around Paris yesterday virtually unscathed. Even when a written phrase was bizarrely unfamiliar ("en cas d'affluence ne pas utiliser les strapontins") there was usually a pictorial clue to help me to deduce the true meaning. I must have looked so convincingly confident that several people came up to me during the day to ask for directions, including one animated gentleman who approached me within five minutes of leaving Gare du Nord station. All those French lessons spent roleplaying "en ville" might have proved useful ("le boulangerie, mais oui, c'est la deuxième à droite"), except that I didn't have a clue about what he was asking so all I could do was mumble an apologetic "pardon" and move on. In fact, to be totally honest, what I actually said in the heat of the moment was "sorry, dunno", a poor Englishman's excuse for geographical and linguistic ignorance. I know that most Parisians speak fluent English, but my French teachers would have been so very disappointed.
posted 19:00 :
April in Paris: Sacre Coeur et Montmartre
Turn right out of Gare du Nord and it's only a short walk through the backstreets to Montmartre, a bohemian hill with spectacular views across the city. The foot of the hill is a tourist trap, quite literally. As I reached the foot of the steps beneath Sacre Coeur I was accosted by a row of aggressive street traders who wanted to braid my finger with a 'friendship bracelet'. I brushed past with a firm "Non merci", only to be sharply rebuked by a persistent Catherine Tate soundalike: "Are you disrespecting me? Don't disrespect me...". Behind me some unsuspecting mug was already being tied and fleeced. At the top of the hill I took a few obligatory panoramic photographs, then turned to admire the cathedral of Sacre Coeur. It's a grand building in the romantic style, all circles, domes and arches, though a little too over-the-top for my taste. A steady stream of tourists processed round the inside of the building in five minutes flat, herded and sssh-ed by the cassocked attendants. Some paused (mysteriously) to touch the left foot of the statue of St Pierre behind the altar, while others stayed longer to kneel in prayer. The cathedral also does a roaring trade in tealights (only €2) and big candles in jars (€10), which I guess saves on paying the lighting bill themselves.
I could have descended the hill by funicular railway, only there seemed little point queueing to squeeze myself into an overcrowded carriage for the one minute journey. In Place du Tertre I found an enclave of pavement artists, all of whom seem to have met and sketched the real Harry Potter but who weren't quite so good at capturing the tourists who strayed too close. Elsewhere in the narrow streets I stumbled upon a traditional patisserie, where it would have been heresy not to sample un pain au chocolat (or deux), and also a busy street market frequented by real Parisians buying real French produce. And then suddenly I was in the red light district of Pigalle, a broad avenue of blatant sex shops that still wouldn't be tolerated in the centre of London. The legendary Moulin Rouge still stands, and still puts on revues, although it looked somewhat seedy and I can't believe anybody would want to make a feature film about it today. Maybe it's better seen after dark.
posted 11:00 :
April in Paris: Given that St George's Day has now become a pointless jingoistic sideshow exploited by publicans and politicians, I thought I'd spend my April 23rd somewhere other than England. So I went to Paris for the day. My last visit to Paris was exactly 25 years ago, on which occasion I was dragged briefly (and infrequently) around a few choice Parisian sights by my dour French exchange partner. We spent more of our time playing table tennis in some godforsaken suburban basement than we did sightseeing in the centre of the capital, which seemed a completely wasted opportunity. So I thought yesterday would be a good chance to go back and explore Paris on my own terms, and no ping pong this time.
It's now less than three hours from London to Paris by Eurostar, and it costs less than £60 too (so long as you go at the weekend and book far enough in advance). Take the first Eurostar out (dep 0634) and the last Eurostar home (arr 2228) and you can spend a full dix heures in the French capital, so that's what I did. It meant leaving home before dawn to catch the first tube of the day to Waterloo, then getting frisked by the only French police in central London. Eurostar chose to banish me to a 'window seat' with only a tiny slice of window, but that was no real hardship as we crawled ever so slowly through Brixton, Bromley and several other suburban backwaters. The train finally sped up just before Ashford, then spent 20 minutes beneath the Channel before emerging into France, which looked just like Kent only completely different. It was chucking it down just north of Paris, which I'd feared ever since I'd seen the long range weather forecast earlier in the week, but thankfully the rain ceased just as we pulled into Gare du Nord and the rest of the day was simply glorious. And I'll come back and tell you about my ten hour Parisian odyssey once I've caught up on some sleep...
Update: Flickr photostream added
posted 00:00 :
Saturday, April 23, 2005Counting down
Just in case London's Olympic bid might be slipping off your personal radar, a minor media stunt was stage-managed yesterday in the middle of Trafalgar Square. A big clock has been erected beneath Nelson's Column to count down the 75 days remaining until the IOC selects Paris as the venue for the 2012 Olympics. One man who still hopes otherwise is Seb Coe (right, in sensible suit), and he persuaded some 'big' political names to join him for the unveiling. Tessa Jowell (centre, in bright green) was joined by two anonymous shadow Sports Ministers (left, and cropped from photo), while Cherie Blair (2nd from left, grinning) also appeared in her new role as one of the bid's international ambassadors. Seb and Cherie both gave brief inspirational speeches, probably using words like 'hope', 'community' and 'legacy' except that nobody had remembered to bring a microphone so their pleadings were largely inaudible. Two real sportswomen, brought in for their photographic charm, removed the heavily-sponsored plastic cover from the giant white timer, and then a brief photo opportunity was staged. This may have been a non-event of Olympic proportions, but at least it all looked jolly impressive for 15 seconds on local TV news later in the evening. The clock is ticking, but most probably for that big French city across the Channel...
by Eurostar: 2 hours 40 minutes from Waterloo
posted 04:23 :
Excursion 10: National Gallery
As a finale to my week off in London, I stopped by at one of the capital's largest free attractions. The national repository of high art dominates the northern side of Trafalgar Square, from the monstrous carbuncle on the left to the boarded up portico to the right. Inside you can attempt to ponder the meaning of a millennium of art, from fat cherubs to blotchy irises. I won't go on about the gallery's contents because you've probably visited yourself but, for the record, the paintings drawing the largest crowds yesterday were Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Seurat's Bathers at Asnières. Equally as fascinating as the art were the multitude of bored gallery attendants, each sitting alone keeping watch over their designated room. One kept busy by doing a crossword, one yawned openly while scratching his chair, one was clearly eyeing up the passing talent, while another just stared at his knees and waited for his shift to end. The more sociable stood close to their gallery entrance so that they could gossip bitchily, but quietly, with a neighbouring attendant. In one small room a grey-haired jobsworth barked angrily at three tourists who'd dared to point their fingers too close to a minor masterpiece. There's certainly plenty to savour here, and it's not all on canvas.
by tube: Charing Cross
posted 04:23 :
Friday, April 22, 2005Excursion 9: Kew Gardens
Now here's a sight you don't see every day. It's a Titan arum (amorphophallus titanium), and its flowering is one of the rarest events in botany. It's also the tallest flowering plant in the world, and the smelliest, and it's blooming in Kew Gardens right now.
Kew's first Titan arum bloomed in 1889, but then not again until 1926 when the crowds had to be held back by police. Kew now own more than one specimen, each of which they nurture lovingly behind the scenes, so they've been fortunate to have several bloomings over the last few years. Even so this is the first emergence since 2003, and it's all a bit special. This particular Titan arum grew from a bulb weighing a record 77kg (11 stone), with the characteristic big yellow spike first appearing at the end of last month. Since then the plant has slowly grown to its full height of 2.23m (7 foot 4) and the single umbrella-like petal finally unfurled early yesterday morning.
This flower is even more famous for its odour than for its size. Back in its native Indonesia it's known as the 'corpse flower' because it smells of rotting flesh, while others have likened the whiff to dead fish, burnt sugar, dustbins and smelly nappies. The smell has evolved to attract pollinating insects, but it also attracts human beings with cameras in large numbers. I was fully prepared for the agonising stench as I entered the wet tropics zone of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, but I was disappointed. Apparently the flower only releases its evil perfume every few hours and, despite returning to view it twice, the plant resolutely refused to fill my nostrils with noxious pong. Maybe today's visitors will have more luck.
If you want to see the titan arum, you'd better be quick. The flower starts to fade and droop within a day or two, its pollination work complete, so I was fortunate enough to see it yesterday at its very peak. I see from the latest pictures that the single petal has already started to close slightly, and by Monday the central spike will probably have slumped completely. If you don't make it in time, you can view past titan arum bloomings here, here, here, here and here.
I had feared that the rest of Kew Gardens would be some grey-haired middle-aged netherworld full of Latin names and tea shops, but I was very pleasantly surprised. It was a particular treat to wander the full 300 acres beside the Thames in yesterday's glorious spring sunshine. The tulips were out, the rhododendrons were budding, the bees were flying and the bluebells were struggling hard to maintain dominance under threat from an invading yellow weed. My camera steamed up in the humid Palm House, where there were spectacular tropical views looking down from the upper balcony. The cute ducklings blocking the footpath by the lily pond surely deserved their own TV cartoon series, while over by the pagoda I got this year's first whiff of freshly-mown lawn. And everywhere there were benches set amongst the trees and flowers, each with a plaque in memorial of someone who 'loved this place'. I can see why. Even without a botanical superstar on show, Kew Gardens will always be a place to cherish.
by tube: Kew Gardens by bus: 65
posted 08:00 :
Thursday, April 21, 2005Vote050505: Bethnal Green and Bow - rotten borough
The rumour was that Tony was coming to Brick Lane. The police said he wasn't, they said he was up north, and as it turned out they were right. But there did seem to be slightly too many policemen compared to normal, and a couple of camera crews, so something was clearly afoot. The epicentre of the action eventually became clear - a tandoori restaurant up Hanbury Street, and one of the few businesses in the neighbourhood with an Oona poster in the window. Outside the restaurant entrance stood a few people with Labour badges flanked by an ever-increasing number of police. Across the narrow street they were faced by a tribe of anti-war protestors wielding black placards, few of whom looked local. One older gentleman had a very different grievance, he was opposing Crossrail's proposed worksite in the area, and he thrust multi-language leaflets into the hands of every passer by. Everybody was very well behaved, stepping back onto the pavement whenever the rookie PC asked them nicely. Another small crowd gathered on the corner of Brick Lane to watch the main crowd, and a policeman with a camcorder took pictures of us all just in case we turned out to be international terrorists.
At precisely one minute to three the anti-war protestors started shouting. They had a few well-rehearsed one-syllable choruses ("Troops Out! Blair Out!") which they repeated even though Mr Blair was nowhere to be seen. At three o'clock a procession of Labour supporters holding red banners rounded the corner from Brick Lane. They swept up the street, in some cases rather sheepishly, and assembled outside the restaurant. Oona was amongst them, as was mayor Ken, but I only found this out several hours later when I got home and watched the encounter on TV. The protestors' chants grew louder ("Blair Out! Oona Out!") and eventually more chilling ("All The Way! Galloway!") as the Labour ensemble filed inside the restaurant. The whole shouting match was over within five minutes, and I was surprised how rapidly both the crowd and the police drifted away. This was a pantomime event stage-managed purely for the media, with no attempt whatsoever at coherent campaigning. Nothing was thrown, nothing was resolved, but it all made good publicity for both sides. Modern politics, at least round my way, appears to have lost its footing in the real world.
posted 08:00 :
Excursion 7: Whitechapel Art Gallery
After a tough day's campaigning up Brick Lane, why not drop in at the Whitechapel Art Gallery for a little culture? It's free, and you never quite know what you'll find inside. Back in 1939, for example, you might have seen Picasso's Guernica, whereas yesterday's offering was a collection of amateur films made by Polish factory workers in the Communist era. The audience for one home movie about the glorious harvest was very small indeed, whereas rather more people appeared to be lurking in the dark behind a different set of curtains watching a giant socialist nipple. Upstairs, thankfully, the comic art of Robert Crumb was rather more to my tastes. His politically incorrect sketches were grounded in the mundane, rather like the comic doodles you might have scribbled in an exercise book as a child only infinitely better realised. And observing those present pondering each frame with the reverence normally afforded to classic art, that was highly entertaining as well (closes 22nd May).
by tube: Aldgate East by bus: 25, 205
Excursion 8: Geffrye Museum
Why go to IKEA when you can visit a row of converted almshouses in Hackney? IKEA force you to walk through a series of carefully arranged rooms showcasing all their latest furniture before finally depositing you in their shop and cafe. The Geffrye Museum may still have the shop and cafe at the end, but the initial stroll through its 12 period rooms is considerably more inspiring. You move from the early 17th century to the present day, each interior showcasing the typical middle class furniture and design of the era. The mid 1800s reminded me how crass the Victorians could be, while the 1930s living room evoked deep-seated memories of my grandparents' crockery and glassware. A recent extension to the museum currently houses two very different chair-related exhibitions. I enjoyed the display of highly original contemporary seating but a whole room of "English Regional Chairs" was stretching things too far. The museum is complemented by a series of historical gardens at the rear - not especially well looked after but the intention is good. And the whole place easily beats IKEA, particularly on creativity and value for money. Geffrye - historical solutions for better living.
by tube: Hoxton (opens 2010) by bus: 67, 149, 242, 243
posted 01:00 :
Wednesday, April 20, 2005Excursion 4a: Cabinet War Rooms
Sixty years ago the lights were turned out in this top secret bunker beneath Whitehall which had been home to Britain's alternative seat of government throughout World War II. Today the subterranean corridors are crawling with American tourists, here to view the room where cabinet meetings were held during the darkest days of the war, the maps on which officers charted the loss of Allied convoys and the desk from which Churchill made some of his most famous radio broadcasts. There's also the secret broom cupboard inside which Churchill used to talk on the phone to the American President, disguised on the outside as an engaged toilet. The bunker has been perfectly restored to look just as it would have done in October 1940 (apart from the obligatory cafe and gift shop) and the whole experience gave me the feeling that I was walking through history. See also: Paddock in Neasden.
Excursion 4b: Churchill Museum
Halfway round the tour of the Cabinet War Rooms there's a new attraction, a spacious underground gallery opened by the Queen just two months ago. The museum celebrates the life of Winston Churchill, cunningly starting in 1940 and charting the years leading up to his funeral in 1965 before rewinding to tell the rest of his story from the beginning. Every modern multimedia trick is used to make the exhibits interactive and engrossing, and I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and variety of material presented. This is no propaganda whitewash, this is a fitting tribute to the former MP for Woodford. And they sell chocolate cigars in the gift shop.
by tube: Westminster
Excursion 5: Sir John Soane's Museum
Here's a rare treasure hidden behind the busy streets of Holborn. When Sir John Soane became Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806 he set about transforming his town house into an inspirational museum for his students. Today's curator permits only 20 visitors inside the house at one time, so I was forced to queue out on the pavement before being admitted to see the delights inside. The library and drawing room looked almost normal compared to the bizarre collection of marble busts, classical casts and ancient antiquities that covered the walls of the rooms behind. Throw in a genuine Egyptian sarcophagus, some noteworthy timepieces and a few prime Canalettos and this is a truly eclectic experience. I was most impressed to stumble upon Hogarth's Rake's Progress, eight evocative canvases depicting the gradual decline of of a young landowner from money to madness. Who'd have thought that this art classic was tucked away in a small house overlooking the green oasis of Lincoln's Inn Fields?
by tube: Holborn
Excursion 6: Dr Johnson's House
That splendid episode of Blackadder III featuring Robbie Coltrane as Dr Johnson is being repeated on BBC2 tonight. Yesterday I visited the real Dr Johnson's House, perfectly preserved in a small square off Fleet Street. I was the only visitor, which at least gave the charming lady on the front desk someone to talk to. I enjoyed having this historic house to myself, complete with creaky floorboards, winding stairs, several portraits and all the original door handles. High up on the third floor I found the garret room where Dr Samuel compiled his famous dictionary, precisely 250 years ago. I wish I'd visited last Friday, the day of the actual anniversary, because I'd have saved £4.50. A display case showcased the special fifty pence coin which has just been issued by the Royal Mint to commemorate the event and which I shall now be looking forward to receiving in my small change. I can also confirm that Dr Johnson's so-called comprehensive masterwork leaps straight from 'peninsula' to 'penitence', so I doubt that it was a great hit with the teenage schoolboys of the day.
by tube: Chancery Lane
posted 08:00 :
(via Tom) Google has launched a UK version of its special mapping website. It's very impressive, particularly close-up and in providing route maps from one location to another. But take a careful look at the towns that have been included on the top level UK map. Who selected some of these supposedly important locations? What inconsistencies can you find on the map? Zoom in a level or two - does it get worse or better? I'll start you off by wondering whatever happened to Edinburgh...
posted 00:00 :
Tuesday, April 19, 2005Primrose Hill (to celebrate Primrose Day)
As a sucker for a good view, here's one I'd somehow managed never to enjoy before. Just a couple of miles north of Oxford Circus, Primrose Hill rises up above Regents Park to afford superb views over the metropolis. Fifty acres of green grassy hillock, protected and unspoilt, reaching what for London is an impressive 206 feet above sea level. The area is named after the primroses that used to flourish on the hill back in the 17th century, but alas seem to be sadly absent today. Around the hill is one of those posh neighbourhoods inhabited by rich executives and dull celebrities, complete with expensive arty shops that sell nothing useful, but it's easy to see why people pay so much to live here.
I climbed to the summit of Primrose Hill from the perimeter of London Zoo. I'd hate you to think it's a gruelling climb, but it's certainly rather longer and steeper than I'm used to in central London. The grassy slopes are criss-crossed with paths and, at weekends, smothered with people. Some sit and picnic, some sit and cuddle, some run about and kick footballs, some are being walked by their dogs, but most are here to enjoy the view. People are drawn magnetically to the summit to stand in groups, face south and point out well-known landmarks on the horizon. There's the City to the left, and the West End to the right, and the London Zoo aviary crouching in the foreground like a giant spider. You can identify the distant buildings using an old metal plaque, on which a small circle has been scratched (to the right of the "London Telecom Tower") to represent the 'new' London Eye. A perfect viewpoint on a sunny day, but I'd recommend going midweek if you can.
by bus: 274
posted 09:00 :
Famous Victorian Prime Minister (biography here)
Became Conservative PM twice (which is more than Michael Howard will manage)
Britain's only Jewish Prime Minister (so far)
Famous debater and accomplished author
Awarded the title Lord Beaconsfield in 1878
Born Holborn 1804, educated Walthamstow, died Mayfair 1881
Queen Victoria sent a bouquet of primroses to Disraeli's funeral: "His favourite flowers: from Osborne: a tribute of affectionate regard from Queen Victoria."
A statue of Disraeli was erected in Parliament Square in 1883, sandwiched inbetween fellow PMs Lord Peel and Lord Derby
April 19th, the anniversary of Disraeli's death, used to be celebrated by decorating his statue with primroses
...and that's why today is Primrose Day
posted 00:19 :
Monday, April 18, 2005Time off: I'm taking this week off work, for no particularly good reason other than it's been a while, and I can. My office colleagues immediate response on hearing of my imminent break was to ask "Where are you going?". They seemed especially disconcerted by my response - "London". When they have time off they like to travel - Euro city breaks, transatlantic jaunts, adventurous equatorial treks or even Antipodean long hauls. They don't stay in town unless they have something meaningful to do around the house, like decorating the kitchen or replumbing the bathroom. My proposed aimless week in the capital therefore somehow disappointed them, as if time off work were somehow wasted unless something substantial were planned. But I don't view my content-free London break like that. Huge numbers of tourists spend a fortune on holidays in my hometown, whereas I get to live here full time with zero additional accommodation costs. So I shall spend my week off enjoying some of London's finer delights, hopefully visiting some choice locations I've not sampled before. And not a repainted ceiling in sight. Now, where shall I go first...?posted 08:00 :Excursion 1: Bow Tesco
This delightful retail outlet nestles on the banks of the picturesque Lea brook, a modern brick cathedral with easy access from the nearby Blackwall Tunnel approach road. Several rows of brightly coloured market stalls line the interior, bedecked with all manner of fine comestibles from all around the world. Venture inside on a weekday morning and the smiling staff will outnumber the visiting shoppers, making for an especially pleasurable customer-focused experience. Cruise the aisles with your 4-wheel racing trolley, snapping up haute cuisine bargains whilst dodging nimbly between the screaming toddlers. Favourites amongst the local clientele include scavenging the 'reduced' section for cut price discounts, queueing for that alluring lottery scratchcard and stockpiling value lager (4 cans for 88p) to sip delicately on the bench outside in the car park. The perfect start to any London vacation.
by tube: Bromley-by-Bow by bus: 108, S2posted 11:00 :Excursion 2: Imperial War Museum
It's not the most enticing name for a museum, smacking of Empire and murder, but the Imperial War Museum makes a good job of presenting the last century of world warfare. The entrance hall is filled with tanks and planes (and also, this afternoon, with several school parties in various states of disinterest). There's an extensive basement charting the first and second world wars in comprehensive detail, with an impressive collection of memorabilia and ephemera including Chamberlain's famous 'piece of paper'. I learnt about Franz Ferdinand and the real Kaiser chiefs, wandered through a shadowy WWI trench and experienced the aftermath of an East End Blitz bombing. Most striking, however, was the two-storey Holocaust Exhibition - a chilling exhibit complete with discarded shoes from the concentration camps of Eastern Europe. There's plenty worth seeing here, and plenty to reflect on.
by tube: Lambeth Northposted 15:00 :Excursion 3: Design Museum
After such weighty concerns, the Design Museum seemed almost frivolous and trivial by comparison. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my opportunity to review several decades of cutting edge British design. Where else can you sit back in an Erno Goldfinger chair and watch a 1960s black and white film about London's Transport's iconic designs, or review the state of album cover design from David Bowie to Spiritualized? I was particularly engrossed by the latest exhibition on "the design of information" (closes 15 May), but then I would be engrossed by a display of maps, road signs, calendars and timetables, wouldn't I? All fascinating, but I was expecting more than two floors of limited galleries for my £6 entrance fee.
by bus: 47, 188, 381, RV1
posted 18:00 :
Sunday, April 17, 2005The New new Top 40 - sales and downloads combined
1 [→] Tony Christie - (Is This The Way To) Amarillo: Five weeks at the top for this Comic Relief smash spells good PR for the company compiling the new chart as the status quo is maintained, at the summit at least.
2 [new] Razorlight - Somewhere Else: See, good indie records do still thrive in the new-style chart, which is good...
3 [new] Ciara - 1, 2 Step: ...alas, so do plodding American R&B dirges.
4 [new] Elvis Presley - The Wonder Of You: One bonus of including downloads in the chart is that Elvis's latest (un-downloadable) re-release fails to reach the Top 3.
9 [new] Freeloaders - So Much Love To Give: I don't know why I love this record so much, given that it's totally cheesy and 100% derivative, but maybe it's because it's totally cheesy and 100% derivative.
10, 13, 14, 15, 20, 27 [↑] A shedload of records go back up the Top 40 this week, an upward jolt which suggests that certain records (including Natalie Imbruglia and Gwen Stefani) are downloading rather more than they're shifting over the counter. I fear some of these may hang around the charts for some time, in a stagnant Hit 40 UK style.
22 [new] Gorillaz - Feel Good Inc: The first record ever to appear in the Top 40 in advance of its release date (which is May 9th). There are new rules to prevent downloads counting for the singles chart before the single is available in the shops, but those cunning Gorillaz exploited a loophole by releasing a token 300 white label copies last Monday. 300 'real' sales + thousands of downloads = chart position. At last a record hits the Top 40 while it still has a pre-release buzz, which can only be a healthy thing.
24 [new] Juliet - Avalon: Is this record ace or is this record ace? I'm surprised not to see it higher, particularly given that I acquired two copies last week. Ah, we're only counting legal downloads aren't we?
33 [↓31] Elvis Presley - Crying In The Chapel: The biggest casualty of the new dual format chart is another Elvis re-release. Limited edition single + zero downloads = plummet. Quite right too, this marketing series needs flushing out of the Top 40 as soon as possible.
Verdict: Not as outrageously different to last week as I might have expected, nor as forward-looking as I might have hoped, which I think means the Top 40 is still as unimportant and irrelevant as ever, which I think is a shame.
UK Top 40 stats geek heaven (including in-depth weekly chart stats and graphs)
further analysis of today's new chart
posted 19:00 :
Why are nightbuses full at 3am? Like, jam-packed full of heaving bodies who managed somehow to squeeze on board ten stops earlier? So full that the bus driver just sails past the stop you're waiting at, leaving you to wait 15 minutes for the next bus, which is also full, which also sails past. Why can't nightbuses run more frequently?
And yet the buses running in the opposite direction are nigh empty. Why can't they run more buses in the direction everybody wants to go (out of town) and less in? I know it'd be impractical to organise, but surely it can't be impossible?
Just who can all these nightbus passengers be ringing on their mobiles at 3am? I mean, surely everybody else in the country is fast asleep? Or is that why nightbus passengers have to speak so incredibly loudly into their phones, just to wake their mates up?
Do people ever stop and think, when they're getting ready to go out on a Saturday evening, just how ridiculous and unfashionable their dishevelled clothes will look under the glare of a fluorescent tube on the nightbus home a few hours later?
Why do people get on board nightbuses knowing full well that they'll fall asleep within minutes, then miss the stop they wanted to alight at, then wake up ten miles from home, then be forced to spend the rest of the night unconscious in a bus shelter?
That couple sitting on the back seat holding hands and gazing lovingly into each other's eyes - what's the betting that they'll never see each other again after breakfast?
posted 04:00 :
Saturday, April 16, 2005It's not just national newspapers whose circulation falters at weekends so, in a vain attempt to win back a few more weekend readers, I thought I'd give away a free compilation CD this Saturday. Cover-mounted, low in royalties and destined to be cast aside and forgotten in that huge pile of other free CDs that's accumulated on your floor beside your hi-fi. Enjoy.
dg's Best Dance Records Of The Year, Ever
Disc 1 [1982-1993] Disc 2 [1994-2005] 1. 1982: Situation - Yazoo
2. 1983: Safety Dance - Men Without Hats
3. 1984: Relax - Frankie Goes To Hollywood
4. 1985: Kiss Me - Stephen 'Tin Tin' Duffy
5. 1986: Breakout - Swing Out Sister
6. 1987: Pump Up The Volume - MARRS
7. 1988: Good Life - Inner City
8. 1989: Voodoo Ray - A Guy Called Gerald
9. 1990: Chime - Orbital
10. 1991: Rhythm Is A Mystery - K-Klass
11. 1992: I'm Rushing - Bump
12. 1993: Joy - Staxx
1. 1994: Hold That Sucker Down - OT Quartet
2. 1995: Hideaway - De'Lacy
3. 1996: Little Britain - Dreadzone
4. 1997: Your Woman - White Town
5. 1998: Brimful Of Asha (Norman Cook Remix) - Cornershop
6. 1999: Sweet Like Chocolate - Shanks & Bigfoot
7. 2000: Groovejet (If This Ain't Love) - Spiller
8. 2001: Eple - Röyksopp
9. 2002: Point Of View - db Boulevard
10. 2003: Dove (I'll Be Loving You) - Moony
11. 2004: Drop The Pressure - Mylo
12. 2005: Avalon - Juliet
posted 09:00 :
Vote050505: Bethnal Green & Bow update
I took a long ride through my battleground constituency yesterday, looking down the whole length of Bethnal Green Road and Roman Road from the top of a number 8 bus. And I saw no evidence of political activity whatsoever. Not one single poster stuck in somebody's front window nor one candidate's name mounted on a pole in someone's front garden. Whatever happened to political posters? They used to be everywhere at election time, residents nailing their voting colours to the mast for all the world to see. Come 2005, nothing. Is it just round here, or has personal political preference become a lot more private round your way too?
Noon update: I've just spotted George Galloway arriving to open his Respect campaign HQ - a first floor room above a balti restaurant off Brick Lane with a big red/green flag hanging out of the window. About 30 people stood waiting in the street outside, a significant proportion of whom were from the press, before George drove up in his blue M-reg Merc. He beamed beatifically in a manner that reminded me of Ken Livingstone's constant smirk, then swept inside with his entourage for a cosy press conference. I'm relieved that he couldn't muster any more significant support than this minor rabble, but I suspect that Oona would have mobilised even fewer.
posted 08:00 :
Friday, April 15, 2005...who lives in Drury LaneThe street-sellers of muffins and crumpets rank among the old street-tradesmen. It is difficult to estimate their numbers, but they were computed for me at 500, during the winter months. The ringing of the muffin-man's bell -attached to which the pleasant associations are not a few -was prohibited by a recent Act of Parliament, but the muffin bell still tinkles along the streets, and is rung vigorously in the suburbs. The best sale is in the suburbs. "As far as I know, sir," said a muffin-seller, "it's the best Hackney way, and Stoke Newington, and Dalston, and Balls Pond, and Islington; where the gents that's in banks goes home to their teas, and the missuses has muffins to welcome them; that's my opinion." [Henry Mayhew, 1861]Muffin men were a familiar sight on the streets of Victorian London, plying their teatime treats from trays held high upon their heads. They were competing for trade with lavender sellers, eel-mongers, chestnut-merchants and all sorts of other street vendors, but few could resist the seductive smell of fresh muffins. Two centuries later the baking trade has moved on, and it's now nigh impossible to picture the famous muffin man of rhyme walking down modern Drury Lane. In fact (and I checked) there are no longer any fresh (non cake-based) muffins sold anywhere down this ancient thoroughfare.
What you will find down Drury Lane are theatres (admittedly Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat barely counts as properly theatrical, but The Producers more than makes up for it). Drury Lane marks the eastern border of London's Theatreland. It's an ancient street, a winding medieval lane that stretches down from High Holborn to Aldwych. The southern end is a mix of institutional and residential, strangely tucked away beyond the bustle of the surrounding city. Halfway up you can peek down a sideroad into Covent Garden, or turn to face the imposing facade of Freemasons' Hall. And to the north the lane narrows, edged by smaller independent shops and cafes (and a nasty concrete hotel block).
The most famous independent shop in Drury Lane was opened in 1869 by a certain John Sainsbury. He and his wife Mary sold low cost high quality butter, milk and eggs (but not muffins) to a mixed clientele of penniless locals and rich theatregoers. The shop's success meant that new stores were soon being opened in Stepney, Islington and Kentish Town, then across the capital, then across the country... and you all know how John's little empire ended up. Full history here. But there's no Sainsbury's store at 173 Drury Lane today. The glassy office block of New London House (see photo) is numbered 172, while the bright yellow Snappy Snaps on the opposite side of Macklin Street is numbered 175, so John's retail birthplace appears to have disappeared forever somewhere inbetween.
It's been left to Londis to hold the fort and to provide the only supermarket presence down Drury Lane. It's not a big store, it's more the size of John Sainsbury's old green- and white-tiled grocer's shop, but it sells pretty much everything amongst its crowded shelves. And yes, right at the back, even those nasty stodgy modern American muffins (69p, contains preservatives, best before 25 May, made on an industrial estate in Willesden). The muffin man is deeply missed around here.
posted 08:30 :
Thursday, April 14, 2005The London Line: At last London has a new free newspaper, one that isn't Metro. You can find a copy every Thursday outside most central London stations (or, in my case, discarded on the platform at Holborn). I was very pleasantly surprised how varied the content was, from Oona versus George to arts, film and music reviews, and from What's on to what's hot. The editors emailed me a few months ago to ask if I'd like to write the quiz on the back page but I declined. I'd probably have written something a little tougher than the EastEnders quiz in the launch issue, but at least I'd have ended up being published on the back page right beside Belle de Jour's agony column. And therein one of the secrets of the London Line's success - a merry sprinkling of material written by bloggers (Londonist, Recess Monkey, qwghlm, Snackspot & Belle), and therefore a hell of a lot of stuff worth reading. And it's not the Evening Standard - what more could you want?
posted 18:00 :
Do you know the muffin man...?
Tea and muffins—how quintessentially English. Except that, in today's Britain, the only muffins available are transatlantic impostors. I'd like to complain.
Muffins used to be, and in certain parts of English society still are, flat circular yeast-based griddle-cooked toast-like tea-time treats. Delia recommends that they be toasted on both sides, then the edges pulled part-way apart and the interior filled liberally with butter, maybe with a little jam for added taste. Mrs Beeton would have agreed, although she'd have used a toasting-fork rather than a griddle, and she'd have said "Muffins are not easily made, and are more generally purchased than manufactured at home". Muffins aren't crumpets, which are more batter-y and rather hole-ier, and they're not pikelets, which are more similar to thick mini-pancakes. Most importantly, muffins are not the lardy stodge capsules full of chocolate chips and alien berries which appear to have invaded our shores from America over the last few years.
The modern muffin bears no relation whatsoever to its traditional namesake. The modern muffin is more cake than bread, more sweet than savoury and far more 3-D than 2-D. It's heavy where its predecessor used to be light, dense where it used to be fluffy and brash where it ought to be delicate. As you may have guessed, I'm not a fan. 'American muffins' are towers of sponge with an overflowing top like an atomic mushroom cloud, and equally toxic. It's impossible to pick one up and eat it because every dimension is too broad compared to the widest stretch of human teeth. Muffins have to be picked apart with your fingers, which then become covered with sticky chocolate or blueberry stains. They lack real flavour, and any lingering aftertaste is probably wholly artificial. Muffins are also unfinishable, at least with a clear conscience, but millions of Britons still plough on to the last crumb all the same, risking pig-like obesity with every daily mouthful.
And yet the modern muffin is everywhere. It's an unwelcome foreign intruder, much like all those bland homogenised coffee bars which are busy replacing the remainder of Britain's high street eateries. The muffin has become, in a very short time, the snack treat of choice - mainly because caterers no longer provide much of an alternative. Where there might once have been fresh buns, or cakes, or pastries, now there's just a tray of mass-produced muffins wrapped in plastic with an sell-by date several months into the future. Alas, the modern muffin is easy to mass produce, easy to pump full of preservatives and easy to pile high. The manufacturers enjoy a huge profit margin, even if we don't particularly enjoy the synthetic product they force upon us.
Of course, your view of modern muffins may be completely different to mine. Maybe you like sugary stodge, or maybe the muffins you eat are home-made, or maybe you prefer the savoury muffins favoured Down Under. Whatever the case, please speak your mind in the dg Muffinometer. Voice your opinion on my sliding scale, somehere from Muffin (full-on muffin fan) down to Nuffin (vehement muffin hater). Stick a comment in the appropriate box or, if you prefer the no-effort version, just post the single word "muffin" in the box of your choice. Let the people decide.
Muffin Love Like Tolerate Hate Nuffin
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