diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On blame

Why are so many people so quick to blame others? When something goes wrong, as things so often do, they seek to point an accusing finger. They're always quick to identify faults and to condemn the culprit. They jump to conclusions without considering the evidence. There are never accidents, there are just unidentified risks. How dare anyone else lead a less than perfect life? Someone must be held accountable. Someone must be made an example of. Someone must be blamed.

And these "blaming" people are everywhere. They peer out from behind net curtains. They chat to one another on the bus. They work alongside you at your place of work. They sit on juries. They read newspapers. They write for newspapers. Some of them even write blogs. In their world, blaming others is the right thing to do. Accuse, criticise, reproach. Poke, poke, poke. Because a convenient scapegoat makes them feel better, and somehow less guilt-ridden. Ah yes, you know how it is...

» All that rain we've had lately, it's the fault of England's wanton sinners.
» That test match we've just lost, sack the captain immediately.
» The crime wave sweeping Britain, there's liberal social policy for you.
» All that rain we've had lately, it's the fault of people with patio heaters.
» Unemployment in Britain is solely due to European immigration, obviously.
» Have you seen how much petrol costs? Gordon Brown did that, all by himself.
» All that rain we've had lately, did someone not think to dig deeper rivers?
» Princess Di's death was no accident, oh no, it's all a monarchist conspiracy.
» That actor accused of fiddling with kids, I bet he's guilty as sin.
» All that rain we've had lately, the relevant Minister must resign.
» That knife attack last week, we need to teach "respect" in our schools.
» Did you see that cyclist pass a red light? They're all equally bad, you know.
» All that rain we've had lately, it's their own fault for living on a flood plain.
» Last week's poor by-election result, the Tory leader should stand down now.
» How dare you fly abroad on holiday, take the bus to Blackpool instead.
» All that rain we've had lately, that's belching Chinese factories, that is.
» Castrate all sex perverts now, because we have to protect the children.
» Did someone at the BBC make a mistake? I told you they couldn't be trusted.
» All that rain we've had lately, why did the government not prevent it?
» One nil down at half time? The manager's got to go, and soon.
» I know someone who went to hospital and nearly died, bloody NHS.
» All that rain we've had lately, serves the victims right for being uninsured.
» We need more religious tolerance. So you can start by taking off that hijab.
» If fat people ate less, we wouldn't need to recycle so much.
» All that rain we've had lately. It's all Tony Blair's fault. Everything still is.

I've had it up to here with people who blame others all the time. How dare they set themselves up on a pedestal to sit in judgement over the rest of us? Why do they hold sway over national politics, public opinion and workplace policy? How can they be so damned grumpy, miserable and intolerant? Why do they have to assume that someone else is at fault all the time, without ever questioning their own selfish point of view? Hypocrites the lot of them. Yes, the world would be a much better place without any of their petulant recriminatory accusations. They're all a bunch of bigoted bastards, and I blame the lot of them for everything. Ahem.

 Monday, July 30, 2007

I suspect Tuesdays are overrated too.

Mondays are overrated.

Sundays are overrated.

 Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Red Bull Air Race - London

Think of it as the Formula 1 of the skies. A lot of very rich middle-aged men playing with very expensive toys in a 6-month-long global competition, because they can. That's the Red Bull Air Race. Although in this case, unlike in Formula 1, all the rich middle-aged blokes take part themselves rather than staying behind the scenes flashing their wallets. All the glamour and beauty comes from their aerobatic skills, and not their Chuckle Brothers looks. This weekend the "competition named after a fairly cheap energy drink" has touched down in London, on the River Thames alongside the Millennium Dome. I was lucky, I got a free ticket as a resident of one the three boroughs adjoining the site, so I went down to Peruvian Wharf to watch yesterday's Qualification Day. And wow.

Red Bull Air Race, London

I must congratulate the organisers on their choice of location. Not only did the Dome and Canary Wharf provide a most impressive backdrop to the event, but they also managed to find a stretch of the Thames where virtually all non-paying spectators could be barricaded outside without any view whatsoever. When each grandstand seat costs £50, you don't want common plebs accidentally enjoying a slice of the action, do you? A brief glimpse of the action was possible from the elevated section of the DLR between East India and Canning Town, but otherwise it was pay up or go home disappointed. Queues at the ticket office were not excessive.

Here's how London's air race works. A series of inflatable cone-shaped slalom gates have been erected on barges mid-river along Bugsby's Reach, between (approximately) Trinity Buoy Wharf and the David Beckham Football Academy. A series of top international stunt pilots then take it in turns to manouevre their way down the course and back, twice, completing a a nailbiting 360 degree loop inbetween each pass. Some gates have to be entered vertically, others horizontally, and there's a special 4-cone "quadro" gate at the end which requires two perpendicular passes. Missed gates suffer a time penalty, signalled by a loud horn, and the fastest pilot wins. You have to be a damned marvellous pilot to be able to complete the course, speeding above the surface of the river at up to 250mph, and enduring 8G forces during the loopy turns at each end which do nasty things to your insides. This is not a sport for wimps.

Red Bull Air Race, LondonHaving arrived well before lunchtime, it took a long time for the action to actually start. Maybe that's why the event is sponsored by Red Bull, because you need something artificial to keep you awake before anything happens. But we were lucky with the weather. It was cool and unexpectedly windy, so the pilots decided they needed an extra warm-up round before the competition proper and we got 50% extra flying time. For the qualifying proper, each of the 12 participants flew the course twice. They zoomed in overhead from their temporary runway at City Airport, then circled the sky south of the Dome above the Blackwall Tunnel approach road. On the command "smoke on!" they dived down to the first gate and began weaving their way at great speed between the 20m-high towers. Ninety-odd seconds was all it took to complete the course - that and a serious amount of nerve.

It was all too easy easy, after the first few passes, to become strangely blasé about the incredible spectacle unfolding in front of your eyes. Only one pilot accidentally clipped one of the gates, which emitted a strange high-pitched pop before deflating limply into the river. Not to worry, a crack team were ready in a nearby speedboat with a spare, and the spiky-tipped inflatable was ready for action again within minutes. Other than that, no accidents. I suspect a lot of the crowd, video cameras poised, were secretly disappointed by that.

Throughout the afternoon we spectators were treated to a full multimedia experience, via a televised commentary broadcast on big screens alongside each grandstand. We even enjoyed real-time close-up cockpit shots of the pilots' cheeks wobbling as they swooped overhead, and were able to lip-read the odd swear word after a particularly disappointing circuit. The Brit/American commentary double act were always ready with all sorts of statistics that sounded meaningful but almost certainly weren't, always to two decimal places. Thankfully the grinning duo managed to stay the right side of knowledgeable throughout.

And the commentators kept very quiet about one particular quirk of the day's events. The Qualifying Day was designed to select the 12 fastest fliers who would go forward into today's competition. But there were only 12 pilots taking part anyway, so Saturday's events served only to shuffle Sunday's running order. London's part in this year's Red Bull Air Race will all be over by ten past two this afternoon when trophies will be awarded to the victorious competitor in the knockout final (from what I saw, that'll probably be rugged American Mike Mangold). Don't worry if you haven't got tickets - you can watch the event on Channel 4 shortly afterwards, starting at ten to three. It won't be the same as actually being there (zoom, whoosh), but you'll probably see more and in greater detail. And it'll be considerably cheaper too.

my best attempt at a photo (not great)
much better photos (taken by other spectators - a "zoom" function helps)
Inspector Sands attended Sunday's race day (and wasn't terribly impressed)
The Greenwich Phantom went on Saturday, and Charlton Average on Sunday

 Saturday, July 28, 2007

This is an email from the Red Bull Air Race, London. I'm sat in the half-full grandstand on the windswept banks of the River Thames overlooking the Dome. It's Qualification Day, with 12 ace pilots attempting to manoeuvre their aerobatic planes as fast as possible between a series of inflatable slalom gates down the middle of the river. They're flying at up to 400kmh, they're enormously talented, and nobody's crashed yet. Unexpectedly impressive (if a bit chilly).

Screen 1: The Simpsons Movie (PG)
You can get Simpsons overload on Sky One any night of the week. Why go to the cinema to watch the equivalent of four normal TV episodes stitched together? Well, there are no commercial breaks for a start, nor any sponsored messages for a well known pizza company. And The Simpsons Movie is fresh, it's not a tired repeat being recirculated for the umpteenth time. And it's very funny. I know this because the obese popcorn muncher in the seat next to me spent almost the entire 87 minutes guffawing uncontrollably - from the opening Itchy & Scratchy cartoon to the final heartwarming denouement. The movie tells a suitably epic tale, in which Homer's love for his new pet pig (and, mmm, doughnuts) accidentally triggers enviromental Armageddon, forcing President Schwarzenegger to isolate Springfield in dome-shaped quarantine. But the plot comes second to an endless stream of cracking one-liners and spot-on visual jokes, so it pays to stay alert and eagle-eyed throughout. Every aspect of American society is a target for ridicule, from the US Government (especially the US Government) to Hollywood stars (thankyou Tom Hanks), organised religion and cloying Disney cartoons. Highlights include Bart's naked skateboard ride (yes, you do get to see it), Homer attempting to escape from an angry torch-bearing mob (featuring virtually every semi-main character who ever appeared in the show) and Lisa's liaisons with a perfectly matched Irish boyfriend (awww). And the spiderpig. The spiderpig is great, and if you stay for the credits you get to hear a full one-minute choral version of the Spiderpig theme tune. Do stay for the credits. And do bring a gag, just in case there's an obese popcorn muncher in the seat next to you.

blue Update: The Conservatives have now opened voter registration for the selection of their London Mayoral candidate. Local Conservative Party members will be automatically registered to take part in the ballot. But anyone else on the electoral roll can also apply to take part by, hmmmm, ringing a premium rate telephone number. The phone call will cost £1.50, and all money raised goes towards funding the Conservative London Mayoral Campaign. Not a cynical mobile phone scam in any way, then. Full details here.

Here are the four candidates, all four of whom now have their own websites. I've listed them in order of website-comprehensiveness, most verbose first.
Mrs Victoria Borwick - "I want to see muggers and burglars go in fear of the law."
Warwick Lightfoot - "I represent a fresh face with fresh ideas for London."
Boris Johnson MP - "I'm looking forward to putting a smile back on the face of Londoners."
Andrew Boff - "I think Londoners are grown up enough to be able make decisions themselves."

 Friday, July 27, 2007

London 2012  Five years to the Olympics
  Everybody out!



There are precisely five years to go until London's Olympic Opening Ceremony. Five years before a horde of choreographed schoolchildren cavort across the 2012 athletics track wearing primary-coloured t-shirts and waving ribbons. Let's hope the weather improves by then. But there's no Olympic Stadium in place yet, nor even a flat space on which to build one. The site in Marshgate Lane is still covered with warehouses, factories and dilapidated sheds. The one big difference this week is that they're all empty. Everybody who used to work here has now left (or been forcibly evicted), and the site has been handed over to the Olympic Delivery Authority and their big yellow bulldozers. Bang on schedule.

Pudding Mill Lane railway bridgeJuly has been a transition month in the Olympic Park. Last month any well-equipped terrorist could have driven a nuclear missile up Pudding Mill Lane and nobody would have noticed. Today they'd not be so fortunate. Every road entering to the Olympic Park has been blocked off by large metal gates, and firmly locked. Dare to walk up to one of these gates, even unarmed, and a security guard will appear from the shadows and look you quizzically up and down. I got a very hard stare from the guard at the southern end of Marshgate Lane at the weekend, presumably because I was the first human being he'd seen that day. I didn't dare tell him that I'd already found a secret back entrance into the Olympic site, one that everyone appears to have overlooked, and that I didn't need to go through his poxy gate anyway. Ah yes, the southern gate to the Waterworks River footpath is still unlocked. Has nobody official noticed yet? Admittedly you'd need to be Indiana Jones to hack your way through the mega-undergrowth along this seriously overgrown footpath, especially after the wet summer we've just endured, but any dedicated miscreant could still gain access to the heart of the Olympic building site if they so desired.

There remains one official footpath right through the middle of the Olympic Park, and that's the Greenway. Walkers won't be able to stray from the sewer-top path at any point, a big blue wall makes sure of that, but it's still possible to stand on a bridge above Marshgate Lane and gaze out across the soon-to-be demolished buildings photos. I intend to go back regularly and watch the view evolve, from industrial estate to levelled earthworks to gleaming international sporting hub. And, who knows, maybe I'll get a ticket to be back on site in 60 months time, beneath the fireworks, watching the flags of many nations parading around an athlete-packed arena. It's impossible to imagine at the moment, but this week marks the beginning of an unstoppable transformation.

iUpdate: The BBC iPlayer is semi-launched today. That's the new online service which allows you to download BBC TV programmes to your computer and watch them again and again... for up to a week. You won't be able to download the special software right away, but from today any member of the public can register for the "open beta" trial. Up until now this has been invite only. More information here, and try signing up here. I've been trialling the iPlayer for the last couple of months, and it's been a great way to catch up on programmes I accidentally forgot to watch the first time round. You might have DRM problems with the service if your computer uses Microsoft Vista (blame Microsoft). You won't be able to use the service (yet) if you have a Mac (blame the BBC). You won't be able to use the service if you're outside the UK (no license fee, no show). But, otherwise, you might be very impressed.

Expect a full marketing launch in the autumn. Meanwhile, Martin has been gazing into his crystal ball to see how the rest of the media might react to the iPlayer over the first fortnight...

 Thursday, July 26, 2007

I don't know whether you've seen the latest version of London's tube map - the free leaflet available in stations - but there's something nasty on it. I'm not talking about the front cover design, because that's a big improvement on the uninspiring typographical drivel on the January version. I'm talking about the renamed station. Look, there on the Jubilee Line between Canary Wharf and Canning Town. See the station that used to be called North Greenwich? Now it has a new name. It's called

North
Greenwich

for the O2

There's nothing especially new about this particular station having an extended name. Back in 2000 it was labelled North Greenwich for the Dome. Somehow it seemed fair to name the station, temporarily, after a one-off Government white elephant. But now we have a station named after a commercial venture. More to the point, now we have a station named after a commercial venture named after a mobile phone company. A double-advert abomination. On Harry Beck's iconic tube map. The mucky world of global branding now appears in New Johnston font. It's unforgivable.

So let's have more. Let's cover the tube map in blatant adverts. Nobody seems to mind, so why not? If it's going to cost a fortune to renovate the Underground, why don't we pay for all the necessary improvements by selling off station names to the highest bidder? Here are a few suggestions to kick things off.

Bond Street
for Selfridges
Knightsbridge
for Harrods
Baker Street
for Madame Tussauds
Canons Park
for Eddy's Kebab Shop
Marble Arch
for Vodafone
Oxford Circus
for Apple
West Ham
for Costcutter Express
Brent Cross
for Brent Cross
Swiss Cottage
for that crap pub that
looks a bit like a chalet
Stratford
for a shopping mall
full of pound shops
Wembley Park
for London's second
best music venue
Elephant & Castle
for that hideous pink
shopping centre
Kew Gardens
for big plants
Ladbroke Grove
for Carnival
St Paul's
for God
Camden Town
for goth
West Hampstead
for Mr Gingham's
sandwich bar
Ruislip Gardens
for Annie's
Dry Cleaning
Bow Road
for Mr Patel's
newspaper kiosk
??????
for ??????

I'm sure you can do better. Here's an (uncorrupted) map to help you out. Stick your ideas in the comments box, and I'll add the best here later.

10pm update
Finchley Road
for the other O2
Pimlico
for Tate Britain
Southfields
for Wimbledon
Paddington
for Heathrow Airport
Blackhorse Road
for absolutely nothing
Brixton
for Skunk & Weed
Westminster
for a peerage
Stockwell
for Heckler & Koch
Arsenal
for Arsenal
(except on match days)
Oval for the
"This Year's
Sponsor"
Oval
King's Cross
St Pancras

for Busty Candice
Mornington
Crescent
for
Humphrey Lyttelton
Warren Street
for Spearmint Rhino
the Circle Line
for Pret A Manger
Finsbury Park
for Abu Hamza
??????
for ??????
Any more?

 Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Gallowatch: It's unheard of. My MP has actually spoken in Parliament! George Galloway uttered more words in a single debate this week than in all the other debates since the 2005 General Election put together. But maybe that's because the debate was about a very special subject - himself.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House—
(i) approves the Sixth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 909); and
(ii) accordingly suspends Mr George Galloway, Member for Bethnal Green and Bow, from the service of the House from Monday 8th October for a period of eighteen sitting days;
George kicked off his speech by lambasting political double standards. To make his point he decided to launch into an attack on one of the Labour Party's less salubrious financial donors. Ouch. It's amazing what language an MP can get away with saying in Parliament if they're brazen enough. I bet you never expected to hear the following on the floor of the House of Commons...
George Galloway (Bethnal Green & Bow, Respect): Did the treasurer of the Labour party ask Richard Desmond from which part of his considerable wealth he was donating handsomely to new Labour's coffers? Did the treasurer of the Labour party — I apologise to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) for the language that I am about to use — ask if Mr. Desmond was giving from the profits of "Spunk-Loving Sluts", "Asian Babes", XXX pornographic television, or the profits of the Daily Star—
Michael Martin (Speaker): Order.
I've quoted direct from Hansard there. And I've tried to protect sensitive website readers from George's most obscene phrase by hiding it behind the grey strip using mouseover text. Isn't my MP a charmer? Always one to get noticed, always one to deflect attention, always one to namedrop dodgy girlie pornflicks in Parliament. After this unusual outburst the debate continued... or at least attempted to continue, because George kept saying things which the Speaker found inappropriate. Not rude this time, but casting aspersions on members of the Select Committee that indicted him, and in Parliament such talk is wholly unacceptable.
George Galloway (Bethnal Green & Bow, Respect): I am sorry that those things are causing you difficulties, Mr. Speaker, but I am now 18 minutes into my speech and have barely been able to get started with the critique that I want to make of the way in which I have been treated. I am, after all, being excluded from Parliament. It is not a small thing. I am, after all, about to face the situation in which my constituents' Member of Parliament is banished from the building — a building in which I have sat for 20 years. I really would like to explain why I believe that I have been treated unjustly.
As the speech continued, George's self-centred monologue was interrupted by the Speaker a total of 16 times. On each occasion the Speaker urged him to stick to the point, but George never quite did. Instead he reminded the house of the size of his audience on TalkSport radio, and slagged off the Select Committee some more, and raked over the Miners' Strike, and reminded everyone that he left school at 17, and ranted on about US fabrication in Iraq. George was certainly enjoying the sound of his own voice, even if nobody else was. Eventually The Speaker had had enough, and interrupted one final time.
George Galloway (Bethnal Green & Bow, Respect): We are now getting to the stage where you are going to have to throw me out of Parliament prematurely because —
The hon. Member, having wilfully disregarded the authority of the Chair, was named by Mr. Speaker, pursuant to Standing Order No. 43 (Disorderly conduct).
"Naming" an MP in the House is one of the most serious things the Speaker can do, and so George was duly ejected from the Commons... during a debate about whether he should be suspended from the Commons. Case proven. Not surprisingly, the motion was duly "put and agreed to". Galloway's out. So, as MPs break up this week until October, my local MP is on a hiatus 18 days longer than the rest of them. I don't think anybody will miss him. And that's left me and my fellow constituents essentially disenfranchised until November. Maybe I should ring up TalkSport and complain.

 Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Grand Day Out: The Historic Dockyard, Chatham
HMS GannetLocation: Chatham, Kent, ME4 4TZ [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm (closed in Winter)
Admission: £12.50
5-word summary: four centuries of maritime history
Website: http://www.chdt.org.uk
Time to set aside: a day

Now that the Medway town of Chatham is home to two major tourist attractions, it's important to visit the correct one. Both are accessed via the new trading estate on the riverside above the Medway Tunnel. One's been open for 400 years, and the other for two months. The new kid on the block is Dickens World, a literary visitor attraction based upon the life and works of the town's most famous resident. It looks like an extra-large branch of Carpet Warehouse, housed in an aluminium hangar and sandwiched inbetween an Odeon multiplex and an M&S Factory Outlet. You don't want to waste your time here, really you don't. You want to cross the access road to the naval dockyard where Charles Dickens' father worked as a pay clerk - now a maritime museum far more worthy of your £12.50 admission money.

Back in Tudor times Chatham was home to the largest dockyard in the country, and the Medway estuary was the hub of Britain's naval strength. Chatham's influence declined steadily as ships grew larger, and as the river grew siltier, although ship building and maintenance continued here until a last post-Falklands hurrah in 1984. Today the Chatham Historic Dockyard houses a most impressive collection of sea-going craft, historic buildings and industrial archaeology photos. There's absolutely tons to see (even when it's chucking it down with rain), and not just a bunch of old sailing ships. Here are the six things that most made me go "wow!".

aboard a top secret subWow!1 HMS Ocelot
20 years ago this Royal Navy submarine was top secret, gliding unseen beneath the polar icecaps keeping an eye on Russian nuclear capability photos. But today any civilian can take a 30 minute tour from forward to aft, leaping through the circular hatches from cabin to cabin, taking as many photographs as they like. It's damned cramped down here, with not a inch of space wasted. Torpedo bays side by side with packed-in bunk beds. Tiny flushing toilets beside claustrophobic pipe-filled gangways. There's even an opportunity to peer through the attack periscope, like in all the best war films, and to stand in the heart of the diesel-electric engine room. photos Just mind your head as you pass, and be glad you're not spending four months down here. Wow, I'm below decks on a secret submarine!

Wow!2 The Cutty Sark
You might have thought that most of the Cutty Sark was destroyed by fire a couple of months ago. But no - almost all of the non-hull bits had already been removed for restoration and were safely tucked away on the quayside at the Chatham, so they survived. The hollow metal masts are here, laid out unceremoniously beside the anchor, some capstans and the odd bulwark photos. The best view of these maritime tresures is from the aft deck of HMS Gannet, the sailing ship nextdoor photos. Here you can gaze down on the Cutty Sark's two teak-lined Deck Houses, the scaffolded roof of each now swarming with a small team of busy workmen photos. Wow, I'm looking at the uncharred bits of the world's most famous tea clipper!

Wow!3 The Ropery
This sounds like it ought to be really dull, but "making rope" provides one of the highlights of a visit to the dockyard. Sailing ships needed as much as 30 miles of rope each, so there had to be extensive facilities on site for turning hemp into extra-strong cable. Today an actor dressed as a Victorian worker guides you through the entire process, in character, his jovial commentary mixing social injustice with technological knowhow. By the end even the 8-year olds on my tour understood how rope was made, mainly because they'd had a go at powering the machinery that twists it together. No, really, it's better than it sounds. Most impressive is the gobsmackingly-long Ropery, reputedly the lengthiest brick building in Europe, which stretches off a quarter of a mile into the distance (and where rope is still being made to this day) photos. Wow, I just found rope-making interesting!

Blue Peter IIIWow!4 A Blue Peter lifeboat
There had to be a Royal National Lifeboat collection somewhere in the UK, and it's at Chatham dockyard. Sixteen lifeboats have been retired here, spanning a century of inshore civilian bravery, from early rowing boats to more modern multi-decked marvels. Most you can only look at, but some you can clamber over and peer around inside. Some not terribly convincing mannequins attempt to bring the boats alive, and even the attraction's attendant has been forced to walk around in less-than-flattering period costume. And at the back of the back of the display there's a small piece of television history - one of the first four Blue Peter lifeboats photos. This is Blue Peter III, stationed at North Berwick, and paid for courtesy of the programme's 1966 appeal. The boat's a lot smaller than I expected (maybe things just look bigger on television) but this mini inflatable has still saved 42 lives over its career. Wow, see what collecting unwanted paperback books can do!

Wow!5 A fascinating fact about lifeboats
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution was originally called the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck. That's not the best acronym, is it? Wow, I can see why they changed it!

Wow!6 The year-long ticket
You mean I can come back as many times as I like during the next 12 months? Wow, that's good value for money!

 Monday, July 23, 2007

This is an email from the Chatham Naval Dockyard, on the banks of the River Medway. It's not raining, yet. So far have toured some old ships and the odd lifeboat, and next it's down below on a submarine and all the thrills of rope-making. Currently enjoying a toasted sandwich lunch in the endearingly amateur Bridge Tea Room, served up with dehydrated lettuce and antiseptic cucumber. Have so far resisted venturing into the new Dickens World theme park nextdoor. Beats a day in the office.

rainI was going to take last Friday off work, but the weather forecast was über-damp. rain So I took today off work instead. Looks like I may have picked a wetter-for-longer day by mistake. rain Damn. rain I'm planning to go out of town for the day (somewhere, to be decided), but the threat of an inch of rain is putting me off. rain Let's see if I'm brave enough, and weatherproof enough, to go and get wet somewhere interesting. rain I'll report back by email later, assuming my new mobile isn't flooded out. rain

fivelinks
Famous people with blogs, number 47: Jacqueline Pearce. You know, Servalan. Servalan has a blog! Hurrah! And a proper website. (n.b. Blake's 7 fans might also like to relive the entire Travis/Servalan affair by reading through four seasons of B7 transcripts) [via bitful, via overyourhead]
Punctuation symbols you may not have realised had a name, number 47: the pilcrow
• Fancy a free bus ride? Then you'll need this handy map of London's bendy bus routes. ["This map has been designed and researched for research purposes only and should be used only in accordance with Transport for London's rules"]
¿uʍop-ǝpısdn ƃolq oʇ pǝʇuɐʍ ɹǝʌǝ [Apologies - not readable in all browsers, but the link should work]
• Where are London's retail hotspots? Do you live in suburban bliss or a shopping desert? This clickable map of London town centres can show you. [It's five years old, but still pretty accurate]

 Sunday, July 22, 2007

The London blues

Yesterday the Conservative Party (finally) launched its London Mayoral Candidate shortlist. It's a list of four right-on souls, one of whom will be selected to stand against Ken for Mayor in London-wide elections next spring. How very exciting. The Conservatives have taken months longer than expected to reach the shortlisting stage because insufficient major figures put their name forward for this prestigious post. Things were so desperate that not even DJ Mike Read could be persuaded to put his name forward. But now we have four successful applicants. One is Boris Johnson, about whom we all already know too much. But who are the other three? I wasn't sure, so I've been to each candidate's own website to check up on their opinions and policies. Here's my (clickable) guide to the potential future face of true blue London.

1) Victoria Borwick
Website: www.mayor-for-london.co.uk
Current responsibility: Kensington & Chelsea councillor
What's Victoria's big idea? "A pledge to introduce US-style policing to tackle the capital's violent street crime."
How will Victoria achieve this? "Zero tolerance of even minor crime, street by street monitoring and publication of crime figures, the recruitment of a top American police officer as London's crime tsar."
So, vote Victoria and you get an American in charge of London's policing?" I think that's what she just said.
What does Victoria mean by "zero tolerance"? "Break a window, swear at someone in the street, beg aggressively or deal drugs on a street corner, and you are going to be arrested, tried and convicted."
Lovely, but millions of Londoners swear on the street daily. Won't this clog up the courts something rotten? Too f**king right it will.
What's Victoria's (not terribly relevant) policy on Culture, Media and Sport? "As you travel around London you need to feel safe and you need to see a city you can be proud of - no graffiti, and tidy and litter free streets."
What's Victoria's target audience? Daily Mail readers, by the sound of it.
What's Victoria's major manifesto pledge on transport? "Scrap the congestion charge and its extension to the West of London."
Where does Victoria live? Victoria lives in a jolly nice house just off Kensington High Street, inside the western extension to the congestion charge zone.
What's Victoria's most bonkers policy (and if you could throw in an amusing spelling mistake, that would be great)? "Encouraging traffic to keep moving, so that you reduce the emissions from stationery traffic is important, so I would not keep increasing the size of roundabouts."

2) Warwick Lightfoot
Website: www.lightfootforlondon.com
Current responsibility: another Kensington & Chelsea councillor
What's Warwick's Dream? "My dream: A prosperous, vital metropolis for everyone."
What are Warwick's top priorities? "I want London to be a dynamic, and exciting place to live, visit and work. We need a Mayor to champion London and its world-class financial markets."
Can he tell us more about the financial thing? "We need a Mayor that understands London's financial markets and their importance to London's economy, who will help to promote London to the international business community."
Has Warwick ever worked in the City, perchance? "Warwick Lightfoot is a professional economist who has worked in London's international financial markets and in the public sector. For a long period he was Special Adviser to both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Employment."
What's Warwick's target audience? Financial Times readers, by the sound of it.
Does Warwick have any other priorities? "He knows that money alone will not give Londoners the police and public transport they want, without fundamental reform of their management."
He's not posh though, is he, despite living in a jolly nice house in Notting Hill? "Having grown up in a single parent family Warwick understands the challenges that families face and the need to ensure that there are opportunities for all families."
Warwick Lightfoot, man of the people? Right on.

3) Andrew Boff
Website: www.andrewboff.com
But there's nothing on that website, just some dripping water and the phrase "be patient". That's not very impressive for someone who runs his own IT company, is it? Er, no.

So, there are the non-Boris three. It's important to be fully briefed on their backgrounds because every registered London voter will be allowed to take part in the next stage of the selection process. Yes, even non-Tory voters can apply for a ballot form, which sounds like a desperately risky strategy to me. David Cameron must be keeping his fingers crossed that Labour and LibDem voters don't gang together and vote for the least electable candidate, just for a laugh. The election continues over the summer, with the Conservative Mayoral candidate finally announced in September. It'll be Boris, obviously. But hey, let's give the other three their chance. Even if nobody stands a chance against Ken anyway.

 Saturday, July 21, 2007

This is an email from the Central line, somewhere between St Paul's and Bank. Risky, I know, but how else to speed home from the West End after closing time? I just won't be able to send it before I reach Mile End - this phone isn't *that* good. I'm surrounded by drunken souls in embroidered shirts and skimpy mini skirts, rammed in like Monday morning rush hour. Lucky I'm feeling wholly sober. Heading home for a good long snooze.

This is an email from the heart of the West End. I'm standing in the street outside a pub, bottle of Becks in hand, talking to friends. Unheard of I know, but I believe that this is normal sociable behaviour for a Saturday evening. It's certainly fun. Your round I think. Cheers.

This is an email from my kitchen, where I'm cooking some chicken along with one of the baking potatoes I bought earlier. I don't know why I'm telling you this by email. In fact I don't know why I'm telling you this at all.

This is an email from inside the Dome (sent via an outlawed mobile network that isn't O2). I'm sat beside an artificial beach in the main 'square', under the curving millennial roof. Hordes of people, most of them under the age of ten, are swarming over a pile of trucked-in sand, beneath a crown of tall plastic palm trees. Some are digging, some are chucking free beachballs into the air, and some are sitting sullenly on the neighbouring deckchairs. I suspect that some have never seen a beach before. Nobody is buying juice drinks from the over-staffed beach bar. Nobody is smiling at the accordionist dressed as a sea captain. But this small chunk of fake seaside is considerably busier, and noisier, than any stretch of sand at Brighton or Southend. Maybe that's because it's dry. Welcome to the new British summer.

This is an email from the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road. I've come to see their free exhibition on 'The Heart' - a medical and cultural display of all things cardiac. This is, as of a couple of months ago, a subject close to my heart. The exhibition is an intriguing eclectic mix, from Leonardo sketches to defibrillators, along with the odd poem, elephant heart and embalmed body. I'm afraid I couldn't stomach the film showing open heart surgery. There are more medical goodies in the permanent galleries upstairs, including some witty chromosome art and a 114-volume human genome, encyclopedia style. Well worth an hour of your time. I'm now hiding from a sudden downpour, in the bus shelter outside, as the traffic splashes past. Drip.

This is an email from Rough Trade East, the new independent record store just off Brick Lane. The shop's part of the Old Truman Brewery complex, and it looks huge. Not Virgin Megastore huge, but vast stretching off into the distance huge. The trouble is that the shop's not open yet. It was supposed to open yesterday but it clearly didn't. The entrance is ajar but blocked off, with one lone worker inside gazing hopelessly back towards the street. Never mind, I'm pleased enough. A few minutes ago I walked past Gilbert and George outside the Brick Lane Mosque, strolling back to their house in Fournier Street. And that beats buying records. Nice hat Gilbert. Nice hat George.

This is an email from my local supermarket - specifically the vegetable aisle, where I'm trying to find some decent sized baking potatoes. Who said weekends weren't exciting? It's a bit busy, crawling with unhappy families and workers packing trollies for online deliveries. The new Harry Potter is on sale for a fiver, but only if you spend over £50, which I won't. It's especially busy (with grannies) around the Granny Smiths. Today's treat: Eccles cakes. Now to tackle the long queues at the checkout.

This is an email from my bath, via my mobile phone. I'm lying in ten inches of foamy warm water having a damned good soak. Naked blogging, whatever next? Pray that my soapy fingers don't slip, because I don't want my new handset to drown. Now, where's that shampoo?

This is a test email, from my new mobile phone, to my blog. It's been two years since I last managed to send a mobile email, so I'm dead chuffed that (finally) I can do it again. I can't believe how difficult it's been trying to get the settings correct. I've tried at least 20 different combinations of accounts, user names, servers and passwords. \send failed\ But, at last, I seem to have found a combination that works. Hurrah! Let's see how many interesting locations I can blog from today...

 Friday, July 20, 2007

  I SPY LONDON
  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 19: The Tower Bridge Exhibition

Location: Tower Bridge, SE1 2UP [map]
Open: 10am - 6:30pm (half an hour earlier from October to March)
Admission: £6.00
5-word summary: iconic bridge and engineering marvel
Website: http://www.towerbridge.org.uk
Time to set aside: an hour and a bit

Tower BridgeTower Bridge was opened in 1894, the response to a very particular design brief - how best to relieve road traffic across the Thames downstream of London Bridge whilst still permitting ships access to the Pool of London? Horace Jones' twin-towered bascule bridge provided the ideal solution - both practical and elegant - and unwittingly created a national icon. Few world landmarks have a more recognisable silhouette than Tower Bridge. The briefest sight of this multi-storey marvel in a film, TV report or photograph announces "This is London" to even the most casual observer. Maybe that's why the bridge is permamently swarming with tourists from every continent, each intent on capturing the perfect image whilst simultaneously blocking the pavement and the sightline of others.

Tower Bridge raisedThe very best time to visit, unless you're in a vehicle, is when the bridge is being raised. This happens surprisingly frequently, up to 1000 times a year, and yet it's an event I saw for the first time only last weekend. By pure fluke I happened to be at the entrance to the central span of the bridge when the siren went, the traffic halted and the pedestrian gate was closed in front of me. Damned exciting stuff! The bridgemaster waited until everything was clear - no chance of any death-defying gap-jumping here - and gave the signal from within his pierside command cabin. The two halves of the roadway clicked apart and quivered gently into the air. Slowly, but surely, they lifted to their maximum elevation - 86 degrees to the horizontal. And then, much to the delight of the crowds now thronging the piers, a twin-masted sailing ship cast off from its moorings beside HMS Belfast and sailed majestically (just) beneath the bridge's gothic portal. There's a sight you don't see every day. And then the roadway lowered slowly back into place before repeated sirens indicated that it was safe to cross again. Up and down in ten minutes flat. Why leave such magical London encounters to chance? The Tower Bridge website lists every scheduled bridge lift for the forseeable future, which is cracking inside knowledge for anyone with a camera (or any commuter attempting to take the bus from Liverpool Street to Bermondsey).

The bridge used to be raised far more frequently, and until 1912 there was an alternative public route for pedestrians to make their crossing. Each tower contains a double stairwell, four storeys high, up to a pair of metal walkways strung across the gap 140 feet above the water. This must have been a lengthy and strenuous detour, but Victorians were made of stern stuff. And the view from the top was fantastic. Which is why, just 25 years ago, the upper walkways were glazed over and reopened to tourists. You'll find the entrance on the upstream side of the northern pier. Pay up, pass through the security patdown, and wait for the lift. They don't let you walk up the stairs any more, oh no, presumably because the majority of potential visitors couldn't.

Tower Bridge walkwayAt the top of the towers are two large screens displaying looped information films, one detailing the bridge's construction and the other a century of Tower-ing greatness. Each presentation looks very dated - more a subtitled slideshow than a major multimedia experience. Look up and you can peer inside the spotlit turret, where a few plastic workmen have been positioned in an attempt to create some authentic 1890s atmosphere. Rather more exciting are the two latticed walkways across the river, up at flag-fluttering level. Ignore the row of information panels (unless it's foggy) and concentrate on the view. Downstream there's Canary Wharf, Butler's Wharf and the grand sweep of the Thames curving between Wapping and Rotherhithe. And upstream <switch walkways> there's City Hall, HMS Belfast, the Tower of London and the majestic City skyline. There are even special sliding windows in the glass to allow you and your camera an obstruction-free perspective across the panorama below. It's a view few Londoners bother to see. Their loss.

Back to the south tower to wait for the lift down to ground level, where the doors unexpectedly open straight out onto the pavement. Part two of your six quid visit continues beneath the roadway at the southern end of the bridge, at the end of a painted blue line. Make sure you haven't lost your ticket - you'll need it to get into the Engine Rooms. No prizes for guessing what you're going to see here. Steam engines, hydraulic pumps and whirly Victorian shiny things - i.e. all of the original mechanisms that used to power the raising and lowering of the bridge. The exhibit's not a thriller, but it is a slice of true London's technological history. Electricity took over fairly recently, in 1976 to be precise, and now the bridge goes up and down at the touch of a button. Sorry, but you won't necessarily get to see this happen for the admission price, you just have to get lucky. Or do a bit of research first.
by tube: Tower Hill  by DLR: Tower Gateway  by bus: 42, 78, RV1

 Thursday, July 19, 2007

www.flickr.com: Tower Bridge gallery
During the last fortnight I've made two visits to Tower Bridge. First I visited the exhibition, and enjoyed the view from the high latticed walkways between the two towers. And the second time, purely by chance, I was right up close to watch the bridge being raised. I'll tell you all about it tomorrow. In the meantime here are 25 photographs so that you can take a look for yourself.
• For 10 photos of the walkways and the view from the top, start here.
• For 6 photos of the bridge being raised, start here.

5 years ago I bought a mobile phone.
It had about 100 ringtones, all of which sounded like one-finger melodies performed by Kraftwerk on a Casio keyboard. One of the ringtones sounded like a 'real' phone. The others included such classics as "Happy Birthday" and "When the Saints Come Marching In". They were nothing special, but they were definitely tuneful. If I wanted a different ringtone I could write my own using "Compose" mode, for free. I even rustled up an "I should be so lucky" ringtone that I was damned proud of.

3 years ago I bought another mobile phone.
It had about 30 ringtones, most of which sounded like twiddly 1980s jazz funk as performed by a bloke with a curly perm on stage at Butlins. None of the ringtones sounded like a 'real' phone. Some of them included unfunny sound effects like babies crying or some deluded woman singing the phrase "ring ring ring". They were crass and embarrassing, and not especially tuneful. If I wanted a different ringtone I could download one from a website, for a fee. I kept the phone on silent as much as possible.

This week I bought another mobile phone.
It has 12 ringtones, most of which sound like tinny dance tracks recorded at 3am in a Mediterranean nightclub and played back through a pair of £1.99 headphones. One of the ringtones sounds like a 'real' phone (circa 1950s America). The others include the phone manufacturer's advertising jingle and some woeful slices of naff R&B trash. They might excite a twelve year old, but not for very long. If I want a different ringtone I can download anything from the Top 40 at the press of a button, for a fee. I'm sticking with the 1950s telephone "brrrring". Such is progress.

 Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Gallowatch: My MP is to be suspended from the House of Commons for 18 days. It's made me smile. The Committee on Standards and Privileges has issued this punishment because our George has been a bit naughty, allegedly. No surprise there. He's concealed the true source of funding for a dodgy-looking charity he set up, one with Iraqi connections. The greedy fool. And he's brought Parliament into disrepute by questioning the integrity of the watchdog that dared to question him. The deluded egomaniac.

Of course, Mr Galloway will not be bowed. He's issued a ranting statement in which he castigates the authority of Parliament and attempts to semi-plead his innocence. But all to no avail. His 18 day ban from the House of Commons begins imminently. Serves the braggard right. Except that this leaves me, and the other voters of Bethnal Green and Bow, without a functioning electoral representative. Hmmm, hang on, I'm sure I've written that before...

In January last year George voluntarily barred himself from Parliament for 21 days by entering the Celebrity Big Brother house. We watched him strutting his stuff in skintight lycra and mewling like an unforgettable pussy, when he might instead have been voting on Crossrail and other matters of local importance. George's standing amongst his constituents has never recovered from the media mauling he received 18 months ago. We're wise to him now - he's all mouth and no responsibility. And what do you know, it turns out that an 18 day Parliamentary ban will have absolutely no impact on his life whatsoever.

George Galloway has one of the very worst voting records of any MP in the House of Commons. Only ten MPs vote less frequently. Five of those are Sinn Féin MPs (who believe in staying well away from Westminster) and four are Speakers or Deputy Speakers (who aren't permitted to vote anyway). That just leaves Clare Short (who's lost interest since she resigned the Labour Whip last year) and then George. He's attended a miserable 13% of all possible Commons votes since the last election (the Parliamentary average is more like 70%). I feel pretty much disenfranchised, to be honest.

George would rather be promoting his new book or mouthing off on TalkSport than speaking in a debate or walking through the division lobby. During the last 18 working days he hasn't spoken or voted in any Parliamentary debate whatsoever. Not once. During the last two months he's spoken on a single occasion only, on the subject of Pakistan, kicking off his speech by mentioning that he holds "the highest civil award that the country can bestow, the Hilal-i-Quaid-i-Azam". Other than that, not a word. The man is an absentee MP already. How can you ban someone from Parliament if they're never there anyway?

I'm indebted to the TheyWorkForYou website for all of this damning electoral evidence. Here I also learn that George earned just over £35000 for his recent stint on Big Brother's Big Mouth, that his TalkSport contract nets him over £100K a year, and that the BBC recently paid for him to go to Qatar and back. I wish they'd left him there.
• Fee for appearing on ITV's 'Don't Call Me Stupid'. (£10,001-£15,000) (Registered 26 June 2007)
• Fee for presenting Big Brother's Big Mouth on C4. (£35,001-£40,000) (Registered 26 June 2007)
• Fees for hosting a radio show every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night on Talk Sport Radio. (£100,001-£105,000)
• Fee from Endemol UK for my appearance on Celebrity Big Brother. (£145,001-£150,000) (Registered 3 March 2006)
I wonder if any of you have an MP who's behaved any worse? Have a look and see. But I bet my MP comes out at the bottom of the heap. No respect, that man, no Respect at all.

 Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Piss Poor Performance

Metronet at Bow RoadAnyone fancy running a railway? Because you couldn't do much worse than the gibbons who are running the London Underground at the moment. I'm talking about the tube's maintenance and renovation contracts here, and I'm talking the commercial disaster area that is Metronet. They thought repairing track and re-tiling stations would be easy. They thought it would be risk-free to cream off profits at the taxpayer's expense. They thought they had a 30 year licence to print money. They were wrong. And now they're paying.

Metronet has responsibility for maintaining nine of London's 12 tube lines. They look after rolling stock, stations, track, tunnels and signals, and are also in charge of upgrading the network. Do it well and they get paid handsomely, but get it wrong and there are heavy financial penalties. Unfortunately, for shareholders at least, a repeated string of incompetent balls-ups doesn't pay well. Unstressed rails buckling in the sun. Frozen points and snowy signal failures. Misplaced equipment derailing passing trains. Overnight engineering work over-running. Etc etc. So yesterday the independent PPP arbiter ruled that Metronet couldn't have lots of additional money to pay off a £2bn overspend, and now the company faces bankruptcy. Hoo bloody rah.

I see this as divine judgement for all the agonies that I, and three-quarters of the network, have suffered over the last 4 years. Metronet started their station renovation program at my local tube station, and made an almighty mess of it. They forced the station to close early when there was bugger all going on inside. They treated heritage features with contempt. They failed repeatedly to complete work to agreed quality thresholds. And they took 20 months to finally finish everything, whereas they were only scheduled to take eight. Two years later, and Bow Road isn't the only station they've botched. Have you been to Epping recently, or Ruislip Manor or Chigwell or Turnham Green or White City or Great Portland Street or Theydon Bois or Chiswick Park? Probably best not to look around too carefully. It's amazing that Metronet have limped on this far, to be honest. Their fall from grace is sweet justice.

But if/when Metronet collapses, there's going to be a downside. All that renovation work still needs doing, there'll just be nobody left to complete it. TfL will have to carry the can for the forseeable future, spending millions of pounds they'd earmarked for other projects. Various stations that are currently mid-re-tile will end up looking a mess for even longer. Metronet's five funding partners are going to have to write-off massive losses (and that's bad for me because one of them supplies my water and another my electricity). And thousands of Metronet's employees are likely to be out of a job, which is a shame because it's not your fault if your boss is rubbish (although perhaps you ought to have noticed by now).

Foreign investors are already circling like vultures, eager to snap up Metronet's leftovers. But I hope that somebody somewhere sees sense and takes this opportunity to pull the plug on these over-generous 30-year infraco contracts. Even TubeLines, responsible for upgrading the rest of the network, hasn't been doing the job terribly well - just relatively better. Why are we giving huge amounts of public cash to private investors? Surely their profits could be better spent on new trains and a decent lick of paint? It may be too late for Bow Road, but London needs to make a better job of protecting and restoring what ought to be the finest underground railway in the world.

 Monday, July 16, 2007

Inconvenience - a play in two parts

Scene 1: Southwark Cathedral
It's Saturday, and my brother and his family are down from Norfolk for the day. We've paused for lunch at Borough Market, where we've purchased organic burgers and fresh pancake-y things, and now we're sat munching them in Southwark Cathedral churchyard.
Youngest nephew: I need to go to the toilet. I need to go now.
Anxious Mum: Oh great, that'll be urgent then. Can somebody accompany him to a nearby toilet?
Devoted uncle: Come on youngest nephew, let's go and find a toilet. Erm, surely there's one around here somewhere.
Youngest nephew: I really need to go to the toilet. I really need to go now.
Devoted uncle: Erm, I can't see a toilet in the market. And I can't see any signs for toilets anywhere. Maybe there'll be one inside the cathedral.
Youngest nephew: I really really need to go to the toilet. I really really need to go now.
Devoted uncle: Ah brilliant, there's a publicly accessible gents toilet in the cathedral's rear extension, down these steps. Perfect. Let's open the door and go in.
An unclean heavily-bearded man is crouched by the sink opposite the urinals. It's not precisely clear what he's up to, but it's not pleasant. He's already peeled off his trousers and boots, revealing scabby legs completely covered in coin-sized red blisters. He smiles, in a kindly but slightly demonic way. He is not an attractive sight.
Bearded devil: Don't be afraid. Do come in.
Youngest nephew: I don't need to go to the toilet. Let's go now.

Scene 2: London Bridge station
We've gulped down the remainder of our lunch, and have hurried off in search of a toilet at the nearby station. Because all stations have toilets.
Youngest nephew: I need to go to the toilet. I need to go now.
Resourceful dad: Damn, the main toilets are on the other side of the ticket barrier. But come this way, because that sign says there's another toilet beside Platform 13.
A few minutes later...
Resourceful dad: There isn't a toilet anywhere near Platform 13, or if there is I can't find it.
Youngest nephew: I really need to go to the toilet. I really need to go now.
Anxious mum: There's a superloo here on the pavement by the bus station, except there's a queue of seven people waiting to use it. We'll never get inside in time.
Youngest nephew: I really really need to go to the toilet. I really really need to go now.
Resourceful dad: Hang on, I've spotted a poster for McDonalds over there. It's only 2 minutes away. They'll have a toilet I can get you into.
A few minutes later...
Resourceful dad (beaming): Success! But I can't believe how difficult that was.
Devoted uncle: It's coming to something when you have to rely on a much maligned multinational company to provide adequate public facilities for performing a bodily function all humans require.
Youngest nephew: Can I have a drink please?

 Sunday, July 15, 2007

  I SPY LONDON
  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 18: London Zoo

Location: Regent's Park, NW1 4RY [map]
Open: 10am - 5:30pm (closes earlier in winter)
Admission: £14.50 (plus optional £1.50 donation)
5-word summary: historic (but expensive) beast-packed menagerie
Website: http://www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo
Time to set aside: a day

giraffes at London ZooLondon Zoo is the oldest scientific zoo in the world, opened in 1828, and occupies a triangle of land in the top right corner of Regent's Park. The zoo is rammed full of grunting squawking beasties, 651 species in total, and every day a 652nd species queues at the entrance gate to come inside and take a look around. It costs a fortune to buy tickets, not helped by an additional £1.50 "optional" donation slapped onto the admission price, and a family of 4 shouldn't expect to see change from £50. But where else in London are you going to see lions, tigers and giraffes? And penguins and zebras? And ickle cutesy-wutesy meerkats? Just remember that all the "big" animals such as elephants, rhinos and cheetahs are housed up the M1 at Whipsnade instead, so don't be disappointed when you don't see any. And don't visit if the Victorian concept of caged animals makes you feel uneasy.

To get the most out of a visit to London Zoo you need to arrive early and keep moving. There are a very large number of enclosures, cages and exhibits crammed into 36 acres, and it's a bit galling to get home, look at the map and notice that you missed something. Follow the green line painted on the paths and you should stumble across most of the creatures housed within. But don't expect to see every animal along your journey. Many spend much of the day asleep, or lurking in their indoor quarters, and it can be quite a challenge to spot them stalking out and about.

Gorilla KingdomThe zoo's newest attraction, opened in March, is Gorilla Kingdom. Essentially it's just a very big enclosure housing three gorillas, but laid out like an African forest clearing with a wiggly pedestrian walkway around the perimeter. Nobody stops to peer into the monkey cages alongside, they're all too busy peering across the moat or through the glass wall to see if the large female is waving her hairy backside at the crowds again. Other new geographical-based habitats include a Rainforest Lookout (packed with "small animals") and an African Bird Safari (a posh name for a mini-aviary). Elsewhere you can now walk through an enclosure swarming with squirrel monkeys, and stroll through a heated tunnel full of giant flapping butterflies. Integration is the zoo's latest watchword, and each new development is moving gradually away from "one cage, one animal".

Several old-style enclosures remain. The giraffes still live in Decimus Burton's 1836 Giraffe House whose simple functional design is very much fit for purpose even in the 21st century. The flamingo pond is even older, not that you'd ever guess. The gloomy Reptile House looks every bit of 80 years old, however, with its slimy inhabitants slithering around inside compact glass-fronted prisons. The owls roost forgotten inside a row of dreary cages to the north of the canal. The bears have been rather luckier. They have a fake terraced mountainside to lumber across, unexpectedly expansive, complete with four concrete peaks and a nice view of the cafe.

giraffes at London ZooFinest of all the zoo's architecture is surely the Lubetkin Penguin Pool - a perfect 1930s example of emerging Modernist design. An elliptical concrete curve, painted shining white, surrounds an azure blue central pond. Two elegant intertwined spiral ramps cross the centre of the pool. Imagine a parade of penguins waddling up the staircase behind, then gently descending the central ramp before splashing into the pool for a swim and going round for another circuit. This is spectator heaven. Unfortunately it wasn't penguin heaven, lacking sufficient environmental variety, and the penguins have now been shipped off to a new enclosure on the opposite side of the park. This has burrows for nesting, and a deeper pool for swimming, and none of that nasty concrete which used to hurt the poor fellows' feet. It's a popular spot, and the daily fish-feeding frenzy still attracts impenetrable crowds, but this mass migration has left the original Grade 1 listed pool unused and overlooked. Zoo authorities have tried filling it with alligators, and later with porcupines, but none of them really settled either. Until further notice this magnificent Art Deco animal hotel remains vacant. [photos]

Despite the exorbitant admission price London Zoo still makes for a winning day out, as a very tired nephew and niece of mine will testify. They were particularly taken by the lions, even though the lions didn't do much apart from snooze on a waterside platform in the afternoon sun. They loved the pack of show-off otters, even more adorable than the grinning meerkats in the enclosure nextdoor. They adored the tiny baby monkey they spotted deep in camouflaged foliage, and pointing her out excitedly to fellow visitors. They enjoyed standing right next to a naughty zebra while it did a poo by the fence. They even liked the Snowdon Aviary, tucked away in the overlooked northwestern corner of the site, where the birds flew free beneath a spiky cabled roof. I just didn't have the heart to tell them afterwards that they probably missed seeing a third of the animals in the zoo because we didn't walk along the right paths. Never mind, that'll give us something to look out for the next time we go.
by bus: 274  by canal: London Waterbus


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my special London features
a-z of london museums
E3 - local history month
greenwich meridian (N)
greenwich meridian (S)
the real eastenders
london's lost rivers
olympic park 2007
great british roads
oranges & lemons
random boroughs
bow road station
high street 2012
river westbourne
trafalgar square
capital numbers
east london line
lea valley walk
olympics 2005
regent's canal
square routes
silver jubilee
cube routes
metro-land
capital ring
river fleet
piccadilly
bakerloo

ten of my favourite posts
the seven ages of blog
my new Z470xi mobile
five equations of blog
the dome of doom
chemical attraction
quality & risk
london 2102
single life
boredom
april fool

ten sets of lovely photos
my "most interesting" photos
london 2012 olympic zone
harris and the hebrides
betjeman's metro-land
marking the meridian
tracing the river fleet
london's lost rivers
inside the gherkin
seven sisters
iceland

just surfed in?
here's where to find...
diamond geezers
flash mob #1  #2  #3  #4
ben schott's miscellany
london underground
watch with mother
cigarette warnings
digital time delay
wheelie suitcases
war of the worlds
transit of venus
top of the pops
old buckenham
ladybird books
acorn antiques
digital watches
outer hebrides
olympics 2012
school dinners
pet shop boys
west wycombe
bletchley park
george orwell
big breakfast
clapton pond
san francisco
thunderbirds
routemaster
children's tv
east enders
trunk roads
amsterdam
little britain
credit cards
jury service
big brother
jubilee line
number 1s
titan arum
typewriters
doctor who
coronation
comments
blue peter
matchgirls
hurricanes
buzzwords
brookside
monopoly
peter pan
starbucks
feng shui
leap year
manbags
penelope
bbc three
vision on
piccadilly
meridian
concorde
wembley
islington
ID cards
bedtime
freeview
beckton
blogads
eclipses
letraset
arsenal
sitcoms
gherkin
calories
everest
muffins
sudoku
camilla
london
ceefax
robbie
becks
dome
BBC2
paris
lotto
118
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