diamond geezer

 Friday, July 31, 2009

Regular readers will know that August on diamond geezer is local history month. Oh yes, it's nearly time once again for a big all-consuming safari, stretched out over weeks and days, blogged about in enormous detail. Rejoice! (or run away)

I've been doing this every August for the last six years. In-depth psychogeographic analysis of a series of eclectic London-centric locations, generally linear in nature, with daily posts reporting back on the sights and sounds along the way...
» August 2003: Where I live (famous places within 15 minutes of my house)
» August 2004: Piccadilly (a walk down Mayfair's most famous street)
» August 2005: the River Fleet (tracking the subterranean river) [photos]
» August 2006: Betjeman's Metro-land (Baker Street to Verney Junction) [photos]
» August 2007: Walk London (following bits of our six strategic walks) [photos]
» August 2008: High Street 2012 (the Olympic highway from Aldgate to Stratford) [photos]
» August 2009: ?????

As for what this year's local history month will bring, you'll find out tomorrow. I've picked a theme that's proper local to where I live, but also local to a lot of other places too. Some of these places I've been to before, but most of this will be unblogged territory. I've already been out researching the first bits of whatever it is, with plenty of visits still to go. And I hope that the rain holds off long enough to allow me to investigate the rest before the end of August.

Most of what I'm going to write about will be regarding nowhere you know, so I'm expecting my reports to be of limited interest. Don't worry, August has five weekends, so I thought I'd hide most of my reportage at the weekends when blog footfall is lowest. There'll still be plenty of normal non-special blogstuff on the intervening weekdays, just to ensure that I don't haemorrhage too much of my audience along the way. But I might go all-out-LHM for the last week of August, just to annoy you, so be warned. If you don't give a stuff about somewhere that's not in any way local to you, safest to go away and come back in September. I don't care, because (as ever) I'm writing this blog for me, not for you. So bring it on. Let's boldly go.

Local History Month - starts hereAs an added teaser, I've already uploaded the first photo from the first location.
I've not labelled it, or commented on it, or geotagged it, so it's not much help.
And I doubt it's anywhere that most of you will recognise either.
But it might give you a clue or two regarding where I'm going.
Local History month 2009 starts here. Starting tomorrow.

 Thursday, July 30, 2009

NLONDON A-Z
An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
National Army Museum

Location: Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, SW3 4HT [map]
Open: 10am - 5:30pm
Admission: free
Brief summary: military history/subliminal recruitment
Website: www.national-army-museum.ac.uk
Time to set aside: a couple of hours

National Army MuseumIt's amazing how many museums in London (and elsewhere) are dedicated to our armed forces. Maybe that's because Britain's military has an auspicious history stretching back across the centuries. Maybe it's because because generations of retired soldiers have an awful lot of battle-related memorabilia. Maybe it's because a grateful nation wants to pay tribute to Our Brave Lads, especially the dead ones. Or maybe it's because Britain will always need more cannon fodder, so somebody's got to make the job sound enticing.

It's surprisingly big, the National Army Museum, especially for a museum you've never heard of let alone seen. You'll find it off the beaten track in Chelsea, next to the far more impressive Royal Hospital (where the Pensioners live). The first building on the museum site belonged to Robert Walpole, Britain's first Prime Minister, but a German bomb put paid to that and its modern replacement has all the architectural charm of a 1960s power station. At the entrance there's the usual security search, and then any bags you might be carrying are whisked away into a rear office for safe keeping, no questions asked.

Helmand homelifeA door to the left leads to the special exhibition gallery, which at the moment (last weekend coming up!) features Helmand: The Soldier's Story. I entered expecting propaganda, and a screen near the start looping video of the Twin Towers collapse did nothing to change my mind. But then things improved, and this was because all of the exhibits had been selected by the ground troops and officers, not some desk-bound curator far from the desert frontline. Weapons, diaries, a medical tent, first-hand accounts of the relentless pressure, even a waistcoat of gun-webbing to try on. The most evocative installation was nothing military, just a collection of canvas beds that act as the batallion's home from home. Stacked up in two IKEA clothes racks were some pairs of camouflage trousers, a green towel, a can of 7 Up, a deodorant and a tube of toothpaste. Ordinary people using everyday objects in extraordinary circumstances, and hoping that they'll make it home at the end of their tour of duty.

Enough of the modern stuff. The museum tells the story of the British army (past the coffee bar, through the souvenir shop) starting way back in 1066. It scampers through the next half-millennium incredibly fast, choosing to kick off in detail with the English Civil War. To its credit, the displays are set very much in a historical context. There are no endless cabinets of tedious weaponry, although illiterate visitors might wish there was a bit more to look at rather than read. I had the entire Making of Britain gallery to myself, bar a brief visit from an attendant making sure I wasn't slashing the waxwork hand gunner. I took the opportunity while nobody was looking to try on an old Roundhead helmet, and yes, I looked as utterly ridiculous as I expected.

Napoleon's horseThe central staircase ramps gently upward, all part of the ongoing timeline, so the American War of Independence is played out ascending from one floor to the next. On the first floor I discovered how the British Army changed the world. A bold claim but, given our Empire's sprawling tentacles across Europe, Africa, India and the old Commonwealth, undoubtedly true. I was especially impressed by a 50m2 scale model of the Battle of Waterloo, painstakingly created from first hand accounts in the 1830s by Captain William Siborne. He exhibited his field of tin soldiers in Piccadilly to great acclaim, until Wellington took offence because it didn't match his self-centred view of the truth. Today William's rolling hills appear in a dark recess alongside the full-size skeleton of Napoleon's horse... but that's museums for you.

Two world wars follow, with an emphasis on the enlisted Tommy's point of view. The tale's also told at the Imperial War Museum across the river (and they have a much better trench), but this felt more human. It was also refreshing to see due recognition given to the war in Korea, Burma, Suez and other global conflicts generally overlooked. Even the Falklands got a look in at the top of the stairs. It's always unnerving to discover that something you remember now has a place in a museum, but even scarier was the wall-sized video of Mrs Thatcher proclaiming "Rejoice!" (thankfully briefly). Maggie aside, the jingoistic angle was well muted.

The final gallery is being refurbished for opening in September, and I believe a revamped Study Centre opened for the first time yesterday. Don't ask how many helicopters could have been bought with the money. And don't buy your impressionable grandson a pack of NAM tattoos from the shop. But be reassured, they give you your bag back at the end. And the bit in the middle's well worth trooping round.
by tube: Sloane Square   by bus: 170

N is also for...
» National Gallery (I've been)
» National Portrait Gallery (I've been)
» National Maritime Museum (I've been)
» Natural History Museum (I've been) (who hasn't?)
» North Woolwich Old Station Museum (too late, closed down)

 Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Some people don't take No for an answer.

I said No, and I hoped it was obvious I'd said No, but maybe it wasn't.
I said No, well I think I said No, I sort of said No, maybe I wasn't quite explicit enough in saying No, I paraphrased it, I used all sorts of language that I thought hinted very strongly at saying No but didn't actually come out and use the exact word, I skirted round it slightly, I said something about it not being possible, I said something about this not being my preferred course of action, I said it wasn't an option, I said this was going no further, I said I couldn't see the circumstances under which my answer would be Yes, I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, I didn't want to state my position quite that bluntly, not out loud, not in black and white, but I meant it, I meant No, definitely No, abso-bloody-lutely No, that's what I thought I said, I'm sure I said No, I thought that was obvious, but maybe it didn't quite come across.
Maybe my No was entirely obvious but it's been ignored.
Some people don't want to hear the word No, it goes against their plans, it doesn't fit in with their agenda, they've had all these ideas based on the certain knowledge that you'll say Yes, of course you'll say Yes, why wouldn't you say Yes, anyone in a similar position would say Yes, so No is not an option, No could never happen, you haven't said No before, why should you mean No now, No cannot be permitted, let's carry on as if No was never spoken, let's assume the answer was Yes, let's continue along the chosen path, not your chosen path but their chosen path, because you might change your mind, you might come round, you might switch back to Yes given the right encouragement, surely everybody's persuadable, because obviously you said No but meant Yes, let's pretend that the last No never happened, a mere aberration, we'll not discuss it again... so, about that Yes...
I said No, and I meant No.
I'm good like that. It may take me a while but when I make a decision I stick to it, come down one side or the other and stay there, stand my ground, hold fast, even in the face of temptation (no, I am not taking that, thanks), even when presented with an opportunity (sure, there's money in it, but why would I?), even when all around me are doing the opposite (I still won't, if you don't mind), even when common sense dictates otherwise (sorry, I've promised myself I never will), even when it might appear to be to my advantage (trust me on this, I can see a downside you can't), even when any sane human might leap at the chance (I don't think the same way as normal people on this, do I?), even if you can see no reason why I'd be so stubborn (trust me, it's a matter of conscience), even when the truth hurts (look, you can blub your eyes out as much as you like, but we don't have a long-term future), I'm not doing it, it's for the best, I'm not budging, I'm not changing my mind, I said No, I meant No. No.
I think I may have to say No again. No, really.

 Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Big topple

Rewind to Sunday, East London. Thousands of dominoes, scores of volunteers, one arty event. Part of the CREATE09 festival. A line of concrete breeze blocks running through Mile End, the Isle of Dogs and Greenwich. A moving sculpture. Or, as the blurb had it, "linking diverse communities in a symbolic as well as physical chain of cause and effect." Never mind that - the crowd who came to watch just wanted to see the whole lot fall down. Preferably, I suspect, by accident.

dominoes in Mile End ParkMile End Park, 3-ish
Approaching from afar, one lonely pallet of concrete blocks was the only clue that something was afoot. That and the lady stopping everyone cycling along the canal towpath in case they got in the way of the performance. But a hive of activity was hidden beyond the tennis courts, planned to within an inch of its life, as an army of t-shirted volunteers grappled with their unlikely raw material. 540 breeze blocks in total, laid out in a sinuous line along the footpath, across the grass and over the edge of a wall. Every 10th-or-so block had been placed lengthways rather than upright, to prevent any premature topplage causing the entire line to collapse. It rained.

Mile End Park, 3:30-ish
No sign yet of the signal for the off. A small crowd had gathered along the line, most of them near the start beneath the trees. One retired couple had brought a camera to record the magic moment, but had discovered to their cost that you can't replace a rechargable battery with an ordinary one. One of the lanky straggle-haired sportsmen hanging out on the tennis courts emerged to ask what all the concrete was for, and seemed duly impressed by the response. As time ticked by, the line was at increasing risk from volunteers and members of the public nipping oh-so-carefully across and through it. Only once did an accidental touch cause a block to wobble and fall, but the cascade didn't get far before a quick-thinking volunteer halted the flow. One especially elderly lady watched from a wheelchair, and waited, and waited, and nodded off, and had to be wheeled back to her flat without seeing a thing.

dominoes in Mile End ParkMile End Park, 4-ish
I could tell that the performance was finally imminent when the last gap across Copperfield Road was bridged with bricks. 'Get ready', yelled the man in the yellow waterproof, and his t-shirt army raised the 10% of blocker-blocks to the upright position. I had a good position lower down the line with a clear view of the snaking line. Or at least I did to start with. Once the first brick had tumbled and a merry cheer been raised, the crowd spontaneously followed the ripple downhill [video] [video]. They charged towards me, like a human tsunami, enveloping the phenomenon they were so keen to see. It was easy to outrun, so I could only work out roughly how far the topple had reached by observing which way the joggers were looking. At last it passed into near sight, each brick precisely knocking the next ...click click click click click click click... and I grabbed one underwhelming photograph click.

Mile End Park, 4:01-ish
At the edge of the park the first risky bit. The line passed through the railings, then a sheer drop down to street level, then across Copperfield Road and back up onto the pavement [video]. A carefully positioned block raised the flow up to doorstep height, then onward through the ground floor of Matt's Gallery. Unseen by the crowd it exited through a window along a beam above the canal, then fell into a boat conveniently tied up along the towpath. End of part one. Everybosy rushed round to the narrow road bridge to try to glimpse the boat as a few cracked blocks set off downstream. There'd be no more toppling for a few hours - this was no long unbroken domino chain - but momentum was maintained. The organisers smiled, job well done, and within 15 minutes all 540 blocks were back on their pallets.

Island Gardens, 6:30-ish: I didn't hang around to watch this bit. However, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can offer you this photo and this video.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel, 9-ish: Nor this bit. Looked good though. Down the spiral staircase, along the edge of the tunnel and then (cor) up the other side.

Old Royal Naval College, 9:30-ish: Nor the finale. But I can tell it rained a lot, and it was a bit dark, and there were a lot more bricks.

A warehouse somewhere, autumn-ish: They'll be splicing together the entire performance to make a film, and then all the blocks are going back to the manufacturer to be be recycled. Ain't art fun?

 Monday, July 27, 2009

London 2012  Olympic update
  Three years to go


There are three years to go until the Olympics. Looking at the stadium today, anyone might think it was only one.

Olympic Stadium July 2009

There are three years to go until the Olympics. When Friday 27th July comes around this arena will echo to the sound of cheering and dancing and pyrotechnics and parading athletes and whooshing torches and arty display things and whatever else the 2012 budget can afford. Let's hope the weather forecast for the Opening Ceremony is a bit better than it is today.

There are three years to go until the Olympics. They had some special events in and around the stadium over the weekend as part of the Open Weekend celebration. On Saturday there were family-friendly events on the Greenway (which is why there are wooden chairs and tables set out in the foreground of my photo). Dave went, and he made a video. And on Sunday the first 300 members of the public (all competition winners) were allowed inside to look up at the grandstand from within, and to point at the finishing line, and to take photos, and to get a bit excited.

There are three years to go until the Olympics. I've been taking a monthly photo from up on the Greenway for the last two years, and the pace of change has been astonishing. But I'm a bit worried that, with the exterior of the stadium now pretty much complete, there's not going to be very much more change to document between now and 2012. Ah well, I'll keep taking nigh identical pictures until either I get bored or they finally seal the Greenway off. [latest photo]

There are three years to go until the Olympics. That's 1096 days, as it says up there in the sidebar of my blog. And that's also how long it says on the London 2012 homepage, which makes a refreshing change. Earlier this year they were counting down to the day before the Olympics (which would have been '1095 days to go'), but now they've changed their mind and are counting correctly. About time too.

There are three years to go until the Olympics. The 2012 team have taken this opportunity to launch a special commemorative metal badge with a '3' on it which they hope 3000 of you will buy. Anna, who's the 2012 "licensing manager for jewellery and collectable products", thinks that anyone after a recession-beating investment should consider investing in a 3 Years To Go pin. Having seen the design, you wouldn't buy it to wear, that's for certain.

There are three years to go until the Olympics. The stadium's already a landmark in East London - readily viewable from the Bow flyover, from the DLR, from the North London Line, even from the top of the Gherkin. But best make the most of looking at it now. If everything goes to plan that upper tier of seats will be removed soon after 2012, and the ring of giant white trusses will come down, and the arena bowl will retreat back beneath the skyline. We shall not see its like again.

There are three years to go until the Olympics. We may now have a stadium, pretty much, but nobody's yet quite worked out what we're going to do with it afterwards. A slimmed down athletics arena? (yeah, like that'll really draw the crowds in). An occasional test match venue? (that's the latest idea, although it's hardly a full-time occupation). A potential 2018 World Cup venue? (hardly seems worth waiting six whole years in order to use the place for a month). An echoing tumbleweed arena at the heart of a new-build estate where nobody wants to live? (nah, surely not, probably).

There are 36 months to go until the Olympics. And there are 38 months until it's all over. I wonder how many decades it'll be before the effects wear off.

 Sunday, July 26, 2009

Red Arrow 507: Waterloo - Victoria
Location: Central London
Length of journey: 2 miles, 15 minutes


The 507's not just a bus route, it's an electoral policy in action. Last week the 507 was operated by the "writhing whales of the road" - Boris's much-derided bendy buses. And now they're gone. Extinction starts here, on this minor commuter route running between two mainline termini. The big question - was it worth the effort?

507... to... WaterlooThe first thing you'll think when you see a replacement 507 is "oh look, it's a bendy bus". The new Citaros look remarkably similar, having been built by the same company as their evil predecessor, and they also have doors for boarding in the middle. Sounds familiar. But they're not bendy buses because "oh yes, they don't bend in the middle." They don't take up a full 18 metres of traffic space either, they're only two-thirds the size. Still longer than your average London bus, but because they're not articulated they satisfy one of Boris's key campaign pledges. Result, box ticked, big blond smile.

There's another first on the 507 this weekend, and that's the introduction of a weekend service. Previously buses only ran Mondays to Fridays, carting thousands of commuters from their suburban trains to the office and back again. The 507 (and its eastern cousin the 521) have always been absolutely rammed in the rush hour, but not particularly well frequented during the rest of the day. The introduction of a weekend service might therefore be thought unnecessary, especially when there's another bus (the 211) that plies between Waterloo and Victoria seven days a week. Ignoring logic, I turned up round the back of Waterloo station yesterday to partake in the Great Leap Forward.

507... to... WaterlooOn stepping aboard my fresh 09-reg Mercedes, I was struck how similar the interior looked to that of a bendy bus. No wobbly bit in the middle, but other than that incredibly familiar. Big yellow grab poles, unstable grey loops hanging from the ceiling and a couple of oval-shaped Oyster readers facing the central doorway. Seen those before. But there was one major difference inside - far fewer seats. Only two seats remain between the driver and the centre of the bus, making space for an expanse of blue vinyl flooring (with a tentative gangway up the middle etched out in darker shades). There's room for a wheelchair, of course, but this vehicle has been fitted out with standing-room-only mass transit in mind. Not ideal for veering round corners at half past eight in the morning - it reminded me somewhat of an unstable dancefloor on wheels.

Thankfully there are more than two seats in the rear half of the bus, installed around the wheel arches in a slightly unusual pattern. Three of the seats face inwards, the rest face forward or back. One rear-facing seat even has its own tray-shaped luggage space alongside because there's no room to shoehorn somewhere to sit. But the 507 isn't a vehicle for resting your legs (it's more like a tube carriage in that respect). There are only 20 seats in total, which felt rather low given that each bus is 12 metres long. I must still have the wrong mindset. In 21st century travel, it seems, being able to squeeze aboard comes a long way ahead of comfort.

We set off through the streets around Waterloo (I say "we", I mean the driver and myself - we had 6m of roadspace each) and soon ended up in a jam. York Road was rammed with cars and coaches, which gave me longer to stare at the London Eye and County Hall but didn't aid our progress. The road was clearer past St Thomas's Hospital, and we were even joined by three other passengers. Every now and then I noticed that we were having our picture taken - certain gentlemen do like to take photographs of buses on their first/last day in service, and they were dotted along the pavement as we passed.

Across Lambeth Bridge, where I had a far finer view of Parliament than Monday morning's sardines will enjoy, and into the backstreets of CivilServiceLand. Nobody wanted to board or disembark outside the Department of Transport, but we pulled up and stopped anyway. Same story outside Channel 4 HQ (nice brollies, guys), then the odd tight bend round towards Victoria. The above average length of the bus still felt awkward, still a potential danger to pedestrians and cyclists, although still safer than swinging a monster bendy through the same streets.

507... to... WaterlooAnd finally, the long way, round into Victoria bus station. The 507 gets a lane all to itself, which is desperately useful on a Monday morning but rather wasteful at the weekend. Indeed, given that only four passengers had availed themselves of the bus at any point during our journey, I questioned the need for this service to be running on a Saturday or Sunday at all. Far cheaper, I'd have thought, to stick a minibus on the route - we'd still have had several seats each. Or cheaper still to have put all of us in the back of a taxi. There were certainly no crowds at Victoria clamouring to be whisked back to Waterloo.

So, has the change on route 507 been worthwhile? I'm not convinced. All that appears to have happened is that a big long bendy bus has been replaced by a long-ish bus that looks like a bendy bus but doesn't bend. Travelling conditions inside will be no better, but there'll be less capacity so more buses will be needed. The 507 used to be run by a fleet of nine, now it's a fleet of fifteen. Rush hour buses used to run every five minutes, now it'll be every three. Stop me if I'm wrong, but more buses an hour means more traffic, and therefore more danger to cyclists not less. The weekend service is even more bike-unfriendly, increasing the number of buses from zero to five an hour, and adding a finite amount of frame-crushing risk where previously there was none.

And this new fleet of buses has cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, money which might have been better spent on more useful travel projects. Boris claims that the expense will be part offset by reduced fare-dodging. "It's bad news for those who thought the bendy bus was the free bus," he said on Friday. "It will be more difficult to get on without paying." He's right, but only sort of. A bendy bus had three doors and these only have two, so it is more difficult to get on. But travellers on the 507 will still be able to nip aboard through the middle door and disregard the instruction to touch in their Oysters, so fare-dodging continues to be a unavoidable possibility. It's got to be like this because the 507s need more than one entrance - they're a high-frequency route and need to be rapidly boardable. But you wait until tomorrow morning and see if two doors is better than three.

The bendy bus is dead, hurrah! Or perhaps, in this case, not.

 Saturday, July 25, 2009

This is my local pub.
It's closed and shuttered.
"All items of value have been removed"
I wonder if it'll ever open again.

King's Arms, E3

There's been a Kings Arms in Bow Road since at least Victorian times. 140 years ago its Licensed Victualler was Ms Fanny Gear, a 46-year-old widow from Rotherhithe, 100 years ago Mr Elijah Morton, and 60 years ago Mrs Alice Berry. Millions of pints have been served over that time, mostly to very local people (because you wouldn't travel miles out of your way to sup here). The pub's little more than a large room with a bar in the centre, and a choice of entrances at the front. Saloon Lounge to the left, Saloon & Private Bar to the right, each name formed of golden letters within ornate ironwork above the door. There's been an Irish flavour to the pub of late, with Kilkenny cream ale and Guinness the favoured tipples. Regular karaoke nights brought in the punters, as did various signs on the pavement advertising Thai cuisine within. On sunnier days the patrons spilled out to sit at wooden tables in the slipstream of the A11, breathing in fumes and nattering above the relentless traffic. After closing time I'd often see the interior lit up, doors firmly bolted, as the beery cheery souls inside entertained themselves for a few more drunken hours. No longer, the pub's gone dark, gone silent, gone.

I never once went inside, of course. That's the problem with local pubs these days, lack of punters, lack of trade, lack of takings. Why go for a beer in your local pub when there are more interesting drinking holes elsewhere? Why pay three quid for a pint when cans are six for a fiver in the corner shop? Why patronise an alcohol dispensary when most of those living nearby are guided by their religion to be devout teetotalers? Hell, why support your local community pumproom at all, because wouldn't it look nicer converted into flats? And so pubs die, and convert, and disappear, and our neighbourhoods become residential hideaways where nobody ever meets up socially.

Bow VillageThe King's Arms wasn't always my local pub. There used to be several closer to my flat, clustered around the medieval heart of Bow village, all of them long gone. North of Bow Church the Three Tuns, Dog & Partridge and Coach & Horses (now McDonalds). South of Bow Church the Black Swan, Three Cups, White Horse and Bombay Grab (the latter, ironically, evolving into a mosque). So many E3 pubs have been erased, and in 2009 the King's Arms appears to have joined their number. It won't be the last. Raise a glass.

Activity for local people: I thought I'd have a go at mapping Bow's pubs - living and dead. I've used various useful historical and modern online resources to try to work out where the vanished ones were, and plotted them all on a Google Map. I've used blue pins for open pubs and red pins for closed pubs (although I might have got a few wrong). And if you know more than I do, the map's fully editable... so you can add some more pubs, add some information to the labels, even move the pubs around if you think I've put them in the wrong place. I've restricted myself to pubs within half a mile of Bow Church station, so please make sure you do too. And let's see what a collaboration of E3 alcoholics can come up with. [map]

 Friday, July 24, 2009

London 2012You can't fail to have noticed that this weekend is the London 2012 Open Weekend. Well, OK, you could easily have not have noticed, it's not been overly advertised, not unless you discovered the 8-page pullout in Wednesday's Metro. Bad news - just because it's called the London 2012 Open Weekend doesn't necessarily mean that anything Olympic will be open. Instead this is an umbrella title covering lots of different events all across the UK, celebrating the fact that it's (nigh exactly) three years to London's Opening Ceremony. There are 800 events altogether, including "a range of activities from culture, sport, sustainability and learning." Could be good.

So, what's on?
Now that's a good question, because London 2012 want you to try to find the answer on their website, and that isn't going to be easy. All 800 events have been dumped into an "everything's equal" database, and it's your job to try to locate something appropriate to attend using the search function without accidentally overlooking something rather more interesting you'd rather have gone to instead. I know I moan about inadequate "What's on" event databases far too often (see also The Story of London), but the Open Weekend website is yet another example of inappropriate helplessness. Especially if you live in London.

Join me if you will on the Open Weekend events page. It's not so much an events page as a search engine, with the first 10 of the 800 events listed underneath. They're a fairly random 10 events, listed in abbreviated summary form, kicking off with Sunday's exciting-sounding "DRAGON" Carnival-theatre. And where is this Dragon to be found? No clues. There's just the event title and the first 11 words of the event description, and none of these contain the location. You have to click to discover that's it's in (click) Cardiff. Ah, OK, you won't be going to that then. The second event says it's in Bedfordshire, although you won't discover that "Open Up: ABILITY" with ON TRACK 4 GOLD is an all-inclusive talent showcase before you (click). And as for the possibly-great but ambiguous 2012 Open Day - Cultural Festival, it turns out that this is in (click) Wakefield. If you're not near Wakefield, who cares? More worryingly, if you are in Wakefield, would you have noticed?

Actually you might well have noticed, because the Open Weekend website also offers a regional breakdown and a map. Wakefield residents can choose to view only events in "Yorkshire and the Humber" (there are "only" 47), or else they can click on the map to find the two events in Wakefield (which took me three clicks and a long wait). But it's much harder if you live in London. Click the big London sign on the map and a whole forest of London-y Open Weekend events shoots up. Zoom in and you'll be able to find the events nearest you... except they may not actually be interesting, and they might not be on the day you want, and there might be something really great three miles from home and you'll never see it. Or use the regional drop-down to search for all the events in London... but there still are as many as 211 of those. Even a narrowed-down search (Sport events in London) (Sustainability events in London) tends to produce far too many events or far too few. Bet you can't be bothered to check much further.

So my gripe is this. It's perfectly possible to uncover all the interesting Open Weekend events in London on the 2012 website. But it requires a heck of a lot of clicking, and an awful lot of effort, and a surprising amount of time, and quite frankly I don't reckon that 95% of users of the site will bother. There are no pages of regional highlights written by a human being, no spoonfed summaries of extra-special events, no lists where sufficient information's accessible at the top level without clicking, nothing for the majority of internet-passive surfers. This a website which expects all its users to actively engage with search protocols, and if you don't or won't or can't then you'll miss out. It's cheaper to design things this way, obviously, because writing coherent webtext summaries costs more than bunging a few fields into a database. But it's the events themselves that'll miss out when nobody spots them and not enough people turn up.
Here are ten London Open Weekend events you might enjoy, which I've dutifully slogged through the website to find.

Dominoes (Sun): Thousands of concrete blocks will be used to create a moving sculpture across east/southeast London, starting mid-afternoon in Mile End Park and ending at dusk in Greenwich (it'll either be amazing or a huge letdown)
Discover the Greenway (Sat): A family-friendly afternoon up on the sewer overlooking the 2012 stadium, with natural history, mural painting and an orchestra
Greenwich World Cultural Festival (Sun): A varied programme of music and dance in the grounds of Eltham Palace
Waltham Forest Mela (Sun): Immerse yourself in a whirl of diverse colour (or some other all-inclusive buzz phrase)
Tokyngton Recreation Ground Jogging Weekend (Sun): Turn up in the shadow of the Wembley arch and run around a bit (a typical example of one of the many friendly come-and-have-a-go sporting events taking place this weekend) (because 2012's about sport innit?)
Hackney Sparrows Challenge (Sat): How many baskets can be scored by one wheelchair basketball team in 2012 seconds? (haven't you always wondered?)
Dream City (Sun): Bring the kids to the Serpentine Gallery and help create a city of buildings, parks and people (real architects will be getting their hands dirty too)
Countdown (Sat): A sandy festival in Barking Town Square complete with music, art, sandcastles and beach volleyball
Children's craft event (Islington Library) (Sun): Come make an Olympic torch and dab the 2012 collage (just one example of the richness of the weekend's events for younger Londoners)
Dalston Mill (Fri, Sat, Sun): Hang on, isn't this happening anyway? It's not a special event for the Open Weekend, it's just bumping up the numbers for a bit of extra publicity (still worth going, though)

Apologies to the 200 other London events I've overlooked (but then you'd probably have overlooked them anyway)

 Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ravenscourt ParkI was out on the western arm of the District line yesterday, and I stopped off at the first station past Hammersmith. It's located close to a nearby park, which is called Ravenscourt Park, and that's also the name of the station. Ravenscourt Park is a twin-island affair with parallel platforms on a high embankment, and Piccadilly line trains rush through the middle every few minutes without stopping. Two separate staircases lead up from the cavernous ground level ticket office, each with a pair of benches at the top, part-enclosed in a weatherproof shelter. And above the centre of each bench, carefully enamelled for longevity, there's a newly-installed TfL roundel. Which looks like this...

Ravenscourt Park

How the hell did that happen?

There must be a good reason.
1) TfL are saving money by slimming down the names of all their stations to just the first word.*
2) It's part of a surreal project for Art on the Underground (which is also why the red paint doesn't go right up to the edge).*
3) The council's about to concrete over the park with new housing, so best not mention the word 'Park' any more.*
4) It's part of a subliminal advertising campaign for the new Harry Potter film.*
5) Somebody in the sign workshop goofed, and nobody supervising the installation thought to check.

*(Actually no, that would be silly. There'd be stations in Central London called Oxford and Leicester, and another nearby called Green, and a station up the Northern line called Burnt, and three nextdoor stations each called Clapham, and ten stations all called West. It would never work)
*(Actually no, the red bit really is supposed to stop before it reaches the edge, because this is a reproduction 1920s roundel)
*(Actually no, because Ravenscourt Park is a much-loved recent Green Flag winner)
*(Actually no, that would be Ravenclaw)


Surely it can't be number 5. What do you think?

 Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dalston MillFor three weeks only, a windmill is operating in Dalston. It's art, obviously. But it's also a proper mill with blades and turny things and grindy bits and flour. And, because it's essential to maintain sustainable credentials and ensure low food-miles, there's even a cornfield alongside.

Dalston Mill is an outreach project of the Barbican Art Gallery, extending its green shoots east to an unlikely spot in deepest Hackney. Up Dalston Lane, opposite the worksite where the East London line will terminate next summer, beneath a giant peace mural, where else? The site is an abandoned railway curve, more recently a site of urban decay and a fly-tipped dumping ground. But it's been transformed for a brief period into an unlikely cross between Norfolk and Hoxton. Most strange.

Dalston MillFirst thing you'll see from outside are six sails twirling round above a fence of wooden slatting. They're not traditional windmill sails, more a roundabout of giant white woks, perched high atop a tower of makeshift scaffolding. Their rotation powers a small grinder for squelching wheat, and also a mini generator which helps to light the site after dark. You have to venture inside to watch the grinding, entering the mill through a reception and kitchen area. It was a hive of activity on Saturday afternoon, baking small round discs imprinted with four scooped sails. These weren't your normal bread rolls but a very special local currency called the Dalston Slice. All the better if you'd baked them yourself, but there was also the option to hand over a fiver of real money and get two wheaty discs in return.

You could spend your dough in a few carefully selected E8 shops (more your independent stores, not the nearby Argos and Phones4U), and also in the bar conveniently located at the foot of the mill tower. The bar was called Cucum' (a name possibly just the right side of amusing), and it was frequented by trendy types with rakish looks. I was surprised how quickly this eco-installation had become the hangout of choice for various faddish folk, more usually spotted quaffing lager within a half mile of Hoxton Square. One bequiffed beardylad with washer-holed earlobes caught my eye, or at least his wristwatch did. I was wearing one exactly the same, except I'd bought my nerdgeek Casio digital back in the 1980s before he was even born, and his was probably a replica. Suddenly I felt almost, but not quite, cutting edge.

Dalston MillStretching out towards the horizon (or at least towards a Matalan superstore) was the most photogenic part of the installation. Here was a small field of not-yet-golden corn, transplanted here from Lancashire, and which it's hoped will ultimately be harvested, ground and nibbled on site. The wheatfield idea isn't original - it came from New York in 1982 when Agnes Denes planted some rippling stalks in downtown Battery Park. There it provided a startling urban/rural intervention with a Twin Tower backdrop. Here in downbeat Dalston it merely gives visitors with cameras the opportunity to take arty photos of unlikely ears in front of a graffitied semi-derelict building. So that's what I did. [photo] [photo]

You've got until August 6th to pop into to Dalston Mill for yourself. You may not stay long, not unless you get engrossed in one of the many artistic projects scheduled between now and then. There are rather a lot of these, most of an environmentally-overfriendly nature, including cooking masterclasses, psychoanalysis lectures and fire-eating. Or you might stay and let your offspring's pedalpower grind some corn, or maybe sit around in a Southwark Lido deckchair with a slice of cake, or possibly hang around for a drink at the Cucum'. It'll be a field trip to remember.

 Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I am rubbish at saying No.

I say Yes when I should have said No, because I don't want to let people down.
I say Yes because I'm the sort of person that says Yes, I go along with things, go with the flow, ride the current, because it'd be wrong to say No, I might upset someone, I hate upsetting people, I don't want them to think less of me, how could I turn them down, I might lose out next time, there might not be a next time, they might never ask me again, I don't really want to do it, I'd rather not endure what's on offer, but I daren't say that, I daren't expose my feelings to public scrutiny, I don't want to tell it like it is, I mustn't make waves, mustn't rock the boat, best I don't say No, so I say Yes instead, I'm nice like that.
I say Yes to start with and then, as it becomes more obvious that Yes wasn't the right answer, I don't feel able to say No in case it looks like failure.
If I take something on, like a project or something, not one I have to take on, but one that sounded like a good idea at the time, sometimes it doesn't seem like quite such a good idea later, there's this dawning realisation that it's not something I should be doing, there are more negatives than positives, I could end it now, I could say No, but I don't, I carry on, I keep at it, because to stop midway would be to admit defeat, to lose face, to abandon the end result, don't get me wrong, sometimes not being able to say No is a good thing, it's called resilience, it's called commitment, it's called dedication, it gets things done, it keeps the world turning, where would we be if people kept saying No all the time, but not everything's the right thing to be doing, not everything should be a matter of pride, even if the final result would have been great, sometimes getting there isn't worth the hassle, not worth all the effort expended along the way, not a good enough return on time invested, not simply to get to the end, for the sake of it, for the sake of not saying No, because it's more important to be true to yourself, it's more important to be happy.
I sleepwalk into situations where people think I've said Yes, whereas in fact all I've done is not say No.
If I'm thinking of going out with someone and they're quite nice, sort of alright, pleasant enough to be with for a short while, but deep down I know it'll never work, you know how it is, and they're keen, more keen than I am, and I should say No, I know I should say No, but they're quite fun, you know, for a bit, and we get on OK, shall we go out again next week, oh go on then, I'd rather not but I daren't say, and they'd probably be a good friend, not special but good, only I think they're hoping for more than that, we don't talk about it, I don't talk about it, they're probably taking it for granted, they're building up all these expectations, and I do nothing to puncture that, I know it's going nowhere, but they haven't worked that out yet, I'm leading them on, I ought to say something, talk from the heart, open up my emotions, end it before it escalates, mention the No option, but that might hurt, not hurt me but hurt them, and I don't want that, their hopes would be completely dashed, and so far only I know those hopes are dashed already, only I know the whole thing's doomed, but I carry on wasting my time, wasting their time, wasting our time, because they'll surely work it out eventually, deduce the fact I'm not really interested, not as interested as they are, because there's one word I can't say, don't say, won't say, I really ought to learn to say it earlier, just tell them how it is, just say No.
My life is blighted by not saying No when it's so obviously what I ought to be saying. It's not fair on me, and it's not fair on the people I don't say No to either. I should say No more often, as appropriate, when necessary.

I think I may just have said No.

 Monday, July 20, 2009

moonUnlike most of the population of the world, I remember the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I'm not sure I watched the first moonwalk live - I was only little, and four year olds tend not to be awake at 3am, especially when they have nursery school in the morning. But I'm old enough to remember flickery black and white coverage of men in big white suits bouncing around a dusty crater in not much gravity. And I remember looking up at the moon from my back garden in the knowledge that two Americans were up there, somewhere on the surface, impossibly far above the clouds. It worries me that my memories are now in the minority.

Back in the 1960s, space was big news. The world's two major superpowers spent the entire decade attempting to out-space the other, and the anticipation rippled over into everyday life. Who would reach the moon first? What might lay in wait out there? Would it have a big green head and six arms? If I play the alien would you be the astronaut - quick before the bell rings for the end of playtime. People genuinely cared about our future journey into space, and not just because some NASA scientist had invented non-stick saucepans along the way.

Armstrong and Aldrin's journey to the moon was a pioneering first to outrank the very greatest human endeavour. More impressive than Christopher Columbus's transatlantic voyage, more impressive than the Montgolfier brothers' first balloon flight, more impressive even than Hillary and Tenzing reaching the top of Everest without freezing to death. Admittedly Neil and Buzz hadn't been solely responsible for their lunar journey, they had a huge pyramid of technicians and factory workers to thank for reaching Tranquility in one piece. But nothing humankind has done since 1969 has ever quite topped the fact that two men landed an aluminium shell on the moon and got themselves home again. It feels like homo sapiens has peaked, and the last 40 years have been on the downward curve.

As a child, the year 2009 seemed impossibly far away. We'd surely have a fully-functioning base on the moon by then, and have sent spaceships to Mars and beyond. But it never happened. The Apollo program was a one-off spike of brilliance, a premature exploration of outer space, and unexpectedly way ahead of its time. Subsequent space firsts have been noticeably less underwhelming (you stuck some men in a space station did you? great) (a tiny spaceprobe took some photos of Neptune did it? lovely) (Richard Branson wants to go up for a spaceflight does he? oh). There's no motivation today to reach for the stars, no drive to push back the farthest frontiers and, most importantly, no money.

NASA's current plans are to return to the moon by 2020, or thereabouts, which'd be just in time to ensure we don't spend a full half-century away from the place. But the technology's proving slow to develop, and funds aren't exactly fast-flowing, and there's every chance that the current economic downturn will see the project scaled down, delayed or even cancelled. Maybe the Chinese will get there first - history tells us there's nothing like a bit of global oneupmanship to inspire technological advancement. But the next world-shattering awe-inspiring lunar event now seems further away than ever, if it ever happens at all. And that's a damned shame.

The solar system is a really big place, yet we continue to explore no further than the crowded shell of our own tiny planet. We're no longer interested in what's out there, we're far more concerned with making the most of what we've got here. Sure space exploration is ridiculously expensive, but if 60s technology could power two men to the moon using a computer less powerful than a mobile phone, imagine what we ought to be able to achieve today. Instead I fear that the most astonishing technological event of my lifetime happened way back when I was four, and that I might not even live to see the next person walking on the lunar surface. It seems that Neil Armstrong was wrong, all those forty years ago. Apollo 11 was a giant leap for a man, but merely a small step for mankind.

 Sunday, July 19, 2009

A tale of two festivals

South: Lambeth Country Show
Billy shears a sheepEvery year, in Brockwell Park, Lambeth comes out to play. The rolling hillocks of the park may not be proper countryside with fields and cows and combine harvesters and that, but they do make a great setting for any medium-to-large public event. So for two days every July thousands of people turn up to pretend they don't live in relentless inner suburbia, and enjoy all the fun of the fair instead. Yes, there are sheep. There was a bloke yesterday standing on the back of a trailer giving some befuddled-looking woolly quadruped the once-over with his shears. Children sat enraptured on the grass as shearer Billy Kinghorn immobilised the sheep with a few bodily movements, then whipped off the animal's winter coat. Nextdoor the Berkley Owls trailer stood empty and unwatched while their protégés were off entertaining the crowds in the main arena. Brockwell Park railwayIf all of this looking at animals had made you hungry, the main footpath down the hill was lined with stalls selling barbecued animal and watermelon. Jerk chicken was a favourite, this being nearly Brixton, and the lunchtime queues waited patiently to grease their stomachs. Nearby was a talent-packed flower show tent, just like at a proper country fair, as well as a villageful of stalls promoting local businesses and community groups. Two of the Herne Hill Stitch and Bitchers sat knitting outside an irrelevant tent, while various volunteers hung around trying to give away leaflets about health services or housing benefit. I missed out on the free jam sandwich being given out by the Warburtons drones, but got two squirts of Factor 50 from the mole-check lady doling out skin cancer advice. At the bottom of the hill, tucked away behind the funfair, dads and kids sat astride the world's smallest public railway and took rides beneath the trees towards the lido and back. Sir BedevereJousting knights drew crowds to the upper arena (huzzah!), everybody keenly watching in case Sir Bedevere might fall off his horse or be whacked in the head by a spinning quintain. Alas not. The first reggae band of the day warmed up on the main stage, and early picknickers sprawled out on the slopes enjoying the food, space and atmosphere. Not especially rural anywhere on site, to be honest, more a diverse marketplace with entertainment liberally attached. But ever so well done, and ever so appreciated.
[open for business again today] [typical Lambeth Country Fair photograph]

East: Shoreditch Festival
Shoreditch BoulderAcross the capital, a subtly different sort of event. The Shoreditch Festival also runs every year, also in a big park, also attracting thousands. But this is a rather more urban affair, with a dash more high culture thrown in, in deference to the surrounding Hackneyists and Hoxtonites. Shoreditch Park lacks the contours that make Brockwell special, and the only major feature of interest is a big rock dumped in the middle for bouldering purposes. The festival committee have added colour with fluttering flags and twirly green fabric things, making the most of the space available. Yesterday beside the granite was a row of community stalls, this time including canalfolk and War on Want. I tempted by the tombola being run by a cheery bunch from a local women's voluntary group. My five tickets didn't win me the tube of Aquafresh toothpaste or the tin of ox tongue, but I did walk off with 750ml of citrus-scented bleach. That's Shoreditch class, for you. Shoreditch Festival - main stageCrouching nearby I recognised celebrity choirmaster Gareth Malone, busy being filmed for his next BBC2 series. He'd just conducted the London Symphony Orchestra (and the fledgling South Oxhey Community Choir) in some choral extravaganza on the main stage, and was looking as if the challenge had gone well. The soulful sounds of Baby Charles were now entertaining the crowd, slouched out on the grass conveniently close to the burger vans and chicken curry queues. A posse of firefighters strode by with smoke alarm leaflets in hand, rapidly snapped up by ladies keen to engage in conversation with a man in uniform. Shoreditch FestivalElsewhere a slightly tongue-in-cheek dog show was in full swing. Prizes were awarded for the "best tail wagging dog" and "best vocal performance", as well as a special six-legged category rating both dog and owner combined. The local beekeepers had jars of their honey for sale, as had been also the case in Brockwell, although here they were also selling a greener lifestyle as part of the Earth Tent. Another tent, the silver Dance Dome, hid merry tea dancing pensioners, while the Pearly Queen of Islington preferred her tea sitting down in the refreshment tent. A few revellers were still wearing their costumes from the parade that had kicked off the afternoon - most in muted purple, but one resplendent in top-to-toe tinfoil. Wizard of Oz float, presumably, or maybe he was just feeling chilly. Nothing here was quite so straight-forward as had been the case south of the river, but both were well-organised and entertaining events to enjoy on a July afternoon.
[also taking place today, but with a rather more music/film/youth theme] [typical Shoreditch Festival photograph]

 Saturday, July 18, 2009

Screen 6: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (12A)
Please tick all that apply

Light comedy opening at Privet Drive
Swirly zoomy flight across London (including the not-entirely-convincing collapse of a London bridge)
Trip to Diagon Alley (when the film's released on DVD you'll be able to freezeframe and discover where in London it is)
Soppy moping lovelorn looks between various central characters
Smell of nachos with (very artificial) cheese sauce wafting up from the row in front
Platform 9¾
Hogwarts Express
Bloke in the seat to my right falling asleep and snoring loudly
New Professor drafted in for one film only (Jim Broadbent is really very good)
The oldest-looking sixth formers you ever did see (especially the six foot ones)
Outbreak of rampant Quidditch
Ron repeatedly pulling his comedy face
Bloke in the seat to my right waking with a start (and asking his wife where he is in an embarrassingly loud voice)
Round-framed glasses that used to be trendy back when the series started (but now so aren't)
Car chase (with big guns) across the streets of New York
Plenty more scenes with dopey-eyed looks and emotional fumblings
Occasional smiley chuckles, on cue, from the audience
The biggest dead spider you ever did see
Ron and Hermione, like, you know, finally
Harry and Ron's sister, like, you know, finally
Dripfed backstory (to try to explain what the hell's going on with that Voldemort bloke)
Feeling that a heck of a lot of plot has been sacrificed in order to achieve a coherent narrative
Bloke in the seat to my right nodding off so far that his glasses fall to the floor with a loud thump
Scary stuff in an unlikely cave
Daniel Radcliffe standing naked beside a stabbed horse
Ohmigod - a most unexpected death! (or would have been if only it hadn't been majorly spoilered back when the book came out)
Possibly the biggest film in the world this year about a school textbook
The most exciting final scene in the history of cinematography
Bloke to my right asking his wife to explain the plot on the way out
See you back in the cinema for the next one

 Friday, July 17, 2009

fivelinks

• There are a lot of bus routes in London. More than 600 of them altogether. Now a brand new website called What Bus has traced all of those routes on a Google Map. Could be useful. You can click around London and discover what buses pass by. You can enter a postcode and find the nearest bus route (or ten). And you can even see a map of each individual single bus route all by itself (like the 100 here) (just amend the end of the URL to see anything else) [It's not perfect, and it's not perfectly accurate, but it looks great fun to play with]

• There are a lot of bus routes in London. More than 600 of them altogether. Ben is attempting to travel on every single one, end-to-end, and then write about them on his blog called Route1to499. So far he's managed 32 different routes, and met both the bus driver from heaven and the bus driver from hell. Good luck Ben. [The write-ups are more descriptive and anecdotal than factual and purist. I suspect most of you will prefer it that way]

• Would you buy a book where a bloke walks across London in a straight line from one side to the other, twice, at right angles, and then writes about it? Maybe not, which is why no publishing company has yet taken Paul up on his London Cross idea. Rather than let 75000 words go to waste, he's uploaded the full south-north bit onto his website. And if some literary agent ever takes the bait, he might go back and finish the west-east bit. [Worth dipping into if you live near Beddington Farm, Larkhall, Crouch End Hill or Oakwood] [nobody took up the option on his Brighton Cross either]

London Open House isn't until mid-September, but it's never too early to reserve yourself an Annual Event Guide so that you can book a place on the rare must-see tours. [Guide due to be published in mid-August] [hang on, it costs how much?!] [nearly doubled in price since last year, ouch]

• When there are thunderstorms about, like there were in London last night, you can keep an eye on where they are using the lightning radar at Upminster Weather. Refreshes automatically every minute, and covers most of the UK (and the near continent). [Warning, it's a bit applet-heavy] [bookmark it now, ready for next time the sky flashes]

five blogsyoumightlike
if you like telly: thecustard.tv
if you like topnotchdesign: Design Assembly
if you like clickylinkstoinformativestuff: things magazine
if you like closeupphotographsofLondonsfinerdetails: Jane's London
if you like detailedreportsonwalksroundtheoutskirtsofLondon: London underfoot

one gameaboutrabbits
Rabbit Wants Cake! [pre-record a series of moves, then play them back and see if the rabbit reaches the cake] [if he doesn't, tweak your moves until he does] [I can't turn the music off, but I can get to level 10]

 Thursday, July 16, 2009

MLONDON A-Z
An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Musical Museum

Location: 399 High Street, Brentford TW8 0DU [map]
Open: 11am - 5:30pm (closed Mondays)
Admission: £7
Brief summary: mechanical treasurehouse
Website: www.musicalmuseum.co.uk
Time to set aside: a couple of hours

There are many London museums starting with the letter M, but most of these are merely the Museum of Something. So for my A-Z I hunted down a proper incontrovertible M, the Musical Museum, and ended up in Brentford just down the road from my K.

Musical MuseumGood news, the Musical Museum isn't anything to do with Mamma Mia, The Lion King or Andrew Lloyd Webber. Surprising news, it's not anything to do with double basses, French horns or electric guitars or either. Instead it's a repository of automatic musical instruments, the sort where you wind a key, turn a handle or flick a switch and they play themselves. The collection started out in the 1960s as a labour of love by Frank Holland, a devoted pianola-fancier with a few church rooms at his disposal. It wasn't until last year that the whole shebang went on permanent display in purpose-built premises overlooking the Thames. It's a fairly unlikely-looking museum, resembling a compact modern warehouse with bright blue cuboid attachments. Don't let that put you off.

You might not think that mechanical instruments are a thrilling subject for a museum, but think of this more as an early history of the home entertainment centre. Before the invention of gramophones, Walkmen and mp3 players, there was no easy way to playback music if you couldn't play an instrument yourself. To hear the hits of the day in your sitting room you needed a musical box, pipe organ or player piano. These were, by necessity, both intricate and expensive, and therefore most of the exhibits on show here were only ever rich people's playthings.

Musical Museum, main galleryThere are only a handful of galleries in the museum, all of them on the ground floor. But limited size shouldn't be a problem if you time your visit to attend one of the excellent guided tours. I spent a full hour in the main gallery listening to Michael the museum's director nipping through a complete history of mechanical music using illustrations drawn from the collection. He did a fine job keeping the varied audience of adults and children interested, educated and entertained, and he got to play a fair few of the instruments in the room too.

First up was an early musical box (none of your cheap rubbish, this elaborate contraption would have drawn admiring glances at any 19th century European social soirée). As technology improved the internal metal cylinders became more complicated, and pipes and bells and whistles were added for good measure. Paper rolls made a big difference, fed carefully into the machines providing a choice of tunes for the Victorian parlour. "Look," said Michael, "no hands" as he pumped out a tune on an upright pianola. Then he bounded across the room to the giant pipe organ that had once been "Queen Victoria's iPod", and rounded off the hour with an electric fiddle in a coin-op jukebox.

We were left to explore the other ground floor galleries independently, and probably missed plenty as a result. But ooh, yes, that was definitely a Theremin (shame there was nobody to play it) and this was a proper barrel organ (laid out in a semi-convincing representation of a local Brentford alleyway). Those seeking an inexpensive memento of their visit could pay £1 in the shop for a genuine paper roll with a tune punched into it (these were nothing special in their day, merely the Edwardian version of a seven inch single). It was only the invention of the amplifier in 1926 that finally killed the whole lot off.

Mighty WurlitzerBut there was one very special survivor still to see in the concert hall upstairs. Here, lovingly transplanted from the Regal Cinema Kingston, was a Mighty Wurlitzer! This came complete with mighty organist, although he didn't rise up through the floor - the organ and its associated pipework take up enough of the museum building as it is. But when the Art Deco organ suddenly lit up in glowing neon (red, then pink, orange, blue and lime) and the first notes echoed out around the auditorium, I got very special musical goosepimples. Three tunes (including Quando Quando Quando and a Fred & Ginger classic) weren't really enough, but the Museum puts on regular concerts for those who prefer their organ sustained for a couple of hours.

I was impressed by the enthusiasm and knowledge of the volunteers who run the museum. I learned a lot about a fascinating subject I had worried might be intensely dull. I even enjoyed a cup of tea and a yummy traybake in the cafe, which is unheard of. The whole place had genuine appeal for a somewhat cultured clientèle, so if your kids' idea of great music is a tinny ringtone then I'd keep them away. But the Musical Museum merits a far wider audience than I suspect it's getting. Play on.
by train: Kew Bridge   by tube: Gunnersbury   by bus: 65, 237, 267

M is also for...
» Markfield Beam Engine Museum (closed for refurbishment until later this year)
» MCC Museum (cricketing shrine, home to The Ashes)
» Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising (I've been) (you really must go)
» Museum of London (semi-closed for refurbishment) (I've been)
» Museum of London Docklands (free entry this weekend) (I've been)
» Museum of the Order of St. John (closed for refurbishment until next summer) (I've been)


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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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