diamond geezer

 Sunday, November 30, 2008

 londonerama
 the capital fanzine
 online edition 3 - November 2008

Welcome to London's essential online newsletter! londonerama is the number 1 internet mag for Europe's number 1 city. We have all the news, all the goss and all the up-front info. Well, some of it anyway. Read on...

muTATE BRITAIN
Badly's Drawn Boy's Deface ValueMetal monsters, deviant art, scrapyard sculptures and a 3 ton dog - not the sort of thing you'd normally see at the straight-laced Tate. But this exhibition's a completely different affair, running every Fri/Sat/Sun up to Christmas on the eastern fringes of the City. The venue is Cordy House, a 6-storey warehouse turned events venue (in Shoreditch, where else?) with a perfect industrial vibe for alternative art installations. The event's curated by Mutoid Waste and brings together "inspiration, evolution, energy ART and LOVE". Tracey Emin was round on Thursday defacing a Phil Collins album cover, and you can see various celebrities' scribbled results upstairs. I'm not convinced that David Cameron quite got the hang of what was expected of him. I also enjoyed Giles Walker's mechanical robot dancefloor, but didn't stay to endure the wheelchair delights of the You Me Bum Bum Train. Definitely leftfield, convincingly heartfelt, well worth a prowl.
Event blog here, Flickr set here.

DISAPPEARING LONDON
It's the same all across the capital. New housing developments are infilling gaps and green spaces everywhere, building unwanted flats for non-existent tenants. Andrew's alerted me to one such proposed development in Forest Hill where 76 apartments are destined to be shoehorned onto a patch of secluded woodland behind Honor Oak Road. Local residents are aghast that these supposed "eco-friendly" homes will be anything but, and are campaigning hard using a classic biodiversity defence. I know that Andrew, and the local stag beetles, would be most grateful for your support.
Read & see more here. Newspaper story here. Sign the petition here.
INTERNATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
National Geographic Store (stairwell abstract)America's big yellow travel magazine, National Geographic, has opened its first ever major retail outpost in Regent Street. It's a flagship store (for which read "big"), and takes up several degrees of the curved end near Piccadilly Circus.

From outside you'd be mistaken for thinking that the glazed frontage concealed a leafy restaurant or maybe an art gallery, and you'd be sort of right. But venture inside and you'll spot a fair amount of ethnic merchandise liberally scattered amongst the three-storey marketplace. Candles and baskets and trinketty boxes abound, along with more useful travel stuff for the discerning middle class nomad. There are Gore-tex jackets galore in the basement, along with other posh clothing overseen by sales assistants in neat khaki uniforms. Upstairs you can grab a map of Everest Base Camp, or buy a dead expensive pair of shady eyewear, or book yourself a landrover safari to somewhere distant and dusty. It's definitely not Milletts, and it's not quite a Brit-angled store either. Oh, and look carefully by the door and you might even find some back copies of the magazine that started it all. Just don't expect to see any of the other shoppers flicking through them.
Unimpressive website here.

SEVERNDROOG SAVED
Severndroog CastleHidden amidst the trees on Shooters Hill is a three-cornered brick tower, erected in 1784 in honour of a reformed pirate. It used to be open to the public, with a tearoom inside, but closed in the late 80s and has been crumbling ever since. Now the Heritage Lottery Fund has come to Severndroog's rescue with a quarter of a million pound grant, and volunteers will finally be able to complete their preservation work. Eventually it's hoped that this folly will be open four days a week, not just one weekend a year, and then everyone can enjoy the great views from the roof again.
Severndroog website here.

Nerdy London bus map mashup: onabus
Plots any London bus route on a Google map
(via Time Out's Big Smoke blog)
dg 2008)

 Saturday, November 29, 2008

109 journeys between Central London Tube stations that are quicker by foot than Tube
(according to this map, from Legible London's Yellow Book - page 30)

Aldgate to: Aldgate East, Bank
Aldgate East to: Aldgate
Angel to: Chancery Lane
Bank to: Aldgate, Blackfriars, Cannon Street, Liverpool Street, Mansion House, Monument, Moorgate, St Paul's
Barbican to: Blackfriars, Chancery Lane, Mansion House, St Paul's
Blackfriars to: Bank, Barbican, Borough, Chancery Lane, Covent Garden, Farringdon, Holborn, St Paul's, Southwark, Waterloo
Bond Street to: Goodge Street, Green Park, Marble Arch, Oxford Circus
Borough to: Blackfriars, Mansion House, Southwark,
Cannon Street to: Bank, London Bridge, Mansion House, Monument, Moorgate, Southwark
Chancery Lane to: Angel, Barbican, Blackfriars, Farringdon, Holborn, Temple
Covent Garden - quicker to walkCovent Garden to: Blackfriars, Charing Cross, Embankment, Holborn, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Temple, Tottenham Court Road
Elephant & Castle to: Southwark
Embankment to: Charing Cross, Covent Garden, Temple, Waterloo
Euston to: Euston Square, Great Portland Street, Regent's Park, Russell Square, Warren Street
Euston Square to: Euston, Goodge Street, Warren Street
Farringdon to: Blackfriars, Chancery Lane, Holborn, St Paul's, Temple
Great Portland Street to: Euston, Goodge Street, Regent's Park, Warren Street
Green Park to: Bond Street, Piccadilly Circus
Goodge Street to: Bond Street, Euston Square, Great Portland Street, Oxford Circus, Regent's Park, Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road, Warren Street
Holborn to: Blackfriars, Chancery Lane, Covent Garden, Farringdon
Hyde Park Corner to: Victoria
King's Cross St Pancras: it's quicker by tube
Leicester Square to: Charing Cross, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, Tottenham Court Road
Lambeth North to: Southwark, Waterloo, Westminster
Liverpool Street to: Bank, Monument, Moorgate
London Bridge to: Cannon Street, Mansion House, Monument
Mansion House to: Bank, Barbican, Blackfriars, Borough, Cannon Street, London Bridge, Moorgate, St Paul's, Southwark
Marble Arch to: Bond Street
Monument to: Bank, Cannon Street, Liverpool Street, London Bridge, Moorgate
Moorgate to: Bank, Cannon Street, Liverpool Street, Mansion House, Monument, St Paul's
Old Street: it's quicker by tube
Oxford Circus to: Bond Street, Goodge Street
Piccadilly Circus to: Covent Garden, Green Park, Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road
Pimlico: it's quicker by tube
Regent's Park to: Euston, Goodge Street, Great Portland Street, Warren Street
Russell Square to: Euston, Goodge Street, Warren Street
St James's Park: it's quicker by tube
St Paul's to: Bank, Barbican, Blackfriars, Farringdon, Mansion House, Moorgate
Southwark to: Blackfriars, Borough, Cannon Street, Elephant & Castle, Lambeth North, Mansion House, Temple, Waterloo
Temple to: Chancery Lane, Covent Garden, Embankment, Farringdon, Southwark, Waterloo
Tottenham Court Road to: Covent Garden, Goodge Street, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus
Tower Hill: it's quicker by tube
Victoria to: Hyde Park Corner
Warren Street to: Euston, Euston Square, Goodge Street, Great Portland Street, Regent's Park, Russell Square
Waterloo to: Blackfriars, Charing Cross, Covent Garden, Embankment, Lambeth North, Southwark, Temple
Westminster to: Charing Cross, Lambeth North

• Roughly speaking, only stations located within the Congestion Charge zone have been included (so no Vauxhall to Oval, and no Bayswater to Queensway)
• I'm not sure precisely how the map was put together, but I'm assuming it's based on surface-to-surface timings (down to the platform, wait for train, catch train, back up to street level)
• I suspect the map has some omissions (and I'm certain they've missed out Chancery Lane to Farringdon, so I've included that)
• The longest journey where it's quicker to walk is Angel to Chancery Lane (1.1 miles)
• The six stations where it's most probably best to walk are Bank, Blackfriars, Covent Garden, Goodge Street, Mansion House and Southwark
• Yes, I know there are more than 109 journeys listed here, because I've counted each journey in both directions.
• And yes, I know there probably aren't exactly 218, but I can't be bothered to count them properly.
• Should QI ever link to this page, three years into the future, please note it is not true that "There are 109 journeys between London’s Tube stations that are quicker to walk". But in Central London, maybe.

 Friday, November 28, 2008

Legible London

In amongst all of London's recent travel news (Western Congestion Zone, who needs it?), some good green tidings have slipped out relatively unnoticed. Boris is busy spending money, on pedestrians. More specifically, on signage for pedestrians. Many Londoners, it seems, choose to hop into their cars or ride on public transport when in fact they could have walked. It's a particular problem in the centre of town. Often important locations are quite close together but, because people haven't internalised a mental map of the capital, they don't realise how close. Stick up some better maps and and signs and fingerposts, and more people will choose to take the two-footed option. That's the theory anyway.

a minilith in South Molton StreetThe project's called Legible London, and it "proposes to change the existing fragmented approach to walking information into a single reliable, consistent and authoritative system." Or, in other words, it's designed to make walking easier. A trial version kicked off in the Bond Street area exactly a year ago. 19 "miniliths" were set into West End pavements, each standing tall like an Arthur C Clarke 2001 black slab. They feature directional info, detailed maps and a street name index, plus a mobile number you can ring for further information. One key addition is an indication of how long it takes to walk somewhere, because people understand time better than miles, yards or kilometres. If you're trying to make your way on foot around unfamiliar streets at the top of Mayfair, these signs really help.

They don't get in the way, either. You might expect a big black block to be a bit of an obstruction, but separate decluttering has ensured otherwise. Gone are lots of unnecessary bits of street furniture and a surfeit of unnecessary obsolete signs. Both minimal and comprehensive, that's the plan.

The new signs are really rather lovely. Maybe it's the clear clean design, or maybe it's the inspired choice of black and yellow, but the enamel surface looks positively lickable. No surprise, then that the Legible London prototypes have met with a very positive reaction from the public. 85% of interviewees said the new system was easy-to-use, two-thirds of respondents said it would encourage them to walk more, and nine out of 10 felt the system should be rolled out across London. So it's going to be. The original Bond Street focus is to be extended along Oxford and Regent Streets over the next few months. Three further lucky areas will see the system rolled out during autumn 2009, and if the cash holds out a lot more of the capital could follow.

a minilith in Oxford StreetSouth Bank and Bankside: That makes sense. The Thames riverside is already teeming with strolling pedestrians, especially at weekends, many of whom only ever stick to the water's edge for fear of getting lost. It's stepping inshore which requires better signage, not least because there are absolutely no underground stations along the South Bank. And the quickest walking route from the London Eye to the Tate Modern isn't along the Thames, but who'd know that without decent maps?

Bloomsbury, Covent Garden and Holborn: That makes sense. There's a warren of non-griddy streets around the eastern West End, and it can be quite hard to tell where you're heading. I suspect TfL have pushed for this area to be included as part of their continuing campaign to get tourists to walk (not tube) to Covent Garden. Short of renaming this crowded deep level station "SmellyPlace Keepaway", it's only decent ground level signage that'll encourage passengers to walk to Covent Garden from somewhere else.

Richmond and Twickenham: That makes sense. Boris likes the suburbs, so why should the centre of town reap all the benefits? Clustering a load of miniliths around Richmond Bridge will be a good test of the system's suitability across more typical swathes of Outer London. Might even encourage a few more drivers to leave their gas guzzlers at home.

Those attending the VIP shopping day in Oxford Street next weekend will be able to find out more by stopping off at TfL's "walking trailer". Further details can be also found on the Legible London website - dormant for the last ten months but which has suddenly reawoken in a flurry of mild activity. One particular statistic in the latest press release caught my eye - the claim that "109 journeys between Central London Tube stations are quicker by foot than Tube." With the aid of Legible London's "Yellow Book", I wonder if I can name all of those tomorrow...

 Thursday, November 27, 2008

Woolworths, Bromley High Street, BR1
Millennium Mills
Just after closing time, on slipping into administration day

These are grim economic times.
Every day seems to bring further news of market turmoil, retail slowdown, property panic, share price collapse, financial hardship, redundancies, belt-tightening, depression and debt.
I reckon there's a certain inevitability to where all this is going...

    UK Political scenario 1
    2008: This looks bad, maybe Gordon can get us through [ouch!]
    2009: This is awful, and it's all that bloody Gordon's fault [eek!]
    2010: Time for a change, surely David can get us out of this [election!]
    2011: With no economic room to manoeuvre, David is no better [cut!]

    UK Political scenario 2
    Something unexpected happens

 Wednesday, November 26, 2008

BoJoWatch: Help a London Park

"The Mayor of London is giving ten grants of up to £400,000 to London's most needy parks to make them cleaner, safer, greener, and nicer places to visit. Londoners are now invited to vote for which parks win an award."

Hurrah! The money Boris saved by scrapping "The Londoner" is being spent on upgrading several of the capital's much-loved parks. Repaint some railings, lay a new multipurpose games pitch, introduce community vegetable plots... that sort of thing. Which sounds great and green and worthy and fantastic. Except for this "vote" nonsense. Here's the catch.

"There are forty seven deserving parks for you to choose from. To make it easier they have been divided into five London sub-regions. The winners will be the two parks in each of the five London sub-regions, which get the most votes."

So 47 parks deserve money, but only 10 will get any. What Londoners are really being asked to choose are the 37 parks that will get nothing. In common with most reality TV shows these days, harnessing the power of the public vote ensures that there will be far more losers than winners. Never mind sharing out the money 47 ways, it's all going to go on two showcase improvements in each of five London sub-regions. If you live in Hillingdon and the money goes to Hammersmith, never mind, maybe it'll be your turn in 2013.




Which means that voting is really important. The ten communities that rally the most online support will get themselves a 21st century landmark park on their doorstep. And everyone else will have to make do with a few swings and a patch of dog-squat grass. Quick, head over to the online voting form and make your choice! Voting ends at 5pm on 30th January 2009, so there's plenty of time to make your voice heard, and that of your friends too. Vote wisely, vote early, and vote often.

Oh hang on, I've just read the rules more carefully. "Each person has just one vote and can vote for only one park. We will be carrying out various checks on the information put into the website by voters and reserve the right to remove any votes where we have reason to believe irregularities have occurred."

That's a relief. Boris has ensured that online voting procedures will be rigorously regulated and strictly scrutinised. There is no possible way that any park-related voting irregularities will be permitted. The online voting form is absolutely totally 100% fraud-proof. Various cunning security devices have been employed to ensure that vote-rigging is absolutely impossible.







See, that's brilliant. By asking voters to give their name, GLA scrutineers will be able to see at a glance whether anyone has voted before. How fortunate that London's voters are trustworthy souls, and wouldn't dream of typing a false name into either box. Or indeed a different false name every day until the end of January. Or pretending to be ten imaginary members of the same family. These evil devious ploys will definitely not work at all.




See, that's brilliant. By asking voters to give their location, GLA scrutineers will gain additional information to help them weed out multiple voters at the same IP address. How fortunate that London's voters are trustworthy souls, and wouldn't dream of pretending to be at a workplace, or at a school, or indeed "at a park", and then giving hundreds of different false names as if the entire community is voting. These evil devious ploys will definitely not work at all.




See, that's brilliant. By asking voters to give their postcode, GLA scrutineers will have all the information they need to prevent mischievous ballot manipulation. How fortunate that London's voters are trustworthy souls, and wouldn't dream of entering a different postcode each time (or, more cunningly, pretending to be at a workplace and then typing in the same postcode every time). These evil devious ploys will definitely not work at all.

So come on London, let's all vote to give our nearest small park a much needed financial boost. I'm starting my 9-week campaign for the Greenway today. And it's refreshing to know that, when the results are announced in February, it'll only be the most deserving parks that win. And definitely not the big well-known parks with well-mobilised community support and an army of deceitful rule-twisting voters.


 Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Transforming the truth

Given the chance, what would you ask TfL bosses about the tube upgrade programme? I've been thinking what I'd ask (were I not busy when the opportunity arose). Three years ago I'd have asked "Why have you just completely buggered up the modernisation of my local tube station?" But that's old news, so I'd now need to ask something more contemporary. I think I'd ask the following...
"Why are you lying to the public about Bank/Monument?"
Bank dragonThe deceit started eight months ago when a major programme of renewal work started on the escalators between Bank and Monument stations. There are two sets of escalators here, one up from the end of the Northern line platforms and the other up from the DLR. Block both of these and you sever the connection between the two stations. At the end of March, that's what TfL claimed to have done. They launched a flurry of publicity to announce that interchange at Bank/Monument was suddenly restricted. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets were distributed announcing
"No interchange at Bank and Monument stations until August 2009 (except between the DLR and Northern lines)"
This was a lie. Only one of the two escalators between the two stations was shut for repair, so interchange between the DLR, Northern and District lines was still perfectly possible. TfL chose not to tell the public this.

The Bank/Monument upgrade is important renewal work, but with serious risk attached. The DLR and Northern lines have no direct exit to the surface, so closing off an escalator could have caused serious overcrowding underground. To prevent this, TfL closed off lots of additional passageways leading down from the Central line. A huge over-reaction, as it turned out, and some of these through routes were soon reopened. Indeed during off-peak hours and at weekends, getting around the Bank/Monument complex was often no trouble at all. But the "it's all blocked, all the time" message continued to hold sway. Replan your journey, interchange somewhere else, please don't come here, ever.

Scary Bank/Monument stickerStickers like this appeared on tube maps all over the Underground. Here, there, everywhere, a bright yellow warning to avoid the Bank/Monument area at all costs. I spotted this particular sticker on the Waterloo and City line. A line with just two stations, and a sticker advising people not to travel to one of them. How ridiculous is that?

Scary Waterloo & City line map

A subtly different message was being given on TfL's website. "Until summer 2009, there is very limited interchange at Bank and Monument stations. This is due to major escalator replacement works. You are strongly advised to use alternative interchange stations." No out and out denial here, no claims that certain routes were definitely blocked. But all contributing to a tangled web of mixed messages and deliberate misinformation.

And then the weekend before last, things changed. A new phase of work kicked off, unannounced, and one more escalator was sealed off. It's now no longer possible to ride down from Monument to Bank, not at all. But it is still possible to ride up in the opposite direction. Got that?

Scary Monument posterHere's the latest poster announcing the new situation, appearing in ticket halls across the network. The title's misleading for a start. Going to Monument isn't a problem, no matter how you get there. Going via Monument, however, that's a different matter.

The first sentence on the poster is false. Interchange between Monument and Bank stations is possible below ground, but only in one direction. TfL should have said "from/to" instead of "between/and", because that would have been true. This distinction is made correctly in sentence two.

And the confusion doesn't end there. There now seems to be no coherent message being applied across the Underground system. What you're being told about Bank and Monument depends on where you are...
Map on a District line train: "No interchange at Bank and Monument stations until August 2009" [false]
Automated announcement on a District line train approaching Monument: "Change here for the Central, Northern and Waterloo & City lines and the Docklands Light Railway" [false] (but sometimes contradicted by driver announcement)
Map on a Central line train: "Major escalator works. Avoid changing at Bank" [true]
Automated announcement on a Central line train approaching Bank: "Change here for the Circle, District, Northern and Waterloo & City lines and the Docklands Light Railway" [still true] (except during busy bits of the rush hour)
TfL website (tube): "Please avoid using Monument Station to interchange with services from Bank." [true] "Until spring 2009 interchange between District and Circle line services at Monument and all services from Bank station is only available at street level due to escalator refurbishment works." [false]
TfL website (DLR): "Until summer 2009, there is very limited interchange at Bank and Monument stations." [limited, maybe, but not "very limited"] "This is due to major escalator replacement works." [true] "You are strongly advised to use alternative interchange stations." [madness]
Leaflet linked from brand new live travel news page on TfL website: "The complexity of this project means there will be no interchange at Bank and Monument stations except between the DLR and Northern lines." [false, and out-of-date]
October 2008 tube map (key to map): "Major escalator work is taking place at Bank and Monument stations." [true] "Avoid interchange between lines wherever possible" [false, some interchanges are fine]
October 2008 tube map (map): No graphical indication of any problems whatsoever (apart from one of those dagger things that everybody ignores) [surely, TfL, the latest map ought to look something like this]


Is this deliberate misinformation, or just disjoint incompetence? TfL appear so keen to keep crowds away from Bank/Monument that they're willing to spread false rumours and incomplete advice. Their relentless oversimplified information keeps sheep-like customers at bay, leaving canny travellers to work out the truth for themselves. And the truth is somewhat simpler...
"You can't change trains from Monument to Bank at the moment. Other interchanges around the two stations are probably OK, but you might want to avoid Bank station during the rush hour."
Oh TfL, you may be doing important work transforming the tube. But why are lying to us while you do it?

 Monday, November 24, 2008

When Frank Woolworth opened his first store in 1879, everything was priced at five cents. In today's nightmare economic climate a Woolworths share now sells for less than that. So I thought I'd better pay a visit while stocks last. Turns out I live in a Woolworths hotspot, with as many as three Woolies stores within a mile and a quarter of my house. I took a shopping list to all three.

My nearest store: 572-574 Roman Road, Bow E3
Woolworths, BowAh, now that looks like a proper shop. Bold brick frontage, windows splashed with 3 for 2 offers, and a big blue lottery sign dumped outside on the pavement. Who could resist? Well, most of E3, by the looks of it. Business wasn't brisk yesterday, maybe thanks to the downpour that preceded my arrival, or more likely because most of the other shops along Roman Road were closed. Inside, for a select few, the usual Aladdin's Cave of retail titbits held limited appeal. Cutlery, extension leads, Dylon... all left untouched in favour of a few Woolies staples. One lady's basket brimmed over with value toys and cheap glitzy decorations - nothing gets in the way of a traditional East End Christmas round these parts. But entertainment's where it's at, and the DVD/CD/Wii section was the only area keeping profits afloat. The staff were matched roughly 1-1 by customers, which enabled them to offer helpful personal service as appropriate. Whilst skulking around the rear of the store I spotted a bald man sitting in the corner in a tiny walled-off wooden office, keeping careful watch over the personnel and the takings. It was like stepping back in time to the department stores of my childhood, which I guess this place still is. I came away with a lemon squeezer for £2, because I needed one. And I came away with the feeling of a friendly local store where the staff still look out for one another and go the extra mile to get things right.

My 2nd nearest store: 43-44 The Mall, Stratford Centre E15
Woolworths, StratfordHow very different. The Stratford store is considerably bigger and busier than Bow, part of a more modern mall development, with a full range of Woolworths paraphernalia stacked up within. You want music? There's a restricted range of top albums and cheap back catalogue (the best selection in town until upstart HMV appeared a few years ago). You want books? There's a very limited handful of bestsellers (completely overshadowed by WH Smith nextdoor). You want stuff for children? There's everything from themed pyjamas to neon plastic pencil sharpeners (and where else on the High Street are you going to find those). You want rotten teeth? Never fear, because the pick'n'mix is still going strong (now scooping at 69p per 100 grams). Something for the car, something for the kitchen, even replacement plastic insoles, it's all packed in here just in case you might ever want it. And often you only realise you want something when you spot it on the shelves, which is why I walked out with 50 binliners and a four quid oven glove. Nothing classy, but tasteful enough. Until the Stratford City development comes along, Woolworths is still top of the shops.

My 3rd nearest store: 10 Vesey Path, Poplar E14
Woolworths, PoplarAnother store, another differently-branded frontage. This one's proper old school, as if central office have forgotten to upgrade the lettering since the 1980s, but inside it felt the most modern store of the three. Neat parallel aisles, a separate checkout area, and a uniformed security guard by the front entrance. Hmm, for how long have Woolworths stores had a uniformed security guard at the entrance? Do bosses think shoppers are going to run off with a pocketful of cola jelly snakes, or maybe whisk away a surreptitious Terry's Chocolate Orange? Late Sunday afternoon it was no trouble keeping an eye on half a dozen customers. Children's clothes were the big draw here, deserving of their own separate department and chosen with cash-strapped local mums in mind. I noted that Woolies' cheapest compilation CD costs a mere £1, and that the store still sells singles but only if they're X Factor related. My thoughts, however, were focused on the Secret Santa gift I needed to buy for work. With a price limit of only £5, where better than Woolworths to hunt down something appropriate and extra cheap? And yes, of course Woolies came up trumps, but I'm now wondering whether I dare wrap and send my special present even under a cloak of anonymity.

You may sneer but, in each of the High Streets I visited, the local Woolworths is the toppermost retailer in town. That's especially true in Bow and Poplar, impoverished neighbourhood centres overlooked by almost every other major national chain store. If these downmarket marketplaces ever shut up shop, they'll be greatly missed.

 Sunday, November 23, 2008

Let's take a closer look at the train fare rip-off. Yesterday I looked at off-peak prices, and today it's rush hour travel. What if you have to travel at breakfast time, how exploited are you? Very, in some cases...

Cost of a return rail ticket from London
 50 MILESRush hour
weekday
Off-peak
weekend
Difference
  1)Basingstoke£17.50£16.6090p
  2)Brighton£18£16£2
  3)Arundel£21.70£20.60£1.10
  4)Ashford£22.60£19.60£3
  5)Colchester£23.30£18.80£4.50
  6)Cambridge£25£14£11
  7)Hastings£25.40£22.80£2.60
  8)Milton Keynes£32.40£14.50£17.90
  9)Bedford£33£16£17
10)Oxford£43.10£19£24.10

Stay close-ish to London and fares don't tend to rise hugely at peak times. A few pounds extra, nothing more... unless you intend to travel northwest, that is. Head to Milton Keynes, Bedford or Oxford and your rail fare more than doubles, which is appalling geographical bias. And what of longer distances?

Cost of a return rail ticket from London
 100 MILESRush hour
weekday
Off-peak
weekend
Difference
  1)Bournemouth£41.40£36.80£4.60
  2)Worcester£57.20£41£16.20
  3)Birmingham£75£30£45
  4)Norwich£78£41£37
  5)Grantham£95£28.30£66.70
  6)Loughborough£108£47.10£60.90
  7)Gloucester£125£45£80
  8)Lichfield£126£39.70£86.30
  9)Bath£133£48£85
10)Calais£270£130£140

Ouch. Only two of these peak time fare rises could be described as minor - one to Bournemouth and one to Worcester. Both towns lie within the old Network Southeast area, which may explain why ticket prices are restricted. Travel anywhere else, however, and your wallet's in danger. You'll need to find an extra forty, sixty, even eighty quid for the privilege of sitting in exactly the same seat to go to exactly the same place, just slightly earlier. Again it's rail passengers heading west or northwest who have to stump up the most.

But what if you're able to plan your journey in advance? For my final analysis I've searched for the cheapest Advance fare available next Monday morning, 1st December, departing around 8am and returning around 6pm. And then I've compared these with the turn up and go fares. In some cases the difference is extreme.

Cost of a return rail ticket from London
 100 MILESAdvance
(pre-book)
Anytime
(turn up & go)
Saving
  1)Norwich£24£78£54
  2)Grantham£25£95£70
  3)Bournemouth£26£41.40£15.40
  4)Loughborough£35£108£73
  5)Worcester£41£57.20£16.20
  6)Gloucester£51.50£125£73.50
  7)Lichfield£56.50£126£69.50
  8)Birmingham£57.50£123£65.50
  9)Bath£69.50£133£63.50
10)Calais£140£270£130

OK, I take it back about Norwich. It is possible to get there relatively cheaply, saving two-thirds off the usual rush hour fare, if you don't mind catching a specific train. Advance booking to Grantham saves nearly three-quarters, which is phenomenal. Even taking the fast Virgin train to Birmingham, extortionate as it is, can be done at half price.

So yes, forward planning can save you a packet, although it can also be damned inconvenient. Timed tickets force you to arrive at the station really early, both on the way out and on the way back, because you absolutely definitely daren't miss your bargain train. Advance fares are perfect for those who don't want to waste money and don't mind wasting time. I have to say, that's not usually me.

My commenters recommend booking your rail travel in advance via the National Express East Coast website, which they assure me (unlike the trainline) incurs no nasty booking fee. There are further useful (if farcical) hints here. Oh, and as for impromptu day trips to France... just don't. Not unless work's paying.

 Saturday, November 22, 2008

Time for the annual announcement regarding rail fare rises. Not in Boris's London fiefdom, but increases expected across the national rail network. Trying to get from Exeter to Edinburgh, or commute daily from Liverpool to Manchester? These price hikes will affect you.

Six or seven per cent, on average, that's the level of fare increase to be expected in the New Year. That's deliberately above inflation, because the Government allows rail companies to raise prices by more than inflation to pay for infrastructure improvements. It makes sense, they say, to fund track repairs and extra carriages through ticket prices and not the tax payer. As more people travel by train, overcrowding increases and even greater investment is required, which can be paid for out of increased ticket sales. Or something. The whole argument sounds slightly dodgy to me, not least because it has one unavoidable consequence. Travelling long distances by train in Britain is bloody expensive.

Wouldn't it be nice to pop up to Liverpool from London this weekend to enjoy a bit of Culture? That'll be £62.60, please. I think not. And for this princely fee you'd also get to sit on a rail replacement bus between Northampton and Birmingham, making the total length of the journey about five and a half hours. It'd be quicker, and cheaper, to drive. Our rail tickets help to pay for necessary extra engineering works, but these extra engineering works make rail journeys pretty much unbearable. Sorry Liverpool, I don't have either the time or the money to waste, so I won't be visiting.

And yes, I know booking in advance saves money. If I knew I was planning to visit Liverpool in four weeks time, and if I knew precisely which trains I intended to travel on, I could get there for £42 (in just over two hours). But my life's not planned that carefully that far ahead, neither would I want it to be. I want to turn up at the station, buy a ticket and go. And so I'm screwed.

What about rail journeys around London and the South East, how crippling are fares here? Depends where you go, it seems. I travel up to Norwich quite often, a return journey which now costs as much as £41, and which'll be more like £43.50 next year. That's quite a hike from even five years ago, when a similar ticket would have cost me just £30. But if I wanted to go to Worcester it'd only cost £32.40 (or, in fact, £21.60 thanks to my annual travelcard which allows me one-third off all rail fares in the "Network Card" area). Some rail journeys are better value than others, because some evil rail companies have been raising prices faster than others.

So I thought I'd do a value for money destination check. I've selected several towns that are approximately 50 miles from London, and several that are approximately 100 miles from London. Then I've found the cost of an off-peak return ticket, travelling today, turn up and go. And then I've ranked the towns in order of cheap-to-visit-ness. Where's good to go from London, and where (in these credit crunch times) is best avoided?

Cost of an off-peak rail ticket from London
 50 miles from London100 miles from London
  1)Cambridge £14*Grantham £28.30
  2)Milton Keynes £14.50*Birmingham £30*
  3)Bedford £16Worcester £32.40
  4)Brighton £16Bournemouth £36.80
  5)Basingstoke £16.60Lichfield £39.70
  6)Colchester £18.80Norwich £41
  7)Oxford £19Gloucester £45
  8)Ashford £19.60Loughborough £47.10
  9)Arundel £20.60Bath £48
10)Hastings £22.80Calais £130
* via slow train

I'm disturbed to see how different these prices are for travelling the same distance. Why go to Hastings when you could go to Brighton for one-third less? How can it be £12 dearer to travel to Gloucester then Worcester? And Grantham and Loughborough may only be a few miles apart, but they're served by different rail companies so one's £20 more expensive to visit than the other. Ah, for the golden days of regular British Rail pricing. And it can only get more expensive, more irrationally, more fool us.

 Friday, November 21, 2008

I hate parties.
    12 Jumbo Tempura Prawns: 6 Lightly seasoned, 6 hot and spicy.
I never know what to wear.
    10 Mini Pizza Slices: 5 Cheese & tomato, 5 BBQ chicken & pineapple.
When I see what everyone else is wearing, I always wish I'd worn something else.
    12 Pastry Boats: 6 Oriental duck & vegetable, 6 vegetable & salsa.
I always turn up too early.
    12 Sticky Chicken Skewers: Chicken skewers with an oriental style sauce.
I either forget to bring a bottle, or I bring something inappropriate.
    12 King Prawn Spoons
I never know anybody except the host, who's always too busy to talk.
    15 Crispy Duck Parcels: Duck & vegetable parcels with a hoisin dip.
I stand around near conversations trying to look interested.
    12 Mini Chicken Kievs
I usually end up talking to the really boring person nobody else wants to talk to.
    12 Tortilla Wraps: 6 Fajita chicken, 6 hoisin duck.
I hope he's not thinking the same thing.
    12 Mini Quiche Slices: 6 Mediterranean vegetables, 6 quiche lorraine.
I hate half of all buffet food, but because it's not labelled I never know which half.
    12 Spicy Nachos: 8 Chilli beef, 4 spicy chicken.
I sometimes risk biting into a filo parcel only to discover it contains yucky stuff.
    14 Butterfly King Prawns Skewers: 7 Lightly seasoned, 7 sweet chilli.
I hate dips.
    10 Mini BBQ Pork & Chorizo Kebabs: BBQ flavour pork and chorizo with onions on skewers.
I can't remember anybody's name, even though I was introduced to them all earlier.
    18 Mini Cornish Pasties
I look lost.
    30 Cheese Puff Selection: 10 Cheese, 10 cheese & onion, 10 cheese & ham.
I always think something more interesting must be happening in another room.
    20 Chicken Goujons: 10 Garlic & herb, 10 plain.
I often stand by a bowl of peanuts and eat far too many of them.
    10 Mini Beef & Pepperoni Kebabs
Sometimes I only stay awake by listening to the background music, even though it's rubbish.
    20 Breaded Cheese Bites: 10 Cheese & chilli, 10 cheese & garlic.
It seems impolite to be the first person to leave, even though I want to be.
    20 Tikka Bites: With cocktail sticks.
I ought to say goodbye to the host, but I don't want to interrupt them.
    18 Mini Hot Dogs: Hot dog sausage rolled in pastry.
There is nowhere quite so lonely as the middle of a crowd.
    12 Breaded Jalapeno Peppers: Breaded jalapeno peppers with cream cheese.
I hate parties.
    24 Mini Eclairs
Just as well I never get invited to any.

 Thursday, November 20, 2008

...and then sometimes I think I shouldn't be blogging, I should be doing something useful instead. Like tidying up. So I thought I'd combine the two. That small table by my front door, it needs a good tidy. Let's see how much of it I can clear away...

Stuff on the small table by my front door  [ keep on table, remove]
Front door keys, wallet, Oyster (they stay)
Spare set of front door keys (must give to BestMate, just in case I ever lock myself out)
Work security pass (that photo is so old now)
P60 tax certificate (sigh, I thought I'd looked everywhere for that three months ago) (file it)
Repeat prescription (must not lose this, must not lose this)
Outpatients appointment card (must keep safely until Easter)
Christmas card from the Royal Mail telling me how good they are ("recycle now")
Handwritten note from bloke in the flat nextdoor asking me to turn my music down (sheesh, even I can hardly hear it most of the time)
Route map for Beijing 2008 London torch relay (can be safely binned I think)
Receipt from pub lunch celebrating Dad's 70th birthday (I should bin this, but I know I won't)
Various till receipts (5) (well, you never know when you might need them)
Various cashpoint receipts (3) (not sure I'll ever need these)
Obsolete Tesco Clubcard (2) (fold, snap, bin)
Voucher offering 25 Extra Clubcard Poiints when I spend £2.00 or more on Fresh Fish (Tesco not quite pushing the boat out there)
Empty camera case (wish I hadn't bothered buying it now, never use it)
Handkerchiefs (2) (into the linen basket with them)
Free biros (3) (I wonder if they're allowed in the recycling)
iPod shuffle (and spare headphones) (perfect for blocking out the rush hour)
Stumpy remnants of a packet of Polos (I never seem to get round to eating the last two)
Shiny silver watch (my "weekends and evenings" timepiece)
Squeezy pink pig (ahh, I love my squeezy pink pig)
£19 Rail ticket (must claim this back on work expenses)
Badge saying "I ♥ Hackney" (I'll never wear it, but I bet I could give it away)
Julie's business card (I bet she doesn't work there any more)
Free Walkers pedometer (battery's dead, must get a new one)
Milton Keynes bus timetable (unlikely to be of any future use)
Secret Santa nameslip (ooh, I've drawn my former boss, the possibilities for mischief-making are endless)
Poppy (I really should chuck this away and buy a new one next year)
1p coins (3) (I'll add these to the jar of 300 or so I've got elsewhere)
Framed photograph of Whitstable beach (stays)

 Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Travelling around London at the weekend is no fun. It used to be that tube services ran pretty much as normal on Saturdays and Sundays, but no more. Weekend services have become blighted by a increasing number of engineering works, and we've now reached the stage where lines without closures are in a minority. Yes, I know that these engineering works are no doubt essential, and they all help to ensure that the tube runs better in the future. But the short term effect of 'transforming the tube' is 'destroying the weekend'. Like, for example, last Saturday.
diamondgeezer: I want to slap the idiot who shut the Circle line, the middle of the District line, the middle of the Jubilee line and 90% of the DLR. Hard.
04:55 PM November 15, 2008 from txt
I was at Sloane Square trying to get back to Bow, which is normally one direct train. But not last Saturday. The District line was suspended between Embankment and Whitechapel, and the Circle line wasn't running at all. Never mind, I'd go as far as Westminster and change there for the Jubilee... ah, no, couldn't do that either. I waited ages for the first District line train east, which (when it finally arrived) was rammed full like a Monday morning rush hour. At Westminster various folk got off to change to the Jubilee line, not having heard (or understood) that it wasn't running from here. And I eventually made it to Waterloo, and thence to Canary Wharf for the DLR home... oh damn, that wasn't running either. All in all, unexpectedly hellish.

The trick is to go out prepared. TfL have got better over the years at warning us what they're shutting down each weekend so that we can adjust our plans appropriately. A page in the Metro, big weekly posters at tube stations, even a list of shutdowns they'll post you in a Wednesday email if you so desire. Oh, and the 'weekend' tab on the live travel news page on the TfL website. You know the one. A text-based line-by-line list which details what's going to be shut and between which stations. It's OK if you know the network well, but quite hard to assimilate otherwise. What's really needed here is a map to show clearly what's open and what's blocked. And what do you know, as of this week there now is.

Welcome to the new (Flash) TfL "Planned engineering works" webpage. Look, there's now a map which shows clearly what's open and what's blocked! There's no Circle line at all this weekend, that's instantly obvious. A couple of bits of District line are shut too, which are much better visualised (aha, there and there) than deduced ("suspended between Earls Court and Embankment and between High Street Kensington and Edgware Road"). If you'd like to see part of the map more distinctly, just zoom in. Want full explanatory text? Just point at the closures on the map and a text box appears (and there's a full list of lines to the left of the map with matching information). Clever innit? It's easy to see that one end of the Jubilee's stuffed, and the top end of the Metropolitan too. More importantly, it's dead simple to see which bits of the network are open and unobstructed. Planning your weekend just got easier.

Mostly easier, anyway, because there's still the odd snag. The Waterloo & City line appears on the map even though it's open as normal. It's never open before 8am on a Saturday, nor any time on Sunday, so the map shows it as "shut". The associated W&C text isn't much help either, giving no clue whatsoever that the line closes early on a Saturday evening. And then there are two lines with engineering work, neither of which show up on the map at all. One's the DLR which is half-shut this weekend. The DLR lines do appear on the new Flash map but the DLR engineering works don't, because the DLR's not a 'tube' line. Ditto the London Overground. The Barking end's closed on Sunday, but this doesn't appear as a blockage on the map. TfL's insistence on tabbing their engineering work by travel mode has led to some unhelpful uncoordinated thinking.

Still, mustn't grumble. The new map's a big step in the right direction, and conceals some even cleverer functionality. There's now a date option so that you can check future engineering work on any day in the next four weeks. The weekend after next, Metroland and Upminster and are sealed off. The weekend after that, there's virtually no disruption at all (unheard of!). And the weekend after that, try not to go to Farringdon or Dagenham. Plan ahead, plan wisely.

The new map won't put an end to weekend severance gridlock, and it won't make an army of rail replacement buses go away. But it should help to prevent Londoners from heading into a transport void by mistake, and it might even help me get home quicker.

Newly available: Interactive map of planned engineering works
Still available: Journeyplanner Real time disruption map
Still available: pdf of line closures for the next 6 months [Advance warning: major Jubilee line shutdown next Easter]

 Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Courtauld GalleryFine Art: Courtauld Gallery
Small, and yet perfectly formed. The Courtauld Gallery displays the sparkling art haul of a few seriously rich collectors, and is crammed away on the northern side of Somerset House. Normally it's a fiver to get in, but turn up before 2pm on a Monday and entrance is free. I turned up at quarter to, with a smile, and joined the crowds of clued-up frugal visitors within.

Room one's all the old stuff. Early Renaissance Italian, much of it gold and gleaming, with a particularly heavy dose of Virgin Marys. Then on (and on) up the 18th century semi-spiral staircase to a floor of key French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. I'm not good with my 19th century Parisian art movements, but I know a famous name when I see it and here there are plenty. One of Manet's last major works, some Monets and a lot of Cézannes, just for starters. There's the famous portrait of Van Gogh with his bandaged ear, and upstairs a lot of spotty Seurats too. In just a handful of the Courtauld's rooms there are art treasures encompassing a century of French canvas excellence. I have a hunch that the spotty schoolkids I saw at Tate Britain would have learnt rather more here, and rather quicker.

The Courtauld boasts a great period setting. The ceilings are works of art in themselves, and fine-crafted artefacts such as tables and a harpischord are scattered throughout. There's long been a teaching establishment based here, and 200 years ago the Royal Academy School of Art filled these rooms. Its most famous student is probably JMW Turner, and there's currently a temporary exhibition of his work in an upper room. It was packed, mostly with cultured visitors of Freedom Pass age, who know a top free event when they see one. If you ever have a (non Bank Holiday) Monday off work, why not slip in? Alternatively the famous Somerset House ice rink opens again tomorrow for its winter season, and (what?! £10.50 during the day and £12.50 for an evening session?!) that's free to look at too.
by tube: Temple

Tate BritainCubed Art: Tate Britain
It can't be easy being Tate Britain. For a century you're the gallery to visit, centre of artistic attention, a cultural hub. Then your parents give birth to a younger sibling - Tate Modern - and everybody flocks there instead. Always the way with babies isn't it? Loud, cute and dripping with novelty value, and therefore magnetically attractive at the expense of the rest of the family. Which is a shame, because Tate Britain's as fascinating as it ever was, if only everyone else would notice.

The main gallery's classical Victorian, built on the site of the notorious Millbank Penitentiary. Within its 30 or so rooms is laid out the history of British Art from 1500 to the present day. The old stuff's to the left, and the 20th century's to the right. And don't worry, it's now quite safe to walk down the bit in the middle because the twice-a-minute athletic sprinty thing ended on Sunday. As you wander through you'll see how BritArt evolved, from portraits and religious iconography to landscapes and finally peculiar abstract splodges. Don't worry, there aren't too many splodges in Pimlico, most of that part of the Tate's collection is on the South Bank instead.

If you visit on a weekday, watch out for the school parties. The place was crawling with them yesterday - a complete range of ages from infants to A Level groups. The youngsters were making their own swishy capes in the middle of Gallery 2, then parading up and down to show off their arty handiwork. The exam classes were milling around everywhere else, some posh and floppy, others merely trendy and aspirational. They hovered around various paintings and sculptures, most sketching a copy into their notebooks, but a few just tittering at Tracey Emin's cruder outpourings. Beats sitting in the classroom looking at jpegs.

In a modern extension (past the shop) are many of the works of JMW Turner, all glowing skies and brooding clouds. Some are ace, with the upstart genius's brilliance shining through, while others just looked like weak luminescence. And then there are two paid-for exhibitions, one Francis Bacon retrospective and one Turner Prize shortlisting. I'm advised that the Bacon's unmissable and the Turner's prestigious, but at nearly £20 for the two I was willing to pass both by. Maybe I've been conditioned to expect my art for free, but when there's a room full of Constables down the corridor for nothing I'm perfectly happy enough.
by tube: Pimlico

 Monday, November 17, 2008

I have a love-hate relationship with books. I love them, as you could probably tell if you saw the shelves and shelves of them in my flat. Lovely lovely books, with pages full of fascination, delight and pleasure. And I hate them, because I own far too many that I've never properly read. Dull uninspiring books, with covers that promised much but delivered little.

I do try really hard not to throw my money away on books. When mulling over a literary purchase, I always ask myself "will I actually read this, or am I merely attracted to the concept of owning a book on this subject?" I rarely buy books the instant I see them. Usually I'll carry on round the shop, or come back to the shop later, or even defer purchase to another day and maybe buy it then. I don't buy hardbacks, not unless there's absolutely no alternative. I'll often wait a year in case a book comes out in paperback, just to save a few pounds. And if a paperback costs over a tenner then I can probably resist buying it at all, because I can't cope with the concept of paperbacks costing that much.

I don't use Amazon or any equivalent online services for book purchasing purposes. I know that they sell books rather cheaper than in the shops, but once you add postage and packing the price soon creeps up again. It's also too easy to get carried away click- click- click-ing and to end up buying a whole bundle of books you don't really need. I won't buy a book I haven't physically seen, because that's just courting disappointment. Oh, and it's impossible to fit a book-sized package through my letterbox anyway, so Amazon's stuffed.

However, my existing collection of books contains far too many volumes best described as "a waste of money". Some of these have been bought for me. Somebody saw a book, thought I'd like it and wrapped it up, hoping they'd scored a literary bullseye. And they were wrong, even though I tried very hard to conceal that at the time of unwrapping. Other failures I bought myself. "Ooh that looks interesting," I thought. Maybe I'd been drawn in by a catchy title, or an alluring cover design, or tempting subject matter. Almost certainly I'd flicked rapidly through the book in the shop and thought "yes, it looks like there's plenty worth reading in here." But it turned out I was wrong.

To illustrate this point I'd like to introduce the concept of a Book Value Index (BVI), measured in "minutes per pound". Take the cost of a book, then tot up how long has been spent actually reading it, and divide one by the other. A great book costs a little and gets read a lot, so has a high BVI. And a poor book costs a lot and is barely read at all, so has a low BVI. Let me illustrate with four typical books from my shelf.

» Book 1 cost £7.99, and I've read it once. I'm quite a fast reader, so I knocked it off in three hours flat. That's 180 minutes for £8, which equates to 22 minutes per pound. [BVI=22]
» Book 2 cost £6.99, and I've read it twice. A story has to be pretty good for me to read it again. That's six hours for £7, which equates to 50 minutes per pound. [BVI=50]
» Book 3 cost £10, and I've skimmed through it once, taking no more than half an hour. That's 30 minutes for £10, which equates to only 3 minutes per pound. [BVI=3]
» Book 4 also cost £10, and it's one of those special Christmas gift books so often bought as a stocking filler. I've flicked through it once, a few minutes after I unwrapped it. Ha ha, yes, funny, flick, yeah and that, flick, done. And never again. That's five minutes for £10, which equates to a feeble 30 seconds per pound. [BVI=0.5]

I need to try to buy more books with BVI>20, and to avoid buying more turkeys with BVI<5. It's just so hard to predict which is which before I get them home. Yes, I know I really ought to join my local library, because that way books are free and my BVI is therefore infinite. But in the meantime, if you're thinking of buying me a book for Christmas, be warned. I'll probably smile, glance through it and then stick it on a shelf, never to be glanced through again. And I'd hate you to waste your money on another BVI=½.

 Sunday, November 16, 2008

Saatchi GalleryNouveau Art: Saatchi Gallery
Have you been yet? The new Saatchi Gallery in the King's Road, down Chelsea way. It's been open for a month, have you not popped in? It's free to get in, which is a bit of an improvement on the gallery's previous incarnation on the South Bank. And it's full of art! You're bound to go there some time, so why not go soon? well, maybe.

Charles Saatchi's latest art emporium is based in the former Duke of York's Building, a grand Georgian barracks with strong Palladian columns and an extensive grassy square outside. Appearances can be deceptive. Once through the door, the interior is anything but ancient. A pair of brightly lit galleries lead off to each side, each a shuttered white box in which to hang the adman's latest whim. To the rear a modern extension, not huge, but enough for an extra gallery and some extra staircases. There are three roughly identical floors, each a little anonymous, plus some additional space and a shop in the basement. Plenty of room, very flexible, and ripe for revisiting.

Ash Head No 1The first major exhibition here is of New Chinese Art. Nobody you'll have heard of, Charles specialises in the unknown, but this is familiar western-style art with a very definite Oriental flavour. Yes that is Chairman Mao sitting in the royal coach with the Queen Mother, you get the idea. Bold canvases dominate some rooms, surreal sculptures dominate others. It's the latter that you'll remember later. A landscape of architectural icons created from dog chews. The top half of an inscrutable head. A ponytailed mannequin licking the floor. A donkey climbing a metal skyscraper, and a giant turd (not connected). One major work, in the two-floor rear gallery, involves resin human bodies hanging hairless from the ceiling like plucked meat. Down in the basement are 13 old men (who look suspiciously like world leaders) slouched in motorised wheelchairs which move aimlessly back and forth. Not so much geriatric dodgems as an attempt at pointed political satire, and a big hit with visiting punters.

The gallery has an unusual atmosphere, especially if you're used to more formal presentation. There are no barriers in front of the paintings or sculptures, there's just the occasional notice asking you to respect the artworks and to keep children from touching them. No problem if you want to walk into the middle of the wheelchair display, for example, and become part of the performance. Photography is also permitted, big time. The more intriguing pieces each gather a small crowd wielding their cameras or mobiles, which feels either wonderfully inclusive or disturbingly intrusive, depending on your point of view. But it's an interesting space nonetheless, which stands or falls on the choice of works placed therein. Worth a look?
by tube: Sloane Square

through the window of the Serpentine GalleryModerne Art: Serpentine Gallery
Four rooms, regular exhibitions, middle of Kensington Gardens, free admission. Sounds like a perfect cultural detour if you're ever on a stroll in the area, like I was yesterday. So I popped inside, uncertain of what the latest exhibition might involve. Aha, the work of Gerhard Richter, "one of the world's greatest living artists". Sounded promising. But what was this? We were being treated to one of his works of abstract art entitled 4900 Colours. Imagine a grid of coloured tiles, 5 by 5, comprising bright monochrome squares randomly arranged. Then take three further tiles, similarly random, and assemble them (randomly) to create a 10 by 10 square. No point looking for deliberate pattern, there isn't any, just a (random) burst of variegated colours like a wildly haphazard bathroom wall. Then create 48 further 10×10 grids, all equally random, and display them around the gallery in a random order. And that's the entire exhibition. The curators described this as "stunning sheets of kaleidoscopic colour". I described it as "an awful lot of coloured tiles", and "something so bloody simple that I could have thought of it, but didn't". The exhibition was quite pretty for a bit, but then repetitive, and then extremely repetitive. Sorry, but I can't search for meaning in random art because by definition there isn't any. Not impressed. There may be money in it, however, in which case I reckon we should all head down to Topps Tiles for a selection of coloured offcuts and some grout.
by tube: Knightsbridge

 Saturday, November 15, 2008

London 2012  Olympic update
  Power down


Hackney Marshes pylon droopPylons stalk the horizon in locations across the UK. They dominate the view, standing tens of metres tall, tainting the scenery. An army of steel soldiers, linked by cable, transmitting electricity from supply to demand. They cast a permanent shadow on the landscape because their removal would be unfeasibly expensive, and because energy is more important than aesthetics. Except here in the Lower Lea Valley, that is. After years of aerial blight, the arrival of the Olympics requires the unthinkable. It's suddenly a government imperative that the area looks nice by 2012, and that means emptying the sky of metal. Our pylons are coming down.

52 pylons are being dismantled altogether, stretching from Lea Bridge in the north to West Ham in the south. That's rather more than would seem strictly necessary, given that only about ten of these lie within the boundaries of the Olympic Park. But a couple stand very close indeed to the site of the Olympic Stadium, and it would never do to spear a javelin into the overhanging wires. Clearing this central section is the sporting and political imperative, and improving the view across Hackney Marshes and the Greenway merely a happy by-product.

There's been work going on for a couple of years to dig two 6km tunnels beneath the Olympic Park, and these are now filled with 200km of electrical cabling. It's a damned impressive civil engineering project, particularly completed in so short a time, but quite hard to crow about when there's nothing to see on the surface. Subterranean power was successfully switched on in the summer, making the pylons redundant. And this week the long-awaited dismantling finally began.

Greenway pylon dismantlingI'm surprised by the pace of change, especially along the Greenway across Stratford High Street. Long thin metal cages hang from the arms of one particular pylon, allowing workers elevated access to the cable connections. On one side the wires are already detached and disappeared, on the other severance is merely imminent. Another deconstruction hotspot is at the top end of Hackney Marshes, near the Middlesex Filter Beds, where a cluster of yellow-jacketed workers have clearly had a busy week. Transmission coils hang vertically from each arm of one doomed pylon, its web of cables now drooping limply towards the ground. Another pylon is already cable-free, awaiting permanent dismantling. Being in open ground it'll probably be toppled over, whereas other pylons in more awkward spots will require the presence of an enormous crane to aid their removal.

They'll all be gone in a few months, clearing the way for further Olympic construction and brightening my local landscape. My apologies if you live in an area of outstanding natural beauty blighted by pylons, because yours are unlikely ever to vanish. But sometimes the incredibly unlikely can be proved possible, and all it takes is political will, and a fortnight of athletics, and an awful lot of cash.

The Pylon Appreciation Society
London 2012 video about pylon removal
London 2012 fact-packed press release
Map of the 52 doomed pylons (best viewed large)
My latest Olympic Stadium photo (includes two doomed pylons)

» Sebastian Coe, Chairman of the London 2012 Organising Committee, said: 'This is a great example of how an Olympic and Paralympic Games can help revitalise and regenerate a city." (which translates as "We're making the Stratford area look a little nicer, which quite frankly isn't difficult")
» ODA Chief Executive David Higgins said: 'The pylons in the Olympic Park will all be down by the end of the year, unlocking the area for the development of new homes, world-class sports venues and essential infrastructure.' (which translates as "We'll never be able to sell these houses if they're built under pylons")
» Mayor of London Boris Johnson said: 'For as long as I can remember the first thing that strikes you as you travel further to the east of town are these ugly structures dominating the skyline and blighting the area.' (which translates as "I have a blinkered negative view of east London, and thank God I don't have to live there")
» EDF Energy Chief Executive Vincent de Rivaz said: 'As the first London 2012 sustainability partner and energy utilities partner we are proud to be playing a key role in helping to deliver what will be a truly sustainable Games and ensuring that come 2012, the organisers have a resilient supply of electricity.' (which translates as "I never said that, but I have a PR team experienced in writing press releases full of on-message drivel")


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What's on this weekend?
Hackney Wicked Art Festival
Fri 1st - Sat 3rd August
Annual leftfield artfest on the
Olympic borders. It's always
fascinating to snoop around.

twenty blogs
853
arseblog
ian visits
londonist
scaryduck
blue witch
the great wen
onionbagblog
edith's streets
spitalfields life
linkmachinego
tired of london
in the aquarium
round the island
christopher fowler
thamesfacingeast
one bus at a time
ruth's coastal walk
london reconnections
uk general election 2015

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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
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