Monday, October 31, 2005
The best of October
TV programme of the month: I've unexpectedly adored Love Soup (BBC1), the quirky weekly drama that's been brightening Tuesday nights throughout October. Brief plot summary: Alice and Gil are perfectly matched but never meet. The six part series has been little more than a sequence of disjointed but highly amusing 'romantic' situations for our two lead characters to endure, stoically, but writer David Renwick has such a fine eye for both the outrageous and the mundane that the result is quite charming. And very funny. Last part tomorrow night, and surely these two have got to finally meet up, at last, somehow, please?
Album of the month (probably): Who'd have thought a quarter of a century ago that three lads from the cheesy side of Basildon would still be making top ten albums and filling rock stadia. But Depeche Mode are, somehow, still together, and every album these days is a treasured rarity. The latest is Playing The Angel, continuing Dave & Co's drift into edgy atmospheric rock. The best track is definitely the first single Precious, a golden and uplifting slice of understated melody, but the rest of the album is naggingly addictive too. I just wish that one day they'd sneak in a good old-fashioned one-finger synth melody in place of all these modern guitar noises.
Album of the month (possibly): Generation by the Audio Bullys, released today.
Gig of the month: After the premiere of Saint Etienne's latest film at the Barbican last week, the band returned to the stage to perform tracks from their latest (rather wonderful) album, Tales From Turnpike House. Singer Sarah was a little nervous, but she soon got into her stride (and enunciated so clearly that I finally understood some of the songs' lyrics). I knew that Milk Bottle Symphony would be my favourite, but the performance showcased the full diversity of musical styles on the album. Quite lovely, and all the better for being performed within half a mile of tower block Turnpike House itself.
Film of the month: You must have seen Wallace And Gromit - the Curse of the Were Rabbit by now, surely? If not, don't wait to watch it on BBC1 just after the Queen's Speech on Christmas Day 2008, because this feature length cartoon is a national treasure. It's all the better for being quintessentially British, and quintessentially northern, with an emphasis on wit, charm and root vegetables. It's a great shame that so few other mass-market cinema releases have this level of invention and intelligence.
Book of the month: I don't read a lot of proper science fiction (you know, the epic stuff based in far-flung planetary systems where everyone's name is either all consonants or all vowels), but I made an exception and bought The Algebraist by Iain M Banks. It's epic stuff (based, yes, in a far-flung planetary system) where a disparate mix of alien societies join together to battle to combat acts of intergalactic terrorism. Iain's future may be unreal but it's brilliantly inventive, unexpectedly realistic and expertly written. In particular there's a very real sense of the scale of the universe, i.e. instellar journeys take centuries, not hours, and (almost) every life is wholly insignificant. If all sci-fi were this good, I might read more.
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, October 30, 200538, the morning after
I took a ride on a bendy 38 yesterday, just to see if it would be as awful as everybody had predicted. It was.
Joan the grey-haired trainee bendy bus driver started up her brand new vehicle and tried hard to ignore the instructor perched in the front passenger seat beside her. She edged oh-so-carefully (and oh-so-wide) round the first corner at the top of Clapton Pond, staring intently at the road lest she might accidentally hit some parked vehicle. Six potential passengers stood waiting at the first stop - or at least what had been the first stop until it was converted overnight into an extra 'stand' to provide additional parking space for the new 18 metre monsters, and so was the first stop no more. So Joan drove straight past them, even the lady with the suitcase, even the man with the walking stick, even the mother with a pushchair, and crept out ever so slowly onto the main road. The traffic was bad and the bus lane was blocked, so I was able to join Joan's driving lesson at the next stop, and I stayed with her all the way to Victoria.
The bus slowly filled as we slunk south towards central Hackney. Two parents with a bulky pushchair relished their first opportunity to board the new accessible 38. The baby's elder sister, clad head to foot in rainbow coloured knitwear, seemed rather less impressed. I wondered whether the giant bendy bus would be able to negotiate the Narroway (the road is well named), but Joan took her time and successfully manoeuvred her craft round the sharp turn at the entrance and on down to the bus garage. An inspector poked his head in with a traffic update - "117's broken down at Holborn station, no gears" - before Joan pulled away. At the bottom of the road the bus paused, waiting for a gap in the traffic, its huge length completely blocking pedestrians trying to use the busy zebra crossing there. A bearded shopper stopped to look at us with a mixture of horror and disdain.
Joan turned every corner cautiously and with trepidation, as if she might just be about to steer us into the nearest crash barrier. This was always a distinct possibility. "It's lucky we're not in any hurry today," said the lady sat behind me, somewhat impatiently. At Mare Street a smiling Transport for London lackey (sporting a red "New bendy buses on Route 38" baseball cap) was handing out over-positive leaflets to waiting passengers. One couple boarded but decided a couple of stops later to get off again and take the much nicer non-bendy 242 into town instead. Never let it be said that bendy buses are a fare dodger's transport of delight, however. At Dalston Junction a crack team of (two) inspectors boarded, waved their paperwork at Joan and then proceeded to check our tickets, travelcards and Oysters. I don't think they caught anybody, but the rear of the bus was so far behind me that it was impossible to be sure.
Our snail's pace speed meant that large crowds were waiting by the time we reached Angel. Some were still queueing to use the ticket machine on the pavement as the bus pulled away. There are only 49 seats on a bendy bus, a third less than on the old Routemasters, so now there were a considerable number of people on their feet. On reaching Sadler's Wells the front of the bus was so packed with bodies that old ladies with walking sticks stood trapped at the front of the bus, unable to reach those willing to give up their seats behind. We hadn't quite reached the official standing capacity of 100 (very squashed) people, but I suspect the pushchair invasion had made this an unattainable total. So full was our 38 that Joan drove straight past those waiting patiently at Gray's Inn Road, silently thankful that nobody had wanted to get off. And this was a Saturday morning. Imagine the hell to come tomorrow morning during the vehicles' first rush hour.
We pulled up at the traffic lights outside Holborn station, our bus taking up the same amount of road space as the two old Routemasters I had seen on this very spot on Friday evening. And then, just before we got to Centre Point, Joan's worst nightmare came true - the road ahead was closed. She had to divert off the designated route, veering wide into Shaftesbury Avenue to join a queue of jammed traffic. It soon became apparent that, for several passengers, this was their worst nightmare too. Previously they'd have been able to hop off the Routemaster's rear platform and walk up to Oxford Street in no time at all. But no more. The doors of the new nanny-state bus stayed firmly closed, for safety reasons, and not even increasingly agitated ringing of the bell would open them. "Are you going to let us off!" yelled the angry citizens of Islington, not used to having their personal freedom curtailed, but Joan was unable to comply. It wasn't until we reached Chinatown, a fretful quarter of an hour later, that the bus half-emptied and the long walk back to the shops began.
As Piccadilly Circus approached, an elderly couple rose carefully from their seats and edged towards the doors. They should have sat tight. Joan's cornering skills still hadn't improved and, by the time she'd rounded the next bend, the traffic lights ahead of her had turned red. Even a milk float could have made it through in time. The same red light delay happened again at a second corner, and the old couple also enjoyed a rather too close-up view of one particular road sign in Jermyn Street (thankfully not quite damaged) before their four minutes of purgatory standing by the exit doors was complete. Personally I found it very hard to come to terms with the presence of bendy buses down Piccadilly. Not much more than 18 months ago every service down this historic street had been run using Routemasters, and now not one remained.
Our bendy journey was now nearly at an end, but unfortunately there was one last traffic jam to come because the roads around Victoria were absolutely jammed with barely-moving traffic. Initially it was hard to tell that Joan had slowed down. A five year-old girl then scudded down the pavement beside us on a tiny silver scooter, overtaking us with ease. Again, there was no longer any means of escape for those trapped on board. Eventually, after fifteen minutes of slowly edging forward, Joan was finally able to pull up (unofficially) at a non-38 bus stop to let frustrated passengers disembark. There were now just six of us left on board, each taking up the equivalent of three metres of road space. With a second 38 immediately behind us and a third a few cars in front, a not insignificant proportion of the jam was being caused by the bendy buses themselves. Even when we reached the head of the queue of traffic at Victoria Street, Joan was unable to edge further forward without the great length of her vehicle obstructing the yellow box junction. The third time the lights turned green she risked moving onward, but there wasn't quite enough space for our bus on the other side of the road and she trapped a waiting number 82 bus unable to pass through our rear section.
One last painfully cautious left turn saw us arrive safely (just) into Victoria Bus Station. "That's it" said the instructor to Joan, reassuringly, as she pulled into the final stop a full hour and fifty minutes after setting off. One of the few remaining passengers hobbled out of the front doors with the aid of her walking stick, lighting up an urgently needed cigarette at the earliest possible opportunity. A couple of bus company staff stood gossipping in front of the bus station's tiny orange kiosk. One nodded towards Joan, still sat in the driving seat, and remarked "She's so slow and nervous it's unreal". Personally I was impressed that a lady who'd been used to driving nippy, manoeuvreable Routemasters had managed to transfer her skills to these lumbering, cumbersome, articulated behemoths. I even felt sorry for her as she sat there preparing for the long journey back to Hackney, but I decided the return trip wasn't for me. Good luck to Joan, and all who sail in her.
38 web tributes:
posted 00:38 :
Saturday, October 29, 2005What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?
(Saint Etienne at the Barbican)
Back in July while I was wandering the lower Lea Valley taking pre-Olympic photographs, it seems I wasn't alone. Bob Stanley and Paul Kelly from understated pop group Saint Etienne were there too, filming the soon-to-be lost landscape for posterity. And on Thursday night they premiered their resulting drama documentary to an appreciative audience at the Barbican. To almost everybody else in the hall this was an evocative piece championing the disappearing industrial heritage of a forgotten corner of the capital. But to me it was a record of the wasteland on my doorstep (almost literally in one shot), and I spent much of the 45 minutes trying to identify the locations used. Look, that's the Eastway cycle circuit, and that's the the bridge over the City Mill River at Carpenter's Lock, and that's the used car scrapyard beneath the DLR at Pudding Mill Lane. When the film's silent teenage narrator set off on his implausible paper round, delivering newspapers to rusty letterbox after rusty letterbox, I recognised the route of his cycle ride as a geographical impossibility. This was a distraction, I admit. But the paperboy's presence wove a golden thread through the tumbledown grey architecture, linking old factories to waterways to allotments to greasy caffs. The carefully framed visuals highlighted the old and sidelined the new, transforming the bleak into the evocative. Local voices provided much of the commentary, chatting and reminiscing about how it was and how it used to be, with David Essex and Linda Robson drafted in as guest characters. And Saint Etienne performed the soundtrack live, often so well you forgot they weren't digital, which made the screening extra special. As the film neared its Thameside finale, Sarah's plaintive vocals bade the Lea landscape "Goodnight". Then, as the credits rolled, the hall burst into well-deserved applause. In seven years time the Olympics will have eradicated almost all of this film from real life, but I'm touched that the band have managed to capture so select a snapshot of my East End before it vanishes.
See the film at the Barbican (again) on 7th December (no live soundtrack this time, alas)
Observer review and interview (a recommended read)
Trent was in the audience too (and so was Suggs, apparently)
Hackney Wick's industrial history (plastic was invented here)
Mervyn Day (1970s West Ham footballer)
Saint Etienne (new single out Monday)
posted 09:00 :
Friday, October 28, 2005RML 2760, the last Routemaster ever built, pulled up at the traffic lights outside Holborn station. Its red paintwork gleamed and its unscratched windows shone. On the rear platform the conductor stood grinning, an old silver ticket machine (the one with the wind-up handle) hung loosely around his neck. This old vehicle was one of many additional vintage buses running the 38 today, crewed by eager volunteers and bringing a splash of welcome colour across central London. Immediately behind it purred RML 2060, one of the 38's current fleet, destined to be sold off tomorrow. The paintwork here was less than sparkling, and the mood on board rather more sullen. This conductor, resplendent in his regulation fluorescent yellow safety jacket, didn't appear to be smiling at all. He and 119 of his colleagues will, alas, be out of a job in a few hours time. And then the lights changed to green and both buses headed off towards the West End, and oblivion. I watched as they disappeared forever behind the shapeless mass of a passing bendy bus. And then they were gone.
posted 18:00 :
On Clapton Pond
Deep in the heart of Hackney lies one of London's least visited water features. Smaller than the Serpentine, greyer than the Thames, shallower than West India Dock, this is Clapton Pond.
Looks almost glamorous here, doesn't it, but my photograph is oh-so carefully framed. Imagine a concrete puddle surrounded by tarmac surrounded by iron surrounded by brick. That's Clapton Pond. Most Londoners have at least heard of the place, if only as an exotic destination spied on the front of a passing Routemaster, because it's here at Clapton Pond that every northbound number 38 bus comes to rest. A succession of chugging double deckers queue here along a leafy sideroad, between the pond and some old almshouses, each patiently waiting its turn to return southward to civilisation. I came early one morning, by bus, to see this legendary terminus for myself.
Clapton Pond lies quiet and disregarded behind a cloak of iron railings. It's not a particularly big pond, but there's probably sufficient space to drown approximately eight bendy buses inside so it's not particularly small either. In the centre of the pond is an inaccessible concrete island camouflaged by a mini-forest of trees and verdant undergrowth. Blue plastic bags and crisp packets bob imperceptibly in the algae-strewn waters, and if any fish lurk in these shallow depths they choose to stay well hidden. A gang of Hackney pigeons lines up on the bank, as if preparing to dive in en masse, while stale crusts of bread litter the tarmac path around the perimeter. A second pigeon posse patrols beneath the trees beside the southern entrance, dining on scraps from the overflowing litter bins. Dogs are not welcome, but squirrels are tolerated. A decorative wooden bridge crosses the northern part of the pond, each end recently sealed by green-painted board so as not to contravene health and safety legislation. A willow silently weeps. The pages of an obscure Polish newspaper flutter open on a bench, where later homeless drunkards will gather to devour cans of value lager. In the northeastern corner stands a padlocked green municipal shed, a thin chimney emerging from its black-tiled roof. Nearby a takeaway chicken carton lies upturned beside a discarded wooden chair on a leaf-flecked patch of grass. An old man wearing a black beret enters through the single unlocked gate to sit alone with his memories. Across the road the manager of the Charlie's Angels Sauna rolls up the shutters, ready for another day's steaming. Through the hedge bus conductors can be heard, but not seen, joking with their fellow drivers as they wait until it's time to climb aboard again and head back into town.
And yet, despite all of the above, Clapton Pond retains a real sense of charm. Maybe that's because (unbelievably) it's nearly four centuries old, dug originally during the reign of James I and formerly used as a small reservoir. Today's pond may be little more than a fenced off concrete bowl attracting inebriated lowlife, but the leafy trees and still waters are in sharp contrast to the bleak urban landscape all around. For the past four decades this has also been a fitting destination for a much-loved bus but, just after 1am tomorrow morning, it'll be the final destination for the final Routemaster on route 38. Hankies at the ready. And when the obese bendy replacements arrive and park up at the water's edge, I have no doubt that the elusive elegance of Clapton Pond will be considerably diminished. A golden era ends today.
posted 00:38 :
Thursday, October 27, 2005The 38 Stops
Tomorrow is the last day that Routemaster buses will run on Route 38. It's one of London's most heavily used bus routes, running from the tube-free deserts of Hackney to the hectic bustle of the West End. Route 38 really deserves speedy-to-board Routemasters, but from Saturday bland bendy buses take over instead and yet another slice of London's heritage will be lost forever. Sob. So earlier this month I thought I'd walk the full length of the route (all seven miles from Clapton Pond to Victoria Station) and take a photograph of a bus at each of the stops along the way. There were 42 bus stops altogether, but I've cunningly ignored four of them to create today's special pictorial tribute feature - The 38 Stops. Go click.
Option 1: The 38 Stops (photostream) click through one at a time to read the commentary
Option 2: The 38 Stops (slideshow) just the photographs, with no added waffle
RE:moving - a photographic exhibition of hidden Lea Valley landscapes, currently on show aboard four 38 Routemasters (until tomorrow)
Route 38 - public consultation for a package of improvements proposed along the route 38 corridor
Route 38 - a history
Route 38s from around the world
posted 00:38 :
Wednesday, October 26, 2005Gallowatch: My local MP is in the news again, this time over the testimony he gave to a US Senate subcommittee back in May. You probably remember George Galloway's barnstorming performance on Capitol Hill, decrying the American administration's intervention in Iraq with damning and powerful rhetoric. Whilst this was undeniably impressive stuff, George had actually been summoned to discuss his part (or otherwise) in the oil-for-food scandal, a topic which he skirted around with masterly aplomb. I bet you didn't see him weaselling out of answering one particular question for a full seven minutes, for example, before the chairman gave up and moved on in despair. And now the brow-beaten committee want their assailant back to answer further charges, citing what they claim is additional concrete evidence. George has been quick to shout back, insisting that he didn't lie under oath (which is quite possible given how little of substance he actually said) and that he's obviously innocent and that the real crime is the invasion of Iraq etc etc. Never a man to shrink from the spotlight, our George.
So, nearly six months after the General Election, I thought I'd see how George was doing elsewhere...
Parliament: During the last six months there have been 64 votes in the House of Commons. George has bothered to vote in just 10 of them. This ranks him 633rd out of 645 MPs, according to theyworkforyou.com, which is as utterly feeble an attempt at constituency representation as I expected when he got elected. There again, six of those votes were against the Identity Card Bill, which I suspect my previous MP would have accepted without question, so at least he's got his priorities right.
Constituency: Assuming he's in the country, George is a model constituency MP holding a three hour surgery every Friday evening. It would, however, be interesting to test out whether he allows constituents to discuss their own problems or merely lectures them about life's injustices and his own marvellousness. All credit to him for tackling populist local issues, like trying to stop Morrisons' planned closure of the Safeway supermarket in Roman Road (from next week elderly residents face at least a 1½ mile journey to the nearest Tesco or Sainsbury megastore, which is indeed a disgrace). But his hectoring attempts to get the local council to twin with a Palestinian settlement on the occupied West Bank feel somehow less than relevant here in Bethnal Green and Bow.
Media: I watched George being interviewed on the TV last night. I squirmed, not because of what he had to say but because of how he said it. George was right and the rest of the world was wrong, no argument, and how shocking that anybody else might think otherwise (condescending sneer). I was, as ever, appalled by the unbending infallibility of his ego. Alas it seems that thousands of devoted acolytes have no such qualms.
World Tour: It appears that George's half-hour Senate Committee performance has set him up for life. From South Shields to Boston, he's been out and about preaching to the converted on his sell-out "An Audience With..." tour. I guess there'll always be a market for charismatic polemic, but this is almost more showbiz than politics. It's like having Jeffrey Archer as one's MP, only with a better tan.
World Domination: So far George's Respect Party plans only to wrest control of Tower Hamlets council in the local elections next May, but that's world domination for those of us who live here. For the first time, democracy scares the life out of me.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Hi Mum. Hi Dad.
Sorry, but for the first time in my life I'm not able to be with you this Christmas. At least it's not my fault, it's that damned bird flu. Even if I was allowed to leave London, which I'm not, I don't think I'd ever be able to get round the Felixstowe Exclusion Zone. I've heard they shoot people who try to cross the M25 now, so it's really not worth the risk. And I understand things are really bad up your way too, all coughing and choking and spluttering everywhere. Maybe if you'd realised Norfolk was a county full of potentially disease-ridden turkeys you wouldn't have moved there in the first place. Is Bernard Matthews still on the critically ill list?
London's a very strange city at the moment, or at least it was the last time I dared venture out a couple of days ago. I bet I looked really stupid wearing a dustmask, but I'd still rather look stupid than risk catching something. The streets of East London were as empty as you might expect, although Christmas lights still shone defiantly in a few windows. It took a couple of hours until I finally found a shop that was still stocked and open. I'd never normally pay fifty quid for some rice and a few tins of something with a foreign label, but these are desperate times. I passed a handful of sick-looking people lying under blankets in doorways with the telltale red splotchmarks across their faces. You'd think the authorities would have taken them off the streets by now, but the few council lorries I saw seemed to be busy transporting corpses instead. I shan't be going out again.
I've not been into the office for ages, which suits me because taking the tube was starting to feel like a kind of viral Russian roulette. But it's strange staying indoors all day every day. At least there's the internet for company, but when the power cuts come I just curl up under the duvet with a good book. Much better than the endless public information films on the telly anyway. All those surplus IKEA tealights are starting to come in very useful - I hope yours haven't run out yet. The wailing from the flat directly above me finally stopped last night. All that constant moaning and wheezing was really getting on my nerves, but somehow the empty silence is far far worse. And I'm still waking up every morning and praying that my light sniffle hasn't developed into anything more serious. So far so good - it's probably just a cold - but it's really worrying all the same.
So, I'm celebrating Christmas with three cards, a box of handkerchiefs and one of my remaining cans of lager (I'm saving the other one for New Year). I stockpiled a turkey ready meal in the freezer last month before this whole crisis worsened, but I fear it's semi-defrosted too many times now. Maybe I'll just have to make do with the last of the Advent chocolates for lunch. Then, if the electricity holds out, I'll listen to the King's Christmas Broadcast - see if he can wring an ounce of hope out of the whole dreadful situation. Sorry I've not managed to buy you a present this year. BUPA sold out of online gift subscription packs weeks ago, and multipack boxes of tissues are just too bulky to post. I'm glad to that hear you're both still fit and well (see, that flu jab in October was worth it), and long may the two of you stay that way. Happy clucking Christmas.
posted 07:00 :
Monday, October 24, 2005Why bother going to the cinema?
It's not so long ago that the only place to see a film was on the big screen. Sure, if you were willing to wait three years (or more) it might eventually appear on the television, but that was never quite the same. I remember the Disney films of my childhood, for example, from one single screening at my local cinema. There were no video players in those days, no special edition DVDs, and no digital channels devoted to repeating these timeless classics over and over ad nauseam. You couldn't numb us 70s children into submission by endlessly replaying our favourite Disney classics at home, oh no. It was the cinema or nothing, and (unless you were particularly keen) just the once.
And then the entertainment industry worked out that they could sell us each film twice, first on celluloid and then on video. How great to be able to own a film rather than just experience it. Now the action was under our personal control - fast forwardable through the dull bits, pausable in case of interruption and rewindable so that we could learn every last piece of dialogue off by heart. With the advent of DVD we were even treated to special added extras unavailable at the cinema, things like audio commentaries (worth only a single listen), deleted scenes (usually deleted with good reason) and static text (with all the design allure of a good Ceefax page). And at home the audience was much better behaved than in the cinema, the sofa was more comfortable and the nibbles were considerably cheaper. But it still took a year for each film to reach our living room, just to give the satellite film channels and video rental stores a decent share of the pie.
So, what's going on now? Films are no sooner out of the cinema than they're popping up in deluxe plastic casings in your local DVD shop. Legitimately, even. It was only back in June that Batman Begins and The League of Gentlemen graced the big screen, but four months later they're already gracing the High Street. Star Wars III (May) is released on DVD next Monday, and then in consecutive weeks we're being offered The Descent (July), War Of The Worlds (very late June) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (very late July). It's not just because it's Christmas either, this is happening all year round, and not just for the usual straight-to-video turkeys. It seems it's never too early to flog shrink-wrapped cinematography to an eager and willing public with credit cards at the ready. In which case, now that you only have to wait a measly four months, why bother going to the cinema at all?
Why go? Because films are cheaper at the cinema, that's why. Just think how much a brand new DVD costs and compare that to the price of a cinema ticket (I'm assuming you can resist the nachos, pick'n'mix and overpriced popcorn). We wouldn't dream of watching a film three times at the cinema, but we'll happily shell out an equivalent amount to watch a film once at home. Maybe twice if it's a favourite, but then it just ends up on a shelf or in a cupboard along with all the other forgotten blockbusters as we devour something more recent instead. Go on, how much money is tied up in your DVD collection. I bet it's a lot. And what percentage of those films have you watched less than three times? Be honest, I bet it's most of them. Take my advice (and that of your bank manager) and try to resist the allure of the shiny silver disc. Films are much better seem at the cinema, on the big screen, just the once, for peanuts.
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, October 23, 2005dg update (playing catch-up after my Trafalgar week)
(see, you didn't miss much)
My neighbours have moved out. Not the guitar-playing hippopotami in the flat above (although thankfully they're much quieter than they used to be) but the thoughtless chain-smoking nicotine puffers next door. Now I can breathe again in peace, at last, hurrah! And all the fag ends and slow-drying cheap underwear that used to litter their balcony have vanished at the same time. Excellent. I have yet to meet my new neighbours but, having not yet heard them or smelt them, I'm optimistic that we'll get on just fine. I know it's a blogging cliché to spend the autumn months despairing about the premature onset of Christmas, but I swear it's worse this year. Tesco may think they're the country's new religion, but hanging dangly gold decorations above the aisles and sticking prominent 'Merry Christmas' signs in the windows in mid October is just not on. I mean, there's still Hallowe'en, Divali and Eid to come first, all in the next fortnight, and you don't see those promoted so heavily (even round here). Sigh. There are plans to knock down my local Baptist Church on Bow Road and replace it with a nine-storey apartment block (with a replacement place of worship at ground level). Admittedly the current brick shed isn't a patch on the Victorian original, but that's another bit of East End history lost in the speculative rush for property and profit. And I somehow doubt that any of the present congregation will be able to afford one of the 44 shiny new flats located conveniently above their new 'church'. A new HMV music store has just opened in Stratford Shopping Centre, halfway up the skanky eastern arm of the mall that's more normally full of pound shops, fake bling and two quid t-shirts. It certainly beats buying dodgy pirate CDs and DVDs off the stalls in the Broadway. This is the first tangible hint of a pre-Olympic upturn in my local economy, although I suspect it'll be a long time before Next, Waitrose or even Starbucks dare venture into this blighted retail backwater. I love Conservative Party leadership elections. First there are the preliminary elimination rounds, which are a bit like a political X Factor but with the best candidates voted off first by scheming backbench MPs. And then, inexplicably, tweedy party members across the country are given six weeks to argue and bicker in public, opening up all the party's internal schisms in the process, before finally voting for the least electable of the pair on offer. Bring it on! For the first time ever the Atlantic hurricane season has run out of names. Wilma exhausted the official list, so now we're onto the default option - the Greek alphabet. A record breaking (but rather weedy) 22nd cyclone has just brewed up in the southern Carribean and has been named Alpha. If global warming persists we could see Hurricanes Zeta, Eta and Theta before the end of November. I'm looking forward to Hurricane Pi, except we almost certainly won't get that far.
posted 08:00 :
Saturday, October 22, 2005Routemaster RIP
15 11 23 94 6 98 8 7 137 9 73 390 12 36 19 14 22 already passed away
13 (Golders Green - Aldwych) expired last night [sob]
38 (Victoria - Clapton Pond) goes bendy next weekend [dg tribute to follow]
159 (Marble Arch - Streatham) extinction date 9th December 2005
[and that's it, with just two 'heritage routes' to follow, starting next month]
posted 09:00 :
Full Nelson: other memorials around the country
Nelson's birthplace (Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk)
Nelson's education (Norwich School; Paston Grammar)
Nelson's flagship (HMS Victory, Portsmouth)
Flagship built here (Historic Dockyard, Chatham)
Nelson's Monument & Museum (Great Yarmouth)
Nelson's Monument (Calton Hill, Edinburgh)
Nelson Monument (Birchen Edge, Peak District)
Nelson Monument (Exchange Flags Square, Liverpool)
Nelson's last home (Merton Place, Wimbledon)
Nelson's tomb (St Paul's Cathedral crypt, beneath the dome)
[and there's another mega-anniversary in two weeks' time - can you stand the excitement?]
posted 08:00 :
Friday, October 21, 2005Full Nelson
Today is the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. This morning HMS Victory was the setting for some (extremely damp) commemorative events, and tonight the Queen will stand beside the ship to light the first in a national chain of beacons. On Sunday the focus switches to Trafalgar Square, with events including a grand parade and an all-ticket patriotic spectacle involving stirring music and lots of maritime symbolism. How very British. I shall be watching on the telly.
If you're at all interested in naval-gazing then may I heartily recommend a visit to the Nelson and Napoleon exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The curators tell the parallel life stories of Horatio and Boney through an extensive collection of rare exhibits including the two men's famous bicorn hats, the coat Nelson was wearing when he was shot (complete with hole) and the musket ball that killed him. I was even lucky enough to meet Nelson and Lady Hamilton themselves, although they seemed somewhat preoccupied showing round a party of over-dressed Swedish nautical types and may just have been costumed fakes. Admission to the exhibition normally costs £9, but it's free this weekend if you can beat the queues. And should you miss out, don't worry, because there's one place you can remember Nelson for nothing all year round, and that's in Trafalgar Square...
posted 18:05 :
Trafalgar Square (12): Nelson's Column
And finally we remember the British hero who died at Trafalgar 200 years ago today - Admiral Lord Nelson. His is the centrepiece of the square, a 156 foot Corinthian column topped off by a 17 foot stone statue. From high above the capital Nelson surveys the streets, staring one-eyed down Whitehall towards the Thames and the distant sea. But he was slow to appear. Nearly 40 years elapsed between Nelson's death and his immortalisation in stone, until at last in October 1843 his statue was ready to be raised up into position from the square below. Fourteen fearless stonemasons took this opportunity to take dinner on the platform at the top of the column, while a hundred thousand Londoners came to view the new statue resting at ground level:"Unless they remembered they were looking at an object intended to be seen only at a great elevation, they may have been surprised at a sort of coarseness in the workmanship. Yet it has all the finish that can be required, and it has the great merit of likeness and character. It has the sharp, angular features, the expression of great activity of mind, but of little mental grandeur; of quickness of perception and decision; and -withal, that sad air, so perceptible in the best portraits of the warrior, of long-continued physical pain and suffering, the consequence of his many wounds, which accompanied him throughout his brightest triumphs, though it never abated his ardour or weakened his energies." (Illustrated London News, 1843)At the foot of Nelson's Column are four bronze reliefs cast from captured French cannons, each depicting a different naval triumph from Nelson's career. That on the south side (pictured) portrays the death of Nelson at Trafalgar and it's a mini-history lesson in itself:"Nelson is being carried from the quarter-deck to the cockpit by a marine and two seamen. At the back of the centre group is the surgeon. To the left are three sailors tightening some of the ship's cordage; another kneels, holding a handspike and leaning on a gun, arrested by the conversation between the dying hero and Captain Hardy. In the front, lying on the deck, are an officer and marines, who have fallen to rise no more. Behind stand two marines and a negro sailor. One of the former has detected the marksman by whose shot Nelson fell, and is pointing him out to his companion. The latter has raised his musket, and has evidently covered his mark; whilst the black, who stands just before the two marines, is grasping his firelock. The figures are of life-size; the casting weighs about five tons. Beneath are Nelson's memorable words, "England expects every man will do his duty."" (Curiosities of London, 1867)Today Nelson's Column stands tall in fitting tribute to Norfolk's most famous son and Britain's most famous sailor. It's one of the most well-known landmarks on the London skyline, and long may it remain. But it's almost an ancient monument now, so the GLA is currently inviting suitably qualified and experienced contractors to tender for its restoration. Deadline 11th November."Conservation works are now required to maintain the statue and column in good condition. Major items of work have been assessed following condition surveys of the column and will include: cleaning of areas; joint replacement; re-pointing; repairs to worn surfaces of sculptures; protective lacquer on bronze works to be removed and renewed; bronze work to be cleaned and re-patination performed"" (Invitation for expression of interest, 2005)Do you think John Noakes will be putting in a bid?
posted 00:20 :
Thursday, October 20, 2005Trafalgar Square (11): The lions
No tourist's visit to Trafalgar Square is complete without a photograph taken in front of one Landseer's lions. The blackened bronze exerts an almost magnetic attraction, enticing more athletic visitors to clamber up the stone plinth, crouch in front of the lion's front paws and pose for the nearest camera. Some even complete the assault course to sit astride the lion's back, but they'd better get that photo taken sharpish before a queue develops back down on the ground beneath them. The lions weren't always so popular, however. Victorian artist Edwin Landseer spent a full ten years trying to complete the sculptures to his own satisfaction, during which time their non-appearance became something of a joke in the British press. He had to base the lions' likeness on a dead specimen provided by the London Zoological Gardens, but he was never quite satisfied with the end result. The British establishment were equally critical when the sculptures were finally unveiled in 1867. The front half of each creature was majestic and elegant, but the hindquarters appeared somehow less than leonine. But nobody today seems to mind that the lions' backs curve inwards instead of outwards - maybe because this makes them so much easier to sit on.
posted 17:00 :
Trafalgar Square (10): The pigeons
When I was a child, even a very big adult, the most amazing thing about Trafalgar Square was the number of pigeons. They were everywhere - flocking in the sky, swooping down over the fountains, nibbling seed on the pavement, perching amusingly on tourists' heads, etc etc. One of the reasons they were so prevalent was Bernie Rayner, the local pigeon-food seller, whose family had flogged birdseed to visitors for half a century. Venturing too close to Bernie's stall in the southeast corner of the square was like wading through a grey-white sea of feathers and guano while under heavy aerial attack.
And then the Mayor dug his claws in. He vowed to rid the square of these 'rats with wings' by banning the sale of birdseed and bringing in a hawk (at £105000 a year) to scare the little blighters away. What Ken hadn't counted on was a pressure group called the Pigeon Alliance who fought (successfully) to bring about this reduction in pigeon numbers more humanely. If you're ever out and about in the square at 7:30am, preferably with a camera, you might catch these devoted volunteers (legally) distributing ever-decreasing amounts of food in an attempt to wean the flying rats slowly elsewhere. It's working, with the pigeon population now down from a post-war peak of 35000 to just a few hundred. There's far less caked-in crap here now, and it's also much easier to hold a major event in the square without the participants being dive-bombed, but a lot of the local character (and characters) has vanished as a result. Shame. Although it's a little known fact that the anti-pigeon byelaws don't apply on the newly pedestrianised north terrace, so feel free to pop down and hurl breadcrumbs at the few remaining pigeons if you so wish.
Save The Trafalgar Square Pigeons
posted 07:00 :
Trafalgar Square (9): The Christmas tree
Don't worry, it's not Christmas yet (this is Trafalgar Square, not Tesco). But the world's most famous Christmas tree is erected right here every December, an annual free gift from the people of Oslo to the people of London in honour of the UK's unfailing support during the darkest days of WW2.
Here's the story of the 2005 Trafalgar Square tree:
i) (1950-ish) An insignificant pine cone takes root somewhere in the depths of a forest just outside Oslo. It grows up to become a seventy foot tall Norwegian spruce.
ii) Strapping Norwegian lumberjack-types tour darkly wooded areas in search of 'the queen of the forest' (that's the perfect tree, not the perfect woman).
iii) The chosen tree is cut down in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Westminster and the Mayor of Oslo. Carols are sung and the civic authorities serve 'forest coffee' and sandwiches.
iv) The tree is shipped across the North Sea by ferry to Immingham, then hauled by road to Trafalgar Square and lowered into a special 6ft-deep hole.
v) 500 white fairy lights are draped around the tree and a big star is placed on the top, ready for the grand switch-on ceremony at the start of December.
vi) Lots of brass bands, carol singers and cute kids in scarves stand at the foot of the tree for a month, making Londoners feel all lovely and Christmassy.
vii) On Twelfth Night the brass bands bugger off, the lights are extinguished and the tree is unceremoniously fed into a chipping machine to be recycled.
posted 00:20 :
Wednesday, October 19, 2005Trafalgar Square (8): The law
London's smallest police station lurks in the southeast corner of Trafalgar Square. It's really tiny, more a hollowed-out granite column with a big lantern on top than a proper nick. Maybe that's why it's no longer used for its original purpose (in fact, peering inside it looks more like a cleaner's cupboard these days). But a misted-up frame on the rear wall contains a wonderfully petty list of modern Trafalgar Square byelaws, so I thought I'd reproduce a selection of these below to help you to avoid arrest the next time you pay a visit.
Unless acting in accordance with permission given in writing by the Mayor, no person shall within the Square:
feed any bird (which shall include dropping or casting feeding stuff for birds);
play or cause to be played a musical instrument;
camp, or erect or cause to be erected any structure, tent or enclosure;
make or give a public speech or address;
take photographs or any other recordings of visual images for the purpose of or in connection with a business, trade, profession or employment;
go on any shrubbery or flower bed;
wash or dry any piece of clothing or fabric;
use any pedal cycle, roller skate, ice skate, roller blade, skate board or other foot-propelled device;
engage in any organised form of sport or physical exercise which causes a disturbance to any other person using the square;
tow or leave any caravan.
posted 17:00 :
Trafalgar Square (7): Imperial Standards of Length
How long is a foot, or a yard, or an inch? It was once important to be sure because Britain's trade relied on everyone having the same definition for these key units of length. King Henry I in his wisdom decided that a yard should be the distance from the tip of his nose to the end of his outstretched thumb, while King Edward I decreed that "three grains of barley, dry and round make an inch". Not very standard. It was left to Elizabeth I to come up with a nationally-agreed 'standard yard', but it was not until 1824 that the first Imperial Standard Length was created. This was a metal bar of precise length which was kept locked away safely in Westmister... at least until the massive fire that burnt down Parliament ten years later. A brass copy of the replacement standard yard was affixed to the northeast wall of Trafalgar Square by the Board of Trade in 1876, in full public view. The horizontal distance between pairs of metal marks - here one foot, two feet and the full yard - allowed people to check the accuracy of their rulers [proper photo, bit of history]. All perfectly accurate at precisely 62 degrees Fahrenheit, apparently. Nowadays scientists define the metre as "the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299792458 of a second", which is nowhere near as romantic. Maybe that's why the girl reading a magazine sat on a bench directly in front of the brass plaque gave me a really funny look when I invaded her personal space to take the above close-up photo. From about a yard away, I think.
posted 07:00 :
Trafalgar Square (6): The centre of town
In medieval times the top of Whitehall was a quiet underdeveloped backwater. Here the street east to the City met the lane down to Westminster, and a road branched off across what was not yet west London. Go on, take a look on a map. And at the centre of this three-way junction stood a stone cross - the original Charing Cross - built by King Edward I to commemorate the passing of his beloved wife. Queen Eleanor's corpse paused here overnight at the end of a twelve-stage journey south from Lincolnshire (oh you probably know the story, I've told it before, and if not you'll find it here). The Eleanor Cross survived from 1291 to 1647, during which time it became the key point from which all distances from London were measured. And then those puritanical Parliamentarians declared it idolatrous and had it destroyed, breaking it down into stone then used to pave part of Whitehall to the south. After the Civil War an equestrian statue of Charles I took the cross's place in the middle of the road, portraying the king a full six inches taller than he was in real life (before his beheading, that is).
The stone cross you can still see further up the Strand outside Charing Cross station is a cunning Victorian facsimile and rather more ornate than the 13th century original. But that first cross is still commemorated by a metal plaque at King Charles' feet, stranded in the middle of a small cobbled roundabout just a pelican crossing away from Nelson's Column. Those three medieval roads still meet here (joined now by Northumberland Avenue and The Mall), and the surrounding hubbub must be at least as great as before, except with tourists, cars and buses replacing merchants, carts and cows. And, in silent tribute to the body of an otherwise forgotten queen, all distances from the capital are still measured from the exact site of her final resting place. This is London - dead centre.
posted 00:20 :
Tuesday, October 18, 2005Trafalgar Square (5): Three busts
Cunningham (left): Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, WW2
Jellicoe (centre): Admiral of the Fleet, Battle of Jutland, 1916
Beatty (right): Youngest admiral since Nelson, WW1
You'll find these busts on the northeastern wall at the rear of Trafalgar Square. All three gentlemen are former Admirals of the Fleet, just like Lord Nelson high above them, but in this case from the first half of the 20th century. They're more spaced out in real life than in my photos, and Cunningham on the left doesn't normally have a pigeon perched on his head. Most visitors to the square probably don't notice them but, when the revolution comes (and it will undoubtedly have its epicentre here), it may be comforting to some to know that these three naval officers will be the first up against the wall.
posted 17:00 :
Trafalgar Square (4): The fourth plinth
There was always meant to be a sculpture on Trafalgar Square's northwestern plinth, it's just that the money ran out by the time the rest of the square had been completed. Nobody quite got round to remedying the situation for the next 150 years, not least because it was impossible to agree who else to commemorate, until the RSA stepped in and commissioned a series of three sculptures in 1998. First up was Mark Wallinger's Ecce Homo ("Whether or not we regard Jesus as a deity, he was at the very least a political leader of an oppressed people"), then Bill Woodrow's Regardless of History ("The tree ...makes reference to the never-ending cyclical relationship between civilisations, knowledge and the forces of nature") and finally Rachel Whiteread's Monument ("I decided that the most appropriate sculpture for the plinth would be to make a 'pause': a quiet moment for the space"). The usual overblown arty waffle maybe, but the project was successful enough to initiate an ongoing series of temporary works on the fourth plinth. Starting with...
This is Alison Lapper Pregnant, a sculpture which ticks almost every box a government committee's diversity policy could demand (except it's not black). The sculptor Marc Quinn claims that his marble effigy counterbalances the innate masculinity of the square ("Nelson's Column is the epitome of a phallic male monument") (although I suspect he may just have nicked that line from Not The Nine O'Clock News). This isn't the first depiction of disability in the square - indeed Nelson's right arm is even shorter than Alison's - but it is the first statue to elevate an ordinary citizen to extraordinary acclaim. It's a striking piece, dominating the square at eye level, and extremely powerful in its positive portrayal of physical impairment. I was more impressed than I anticipated by this gleaming sculpture, as it appears are the multitude of pigeons now roosting around Alison's feet. Maybe they're queueing in readiness for the next work to appear on the fourth plinth - Thomas Schütte's Hotel For The Birds - which is due for installation in early 2007. In the meantime perhaps it's just as well that Alison is white, because that's the way the pigeons like it.
posted 07:00 :
Trafalgar Square (3): Three plinths
NE: King George IV (pictured left) - vain royal braggart on horseback
SE: Henry Havelock (pictured centre) - ruthless subduer of the subcontinent
NE: Charles James Napier (pictured right) - obscure hook-nosed army general
With all the fuss surrounding Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth, it's easy to overlook the three blokes who've been looking down from the other three corners of the square since the mid 19th century. King George IV has a good excuse to be here - as Prince Regent he commissioned both the square and the broad sweeping avenue of Regent Street further to the northwest. His statue was intended for Marble Arch but ended up here temporarily in 1840 and has remained ever since. It's harder today to argue for the presence of Havelock and Napier, both alpha-male empire-building army generals. Indeed the crowds celebrating Divali in the Square last weekend might not have been impressed to discover how these two oppressors subjugated their ancestors in the subcontinent a century and a half earlier. But these were fairly revolutionary statues in their time, celebrating meritocracy rather than the usual aristocracy, and it would be a shame to see them displaced to reflect modern values. One spare plinth is quite enough to be playing around with, and heaven knows who we might be lumbered with in their place.
posted 00:20 :
Monday, October 17, 2005Trafalgar Square (2): The fountains
The fountains were a late addition to Trafalgar Square, installed in 1845. There are two of them - one to the northwest and one to the northeast - and they're both enormous. Their size was deliberate, designed to reduce the amount of standing room in the square and thereby prevent crowds of excessive size from congregating here. Their shape is officially described as "lobed quatrefoiled basins" (which is posh for 'holds water and looks like a flower from above'). The central stone fountains we see today were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and date from the late 1930s, as do Charles Wheeler's surrounding figures of mermaids, tritons and dolphins. Just my luck to turn up with my camera on a day when the fountains had been drained for cleaning, so there were no tourists dipping their hands in the water, no gushing jets of spray and no drunken lager louts splashing across the pool with beergut aloft.
posted 17:00 :
Trafalgar Square (1): The square
Trafalgar Square has long been the focal point of London. There's an extensive history of mass gatherings in the square - a magnet for political protests from Chartist rallies to the poll tax riots. More recently, following the pedestrianisation of the north terrace, it's become a place of shared celebration and commemoration. Here for example is a webcam shot of the square snapped yesterday afternoon during Uncle Ken's Divali festivities (presumably nobody told him that Divali is next month). We're a bit far away to see the happy smiling faces, the inspirational multi-ethnic banners and the few remaining pigeons, but trust me they're all present. But it wasn't always like this.
There was no square here 200 years ago, just the open courtyard of the Kings Mews stables which served Whitehall Palace. It was John Nash's idea to demolish the "filthy and disreputable abodes" of the Mews to create an open public space "to add to the beauty of the approach from Westminster to Charing Cross, a Square open to and looking down Parliament Street (where) the greatest part of the population of the Metropolis meet and diverge." Most of the design work was carried out by Sir Charles Barry who, in response to the sloping site, came up with the idea of a central paved square linked to a northern terrace via several sets of steps. And the square's not quite square either, being wider east-west than it is tall, with a a sort of pointy bit down south to fit the local road pattern. Opened in the 1830s this was originally to be called King William the Fourth's Square after the new monarch, but thankfully wasn't because that would have been a bit of a mouthful. However the Nelson myth was already strong, and nowhere in London had yet been named in honour of the nation's greatest sailor, and so Trafalgar Square it became instead. Huzzah!
geezer in the Square (previous visits):
Rugby World Cup celebrations
Pet Shop Boys - Battleship Potemkin
2012 Olympic announcement
[What major events have you attended here?]
posted 07:00 :
To celebrate the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (200 years ago this Friday) I thought it might be appropriate to pay a special visit to Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory. And then I thought no, stuff that, Portsmouth isn't even in Zone 6, I'll head for Trafalgar Square instead. So this week I shall be wandering around London's most famous public space, investigating everything from the obscure to the iconic. I shan't be venturing outside the edge of the square, so there's no National Gallery, no South Africa House, no St Martin-in-the-Fields and no Admiralty Arch. But rest assured that there's still plenty to see within Trafalgar Square itself, and not just that big column with a half-blind sailor perched on the top. Read on.
Trafalgar Square webcam
posted 00:20 :
Sunday, October 16, 2005Bow Road station modernisation - post-project appraisal
According to Metronet, who've been frittering away £3.3 million modernising my local tube station for the last 20 months, "the station was delivered into service on 05 October". Well thank goodness for that. There have been times over the last 86 weeks when I thought this incompetent infraco would never deliver. But now at last they've buggered off, leaving behind what may be a shiny new station with several updated features. But has all the effort and inconvenience been worthwhile? I thought I'd carry out an appraisal of Metronet's initial project objectives, because that's the modern way. Here's what they promised the public in a poster last summer. How have they performed?
1) "The modernisation will result in significantly improved facilities": I guess I have a different definition of the word 'facilities' to the top brass at Metronet. I'd been looking forward to at least one change during the Bow Road upgrade that would significantly improve my daily commute, but all I got was a new drinks machine and a louder public address system. The station staff, on the other hand, now have a lovely new control room full of computer screens (presumably for use when they're not busy reading a newspaper in the kiosk by the ticket gate). Lucky them. [Verdict: fail]
2) "A new ticket hall": When I saw this pledge last summer I wondered whether perhaps a brand new ticket hall might be opened up, possibly in the eastern half of the main building not previously open to the public. But no, the 'new ticket hall' is just the old ticket hall with new lighting, new signage and several layers of fresh paint. [Verdict: fail]
3) "New passageways": There are no new public passageways at Bow Road station, just the same old stairwells down from the ticket hall to the platforms. We did get lots of new flooring - a layer of something plastic across both the ticket hall and the stairwells - but station staff still have to scribble "Caution - floor may be slippery" on the station whiteboard whenever it rains. So much for modern engineering. [Verdict: fail]
4) "Improved station lighting": The western half of Bow Road station is officially 'underground', and the lighting down the far end of each platform always used to be dim, dark and uninviting. Things are much brighter now throughout the entire station, possibly too much so, but the whole place feels rather safer as a result. [Verdict: pass]
5) "New signage": a) At last, Bow Road is on the right lines. The big blue sign attached to the front of the station always used to read "DISTRICT AND METROPOLITAN LINES", even though services on the latter line were withdrawn from the station in 1990. No more. All the new signage throughout the station now correctly refers to the "District and Hammersmith and City lines", with matching green and pink trim as appropriate. There are also proper direction signs to Bow Church on the DLR (please turn right outside station), and it's all really rather tasteful. Big improvement. [Verdict: pass]
b) As for the new next train indicators, however, they're rubbish and a complete waste of money. They ought to be so much better than the ancient bulb-operated indicators we used to have (left) but no. The flashy new electronic displays (right) provide less than 45 seconds warning of the destination of the next westbound train, and no information at all about what may be following behind. If you're standing in the ticket hall and see that the next train is heading for Wimbledon, for example, you have a less than 50-50 chance of zipping down the stairs in time to catch it. If they can provide up to six minutes warning of the next three trains at Mile End, the next station down the line, then why can't we have a similar level of information at Bow Road? In my opinion this is the biggest missed opportunity of the entire upgrade. [Verdict: fail]
6) "New platform edge tactile strips": It's good to see facilities installed to assist visually impaired passengers, even if it took the contractors at least four or five attempts to successfully stick a few bits of yellow rubber to the platform surface. [Verdict: pass]
7) "New platform seating": There was seating on the platform before, but now there's more of it and in a modern more comfortable style. Unfortunately most of the new seating is down at the far end of each platform, and most station users can't be arsed to walk more than ten metres from the foot of each stairwell so it rarely gets used. [Verdict: pass]
8) "New CCTV": There was a complete CCTV system at Bow Road station before renovation began, presumably sufficient to prevent this quiet station from becoming a hotbed of violence and crime. Now we have more than 70 security cameras scanning the station, a gobsmackingly high number for a simple two-platform station serving 5000 passengers a day. Walk through the station entrance (click), across the ticket hall (click click click click), down the stairwell (click click) and along the platform (click x 24) and every last sigh, grimace and nosepick will have been recorded for posterity by the security staff in the new control room. Charles Clarke would be proud. I'm not sure whether I'm more disturbed by the implicit attack on my civil liberties or the undoubtedly exorbitant cost of this wholly unnecessary mega-surveillance system. [Verdict: pass, sadly]
9) "The unique architectural features of the station will be preserved throughout": Take a look at these before and after shots the wall at the western end of the westbound platform. The photo on the left shows a crumbling station with paint peeling from the walls, the end result of years of neglect and underfunding, and desperately in need of repair. And on the right is the same wall today, gleaming and shiny with modern easy-clean panelling. It's undoubtedly a great improvement, except that Bow Road station is supposed to be a Grade 2 listed building and somehow it now looks like a 1902 station with chunks of 2005 bolted on. That old wall will never be seen again, masked forever behind a heritage-free vinyl veneer, and the new spray-painted tube sign is no replacement for the historic Bow Road roundel.
The rest of the station reflects this curious mix of old and new. Take for example the 26 pillars that support the platform roof - probably the station's most prominent feature. These have been lovingly repainted in the original yellow and green, toppped off with bright red, and give the station real character. Unfortunately some twat has also repainted all the metalwork across the platform roof with bright blue paint, and the resulting colour clash looks amateur and uncoordinated. The station frontage has also been carefully repaired and restored, but is now scarred by an ugly electronic sign bolted beside the entrance. The stairwells have scrubbed up well, but they're now dominated by giant glass globe light fittings which look somehow more alien than Victorian. And let's not forget the ubiquitous plastic cable ducting, copious numbers of loudspeakers and all those bloody security cameras. Metronet may indeed have preserved the heritage features at Bow Road, but impact of the old has been considerably diminished by all the additional modern stuff they've installed everywhere else. The station has, alas, been refurbished rather than restored. [Verdict: fail]
10) "The work is due for completion in spring 2005": Leaves are now starting to fall from the horse chestnut tree outside Bow Road station, so it must be autumn, so work has been completed two seasons too late. When I started recording daily (in)activity at Bow Road in February last year, little did I expect to be still going 20 months later. It's taken Metronet more than 600 days to complete their first PPP-funded station upgrade, with Bow Road the guinea pig for their incompetent and wasteful bureaucratic procedures. The whole project has been beset by a succession of over-optimistic deadlines, and hindered by poor planning, excessive paperwork and limited communication. The travelling public have also been forced to endure a year of late evening station closures, the first six months of which were undoubtedly totally unnecessary. Ultimately the taxpayer has shelled out millions of pounds for a gravy train of fatcat contractors to drag their feet carrying out what is essentially a minor facelift. [Verdict: fail]
Conclusion: Whose bloody stupid idea was it to outsource the maintenance and modernisation of London's tube network to the private sector? Let my local station stand as an example of what happens when profit and paperwork become more important than planning and performance. I fear for the desecration these companies could cause at a station with real heritage features. I despair at the amount of money being siphoned from an urgent modernisation programme to line shareholders' pockets. And although I'm glad to see the back of the builders at Bow Road, I'm warned that they intend to return in 7 or 8 years time to start all over again. In the meantime maybe I should turn my attention to the mess these people are about to make of the Lea Valley Olympic site instead... [Verdict: fail]
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