diamond geezer

 Thursday, January 31, 2013

From tomorrow morning the observation decks at the tallest building in Europe will open to the public. You'll be able to take the lift to the 68th floor and peer down over London, weather permitting, and all for only £24.95.

Over the last month hundreds of journalists and bloggers have been given the chance to go up to the top for free, and take lots of photos, and then write about the experience for publicity. Last weekend it was the turn of Southwark residents, 4500 of whom snapped up free tickets and enjoyed seeing their borough from a new angle.

So I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to visit the Shard myself, and to take a look inside, in advance of the official opening. Here's a report of my visit, and maybe it'll encourage you to take the trip too.


View from the Shard

To gain access to the Shard's toppermost floors, you don't head to the obvious ground level doors. Instead you head one level down, following a series of makeshift portable signs to the gloomy passage below. Look for the tall portal in the arches opposite the florist, in a location where otherwise you'd not choose to linger. A pair of electronic information boards have been erected this week, one on either side of the doors. These have information about the day's ticket availability in half hourly slots, and are currently coloured red throughout because the sightseeing decks aren't open yet. Below is a list of ticket prices, where anyone who's not booked in advance is in for a shock. The turn-up-and-go admission price is £100, pitched gobsmackingly high in the hope that rich wealthy foreign visitors will swan along and pay anyway. How glad was I to be gaining admittance to the building for free?

From here let's take the scenic escalator to the next floor up. This is a spacious ride, with clear views into the main lobby on St Thomas Street where a considerable amount of fitting-out has yet to be completed. Visitors are gaining access to The Shard in advance of corporate clients, which can't be bad. At the top of the ascent keep right, rather than taking the direct route onwards to the new bus station. This'll be a most convenient connection when it's fully unveiled, but it's not ready yet. At this point you pass the Shard's main entrance, where suited security guards waited patiently (in front of and behind the revolving doors) to direct mere members of the public elsewhere. Best shuffle by.

From here it's only a few steps to the main concourse at London Bridge station. A brand new circulation space has opened as part of ongoing redevelopment work, with a long row of ticket barriers at the far end beyond a central void. Along one side is a row of seats, entirely insufficient for expected numbers of waiting passengers. And beyond that is the foot of the Shard, its slanting glass walls slicing down to intersect the concourse at ground level. Raise your eyes and you can see the upper floors rising to a lofty point beyond the suspended roof. It's time at last to step inside the first of four interior spaces.



This tour of the Shard begins at Caffè Nero Express - a tiny outlet, barely more than a counter and some shelves. There's nowhere to sit down, indeed half a dozen customers queuing on the chequerboard tiles could bring the place to a halt. But buy a coffee here, beyond the glass façade, and you've just stepped inside London's newest iconic building. There's a similar buzz nextdoor at Upper Crust - Baguette Specialist. This tiny space could be filled by two travellers and a suitcase, but nevertheless lies entirely within the Shard's perimeter. Here stuffed bread products are lined up beneath an ad for tom yum chicken, while a vintage clock ticks silently on a white-painted artificial brick wall. The excitement continues at the next retail outlet, slightly further back, part-hidden behind a pillar. From here the smell of baked pastry wafts across the station concourse courtesy of the West Cornwall Pasty Company. Wave £4.49 across the divide and a "pasty and hot drink" combination could be yours. But this is a very small concession, barely two metres in depth, so only the staff behind the counter can truly claim to be inside the Shard.

After these three minor incursions, it's the final gateway which is the true highlight of this special tour. Located at the far end, by the ticket barriers, only now does the visitor enters the true belly of the beast. This portal stretches back back back, past two concessions selling croissants and coffee to a discerning audience. Here at last is breadth, and depth, and a WHSmith which fills the Shard's southern corner. Won't you look at that view? The glories of London and the City are splashed across the covers of various current affairs magazines, the people so tiny, especially from the other side of the shelves.

But that's nothing compared to the glories ahead. An entire branch of Marks and Spencer Simply Food has opened deep inside the exterior of the Shard, and it's stacked from wall to wall with goodies. Bouquets have been laid out at the entrance by a group of expert flower arrangers, creating a majestic display to welcome you inside. Also in a priority location by the door are biscuits, racks of them, for commuters who can't go four hours without gulping down a traybake. And then the floor splits into three parallel aisles, one with a lot of sandwiches, one with a lot of fruit, and one with an abundance of wine. It's a magical space, where once you've entered you can linger for as long as you choose, and maybe even take away a souvenir of your visit.

If the weather's bad, never fear, that needn't make a difference. A long row of electronic devices are arrayed along an inner wall, allowing virtual transactional contact with the outside world. Smartly dressed staff will assist you to scan and pay, as your time within this great building draws to a close. But take time to stand and stare one last time, looking back past the French bread specialists to the ticket gates and the station beyond. See commuters waiting for a platform announcement, see tourists slurping on a latte. See the entire world bustling by, see London in microcosm. That's the View From The Shard, that is.

I've been. Will you?

 Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Every seven days, in the spirit of freedom of information, TfL releases information about ridership on the cable car. How many passenger journeys were there during the previous week (starting Sunday, ending Saturday), that's the question. There's a nice little table building up. And a nice little table can become a nice little graph. Like so.



The red bars are the Olympics and the Paralympics, and the blue bars are school holidays.

Take away the coloured bars and I think the pattern is obvious. It's down.

In the week immediately after the Games finished there were 49402 journeys on the cablecar. That number's been falling gradually ever since, and last week there were only 15996.

The downward trend is consistent with a decline in the weather - as temperatures fall and daylight hours decrease, there's less incentive to ride. But the downward trend is also consistent with novelty value - one ride may be fun, but there's no real reason to return.

Normally you'd expect the number of passengers using a new transport link to increase. People discover that the route exists and learn to use it as part of their regular journey options. That's what's happened with the Overground's southern extension, for example. But with the cable car the opposite is happening. People know it exists, and many have turned up for a ride, but they've only been once.

As tourist levels drop, because it's winter, cablecar ridership is drawing closer to the underlying number of regular users. But there aren't many regular users, because (as we've previously discussed) the cablecar's existence enhances very few commutes. With weekly numbers now down to 16000 a week, the number of regular daily users can't be any more than 3000.

But usage on the cablecar isn't spread evenly. Data reveals that approximately 60% of all cablecar visitors ride at weekends, and only 40% on weekdays. In a week with 16000 passengers you'd therefore expect about 1280 passengers each weekday, which equates to 100 passengers an hour. The cablecar's massive and expensive infrastructure is carrying the equivalent of one passenger a minute in each direction. TfL could run an hourly bus service and carry the same number of people... except it would sink, obviously.

Would ridership numbers increase if the cablecar was properly integrated with the Oyster card system? Undoubtedly, but again far more at weekends than during the week. Nobody needs to ride this way across the Thames, not unless all other options are temporarily suspended. The cablecar has proven to be, as we all suspected, a tourist attraction of only limited genuine use.

It's hard to say whether this week's figures mark the low point in the cablecar's annual cycle. As spring arrives ridership numbers will undoubtedly increase, as the curious return to glide high across the Thames and stare down onto Silvertown's industrial foreshore. But I doubt there'll be quite so many curious riders in 2013 as in 2012, even discounting last summer's Olympic effect, not unless something radical happens to the Dangleway's fare structure.

In the meantime I look forward to checking TfL's data page each week to see if the cablecar's finally taken off yet.

 Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Yesterday the Government announced its preferred route for the northern end of HS2, a Y-shaped extension of the High Speed rail line to Manchester and Leeds. It'll be some time before the new line is operational, with all the fine detail yet to be planned and agreed. But how much will it cost to use this new railway?
The government says its proposals "assume a fares structure in line with that of the existing railway" and that HS2 could generate sufficient demand and revenues without needing to charge premium fares.
So, maybe it'll not cost much more than now. But let's see what that might mean, with reference to the only existing High Speed line in Britain. That's HS1 out of St Pancras to Kent, where fares to use the faster line cost more than they do on slower lines. Let's calculate how much more...

2013 fares to Kent
Return fare
from London to
Peak timeOff-peakFare
increase
SlowHS1SlowHS1
Ashford£29.60£35.50£26.30£31.5020%
Canterbury£30.50£36.40£27.70£32.9019%
Dover£36.30£42.20£32.30£37.5016%

Just to clarify, on HS1 you can't pre-book a specific train and get a better deal, you pay either the peak or the off-peak fare. But it's clear from the table that the supplement for taking the High Speed line from St Pancras is about £5. The percentage increase is 20% to Ashford, where the whole journey is High Speed, and a bit less than that for stations beyond, partly along slower lines. So for High Speed only journeys, the appropriate High Speed premium would appear to be 20% - maybe not as high as you were expecting.

Now let's apply that further north. I've researched the current price of a return ticket to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, using the fastest services, at two different times. Firstly the morning rush hour, for the highest possible fares, then on a Saturday, which is representatively off-peak. On each occasion I've then worked out the fare if you book cheapest trains three months in advance, and what happens if you turn up and buy a ticket on the day. Here's what happens...

2013 fares to the Midlands & the North
Return fare
from London to
Peak timeOff-peak
AdvanceOn the dayAdvanceOn the day
Birmingham£67£158£15£49
Manchester£134.50£308£25£77.30
Leeds£37.20£249£29.20£98

Rail travel's great if you can travel off-peak and tie down your life in advance. Even in peak times it's fairly cheap to get to Leeds, although I should point out these fares are for the most recently-released tickets, and anything under two months hence is rather dearer. Alas we can't always plan that far ahead, and the £308 that Virgin charge to Manchester and back is daylight robbery.

How would things change if we added a 20% High Speed premium? How much more expensive might it be to travel along the fast track (announced yesterday) than the relatively slow track we have today?

Equivalent HS2 fares including 20% High Speed premium
Return fare
from London to
Peak timeOff-peakTime
saving
AdvanceOn the dayAdvanceOn the day
Birmingham£80£190£18£5935m
Manchester£161£370£30£9355m
Leeds£45£299£35£1181hr

That doesn't look too bad, assuming that today's pricing structures are one day applied to the new line. But I have my doubts that a High Speed network would offer the same levels of cut price advance tickets we see today. Instead I'd expect that those who want to pay less would be shunted onto the existing railways, where there'd be spare capacity, leaving HS2 for those who value time over money.

The table above shows the potential fares in today's money. But what if we take account of one more thing - inflation? The new line isn't scheduled to open until 2032-33, twenty years hence, and fares will have risen a lot by then. They're currently pegged at "inflation plus 3%" per annum, although the government's reduced that to "inflation plus 1%" this year, equivalent to 4.2%.

Let's assume that fares will rise 5% per year for the next 20 years, a potentially conservative estimate. 5% per year may not sound much, but it soon adds up, and two decades on is equivalent to a single rise of 165%. Here are those HS2 fares again, assuming a 20% High Speed premium plus 5% fare rises between now and 2033. Isn't maths scary sometimes?

2033 HS2 fares inc 20% High Speed premium + inflation
Return fare
from London to
Peak timeOff-peak
AdvanceOn the dayAdvanceOn the day
Birmingham£213£503£48£156
Manchester£428£980£80£246
Leeds£118£793£93£312

These are only ballpark figures, and undoubtedly wrong, although I've tried to base them as far as possible on current reality. But there you have it, in 2033 a return ticket from London to Manchester via HS2 could set you back nearly £1000. That's £33bn of government money well spent, and no mistake.

 Monday, January 28, 2013

WALK LONDON
Winter Wanders
[part of London Loop section 16]
High Barnet to Cockfosters (3½ miles)

After an eventless year, Walk London were back this weekend with their Winter Wanders. A programme of 35 guided walks took place across the capital, but mostly in Central London, along pavements rather than footpaths. So I joined one of the three walks braving the outskirts of London, because life's more fun that way, and headed to the far reaches of Barnet. Here I joined a group of hardy hikers, about fifty-or-so in number, led by local guide Paul Baker. He led us along the last few miles of London Loop section 16, joining the tips of the Northern and Piccadilly lines via ancient woodland. Along the way we enjoyed bright sunshine, wind, hail and a rainbow, plus a lot more mud than anyone walking in central London had to endure. And blimey, did they miss out.


"Please make sure you've signed in," said Paul as we congregated outside High Barnet station. This seemed slightly over the top for a free guided walk, especially when one of the columns was for "mobile phone number", but once I saw Barnet Council's name at the top of the sheet I wasn't entirely surprised. We waited patiently while certain walkers availed themselves of the last toilet facilities before Cockfosters, and listened to the health and safety talk, then set off on an instant diversion. Normally the route heads via Mead Way and King George's Field, but Paul had checked the latter out earlier and decreed it too muddy to pass. That was a shame, especially for those of us in appropriate footwear, because the upper end of the slope apparently commands a stunning view across north London. Instead we had to troop up Barnet High Street, where the view was more of people going shopping, until we rejoined the proper route in Monken Hadley. [map]

Ah, the heights of Monken Hadley. This gorgeous village on the Great North Road has a history stretching back almost a thousand years, as well as being the site of one of the Wars of the Roses. The Battle of Barnet took place here in 1471, and here died Warwick the Kingmaker, near the bus stop on Hadley Highstone. Grand houses grew up along the green in the 18th century, elegantly Georgian, which became a bolthole for the well-to-do trying the escape the stink of inner London. Author Fanny Trollope holed up here to try to cure her daughter's TB, alas unsuccessfully, and explorer David Livingstone hired a cottage to write a book in 1857. How great to live inside one of these historic houses today, although the downside must be having large groups of ramblers standing on the verge outside pointing at your windows.

Our group had been clogging pavements since route-marching up the High Street, but past the parish church (and through the white gates) we finally stepped out of harm's way onto Monken Hadley Common. This is a wedge-shaped strip of mostly-woodland, one and a half miles long, and we'd be following it all the way to Cockfosters. This is almost all that remains of the hunting forest of Enfield Chase, this borderline sliver bequeathed to the residents of Monken Hadley when the remainder of the Chase was enclosed. Kingsley Amis used to live alongside the common, as did Spike Milligan in a brooding mansion behind a row of trees, but alas neither had sheep or donkeys they needed to exercise here.

The common's deep wood cover looked rather muddy, so we stuck to the not-quite-so muddy verge along the roadside. Up until this point those in trainers had had it easy, but here was the first hint that any pristine whiteness might not last. This didn't bother the half dozen or so young children on the walk, especially Joshua in his sturdy wellies. He walked into ponds ("Joshua, come out"), he wandered into sludgy puddles ("Joshua, stop that") and he strode purposefully into quagmires ("Joshua!"). At the foot of Bakers Hill the tarmac ran out, and the underfoot mud quotient slowly rose. In one long clearing the entire footpath had been appropriated by rainwater and thawed snow, so we were forced to divert through squelchy brambles and across an increasingly damp floodplain. Our snaking queue of adults trod carefully for a full five minutes, but Joshua stomped straight down the middle of the temporary stream with a big grin.

Normally the Pymmes Brook is nothing but a trickle, but we crossed a coffee-coloured torrent. Here Paul directed us up a side path, again muddier than we'd have liked, to show us Jack's Lake. This used to be a boating lake, popular with Victorian daytrippers, and doesn't always look its sparkling best in midwinter. It was at precisely this point that the hail began, pocking the surface of the lake with miniature impact craters. Various displaced waterfowl flew off to avoid continued bombardment, while the banks around us were rapidly covered by half-inch balls of ice. We retreated cautiously beneath the tree cover (but secretly, obviously, it was great).

And that was nearly it. The suburbs of New Barnet pushed up close to the common, perhaps too close, as we splattered further mud on our trousers on the slow climb out of the valley. Eventually we emerged through the final cattle gate, and attempted to escape the rain beneath a small tree outside the Cock and Dragon pub. Here Paul took his leave of us, to a round of well deserved applause. He runs several other (paid-for) walks in the Barnet area, with his next exposition of the Battle of Barnet due in four weeks time. Wonderful though Walk London's Winter Wanders are, it's the guides who plough the streets of London week in week out who deserve our full support.

And that was only one of the Winter Wanders I enjoyed yesterday. I spent the morning touring the heart of Westminster on the above-ground Subterranean London tour. So popular was this free walk that three separate guides were needed to cater for the two hundred who'd turned up, and we criss-crossed our way around the Embankment and Whitehall for the next two hours. Peter from London Walks was an excellent leader, divulging secrets hidden beneath the ground in tubes, tunnels, bunkers and cellars. I knew a lot of the stuff already, because I'm like that, but I'm pleased to say I still learnt plenty (including the unlikely reason why Parliament Square was covered with flowers for Diana's funeral). In a large group or by yourself, London remains a fascinatingly diverse place to go for a walk.

 Sunday, January 27, 2013

London 2012  post-Olympic update
  Six months on

It's six months today since the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the moment when the nation decided maybe it was going to enjoy the summer after all. It seems so long ago now, doesn't it? So six months on I thought I'd go back to three locations that sparkled temporarily during the Games, to see whether all trace has yet been swept away. One north of the river, two south.

The Olympic Park: You'll not be getting inside the Olympic Park for a while yet. Six months today, to be precise, when the northern half reopens for the public to shufti around. In the meantime the deconstruction continues, and the place has a desolate empty air. The Aquatic Centre looks forlorn with the sides of its wings removed, with the wind free to whip across the grandstands once covered with seating [photo]. Scaffolding is going up inside, where the final outer walls will be, enclosing a much smaller, more sustainable inner space. The stadium lies empty and unaltered, while the relevant authorities continue to fail to decide who should own it. There are plans for a music festival or two to move in during the summer, although it's hard to imagine the area as an entertainment focus during the chilly days of winter. Festivalgoers will also use the site of the Riverbank Arena, where the hockey was held, which has long been removed and levelled. This is part of the Legacy Development Corporation's strategy of finding creative uses for patches alongside the park ultimately designated for housing. As for the Basketball Arena, the knobbly cuboid that looked like it was made from icing, that faces a less happy future. It was built in the hope of transferring the entire building to Rio, but Rio doesn't want it, so it'll probably end up scrapped and recycled.
» An Ordnance Survey map of the Olympic Park 2030 can be viewed here. Free copies available at the View Tube.

I walked along the Greenway yesterday morning, and peered down over all the nothing much that's currently happening. Large expanses of tarmac lie waiting for whatever's going in next, while the river Lea winds through between leafless saplings [photo]. The stadium's not the draw it was, so the cafe at the View Tube rarely has queues and the viewing platform up top is barely used. There's a rather nice exhibition called Dispersal in the sheds out front. Photographers Debra and Marion visited dozens of businesses that used to occupy the Olympic Park before they were wiped away, and interviewed staff and took pictures. The resulting posters made compelling reading, not always with a happy ending, but unfortunately the content doesn't appear to be available anywhere online.

I walked along the Greenway again after sunset yesterday evening as the full moon shone brightly over the floodlights. The Stadium was otherwise in darkness, although the stairs were lit, and the service level below was fully illuminated. Along the Olympic Park's pedestrian spine the solar-powered lighting towers glowed red, then blue, changing colour just as they did six months ago. But that was nothing compared to the Orbit, which was blazing light from top to bottom, around the observation deck and round the spiral stairs [photo]. This illumination seems a colossal waste of money given that the Orbit's not due to reopen to the public until next year. And yet somebody's inside enjoying the facilities, because twice I watched the lift descending from the upper floor. It could just be the caretaker, obviously, but it's galling to see so large a sculpture wasting away after a mere four weeks of use.
Update: Park in Progress tours begin at Easter 2013. The bus ride and a trip up the Orbit will cost you £15.

Woolwich Common: This is where the shooting events took place, you may remember, or you may not because shooting barely got a look in during the broadcasting of the Games. But the people of Woolwich still lost the lower part of their common while a series of temporary structures were built, amazing white blobby things, and a grandstand for the Paralympic archery too. The buildings are long gone, but the restitution of the common is taking rather a long time. I thought the fences might be down by now but none are. Traffic and pedestrians can again pass along Ha-Ha Road, but all other footpaths remain blocked and the grass alongside remains entirely inaccessible. That's if you can call it grass. It's more of a ploughed field round here at the moment, a few acres of mucky brown earth scattered with the remains of last week's snow [photo]. This seems strange, because lots of the original grass survived construction, but during the removals phase it all seems to have been lost. Maybe that's deliberate, as the only way to restore a uniform landscape may be to start again. And the decommissioning work isn't scheduled to finish until March, so there are still several weeks to plant some seed or lay some turf or whatever. But the area looks a horrible mess at the moment, in sharp contrast to the remainder of the untouched common above. And even if the grass is ready by Easter, I can't imagine locals being allowed to walk on it before summer at the earliest. It'll be a long time before the scars of the Olympics are fully erased from Woolwich Common. [photo]

Greenwich Park: There was a huge fuss before the Olympics about the damage the equestrian events might do to the Royal Park. Don't you dare take our park, cried NOGOE, because you'll never be able to restore it properly. Six months on, the evidence isn't good. Large parts of the lower park are screened off behind plastic barriers, broken only by criss-crossing footpaths. Across the main lawns, between the Queen's House and the Observatory, what used to be lawn is reduced to a series of segregated triangles. Lower down they're green, although still very obviously rolls of turf that haven't bedded in. Gaps exist between the stripes where the grass hasn't knitted together, and it'll be some time before this looks anything other than artificial [photo]. But that's hugely better than the mess further up the slope, where a large brown muddy swathe is reminiscent of the muck at Woolwich. This is where the horses trotted last summer, and where we sat, but remains a no-go-area today. Tourists walking from the town centre up to the Observatory follow paths through this zone of mud, which also forms a significant part of the view once they reach the top [photo]. Rest assured that repairs are underway across most of the lower park, not just in the space where the equestrian venue was plonked. Roads and paths left in a poor condition after the Games are still being restored by The Royal Parks, who are also performing routine work like you might expect in the winter months. Laminated notices announce that all should be complete by 28th March, just in time for Easter, although it's hard to imagine anyone settling down on the lawns for a bank holiday picnic. I'm sure the end results will eventually be acceptable - the park's custodians and users won't settle for anything less. But I was expecting better by now, and I fear 'good enough' may still be several months away.

 Saturday, January 26, 2013

On the sides of buses round my way is an advertising campaign for www.notalwaysaande.co.uk.

Why clog up the waiting room at Accident & Emergency when you could go elsewhere and mess up the system less? Perhaps to a Walk-in Centre, maybe your GP, possibly a pharmacy, or even stay at home and treat yourself.

It's a fine idea for a campaign, given how many people wantonly head to A&E with a minor headache and then wonder why they have to queue so long. It's very sensible to point out the expertise standing behind the counter in your local chemist. And we should all know where our nearest Walk-In Centre is, because we never know when we might suddenly need it. But if you think to type www.notalwaysaande.co.uk into your browser, be that mobile or at home, how useful is the information provided?

Across the top of the home page are big splashes announcing that A&E is for real emergencies only, subtly hinting that perhaps your malady isn't that important. Undeneath are a drop-down list and a postcode box where you can enter symptoms, from a restricted list, and your location. And in smaller print is the news that this is a website focused solely on the London boroughs of Barking and Dagenham, Hackney, Havering, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Redbridge, Waltham Forest and the City, so if you live elsewhere it's of no use.

Oh, and there are no obvious lists. If you want to see a list of all the local A&E departments, bad luck. If you'd like a map of east London's Walk-In Centres, it's not there. If you're not sure where your nearest pharmacies are, you'd appear to be in the wrong place. Only by entering symptoms and location can you gain access to this hallowed information. The website assumes you're ill now, not that you might be sensibly planning ahead in case you're ill later.

Unsurprisingly, if you have a grazed knee, hangover or sore throat you should treat yourself. If you have backache, ear pain or sore tummy you should see your GP, and you shouldn't need a map to tell you where they are. If you're blacking out or suffering blood loss or chest pain, then obviously you should go to A&E. A map and list of A&E locations is provided, at long last. But alongside is a blatantly cost-cutting suggestion that you should try to get to A&E by yourself if you can, with dialling 999 only as a last resort for those who "have collapsed or can't breathe".

It's a bit of a drop-down lottery to find an illness deemed appropriate for visiting a Walk-In Centre. These it seems are only for cuts and scratches, itches, sprains, strains and suspected breaks, and nothing else. If your medical issue isn't on the shortlist (and nothing obscure but urgent is), then the website redirects you instead to NHS Choices where essentially you're asked to start again. A list of symptoms and destinations would be nice, all on one page for instant perusal, but no, that's only available by post. Instead the programmers behind www.notalwaysaande.co.uk have chosen to force you through a pre-determined funnel to tell you what you want, to prevent you from wrongly guessing what you need.

And there are maps and lists of all the medical services in East London, but they're well hidden. You have to think to click on the dull-sounding "About NHS services" at the top of the page, then click on an arrow below to reveal some text, and then spot the "view all" link down at the bottom. And oh, that's unfortunate, the Walk-In Centres map reveals that there are no Walk-In Centres anywhere in Tower Hamlets. All this effort to direct us to the most appropriate service, and then that most appropriate service isn't there.

The last time I wanted to use a Walk-In Centre I was sure there was one at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, so I went there, only to discover it no longer existed. Signs directed me to alternative walk-in options elsewhere, but they were several miles away. At this point I gave up, but I'm sure most people would have wandered into A&E nextdoor instead, purely for convenience. According to the Royal London's website there are two Walk-In Centres in Tower Hamlets, one on the Isle of Dogs and one in Bromley-by-Bow. Alas www.notalwaysaande.co.uk completely ignores both, which means their online advice for Tower Hamlets residents is dangerously incomplete.

A similarly-flawed service is offered by NHS 111. This is a special telephone number you're supposed to ring instead of 999 to leave the genuine emergency number unclogged. But before you add 111 to your phone, be aware that it only functions in certain limited geographical areas, such as County Durham, Luton, the Isle of Wight and Lancashire (excluding West Lancashire). In London it only connects to services in the boroughs of Croydon, Hammersmith and Fulham, Hillingdon, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster, so if you feel ill it's essential to consider geography before dialling. Sprain your leg on one side of Regent's Park and you can call 111, but I wonder how many people know which side that is.

It's a sad truth that unthinking patients regularly make bad choices about where to take their symptoms, and the NHS frontline often suffers as a result. It's also true that when we're ill, we often don't have the best information about what to do at our fingertips. Alas it seems www.notalwaysaande.co.uk isn't the best way of changing things for the better.

 Friday, January 25, 2013

It's that time of year when restaurants aren't doing so well, so the Evening Standard invites Londoners to visit 24 of them on the cheap.

One of these restaurants lies by the Thames near Tower Bridge. It's one of the cheaper dining establishments on the list, special-offer-wise, but the welcome at the door is very warm. This may be because the staff are always so gracious, or it may be because the ES crowd are filling most of the tables.

A choice of locations is offered, either out of the way by the far wall or out of the way in the far corner. The latter location is described as "on the sofa", which edges it. The table turns out to be just wide enough to make talking across it slightly awkward, but that's not noticeable until you sit down, and by then it's too late.

The waiter is effusive. Indeed he's possibly the most effusive waiter I've ever met, smiling and grinning and thanking me at every available opportunity. He thanks me for sitting down. He thanks me for holding the menu. He thanks me for not ordering drinks yet. He thanks me for thanking him, but I refrain from thanking him back in case the charade continues.

The Evening Standard set menu offers a fine selection of food, with one additional choice per course compared to most of the other two dozen restaurants on the list. Nevertheless the waiter sees fit to hand over the usual à la carte menu, printed on nice card rather than paper, in case diners can be tempted over to the dark side at this late stage.

His heavy European accent proves difficult to understand further, or perhaps my heavy English accent proves difficult to understand back. He has to repeat something about water, and I have to repeat something about not being sure what he said, and then he wanders off with the wine list before he twigs I might actually want some.

The first course arrives swiftly, which is the joy of ordering off a limited but popular set menu. My pate looks suspiciously like a turd on toast, all swirly and brown and rising to a sharp point, but thankfully tastes delicious. Elsewhere the lentil soup is full-bodied and flavoursome, so I'm told, although the lack of bread roll is a cost-saving too far.

The second course takes rather longer to arrive, during which time the adjacent couple order desserts and coffees, drink up and depart. The delay causes the head waiter to come over, eventually, and apologise. Again comprehension is not easy to come by, but either my mince will be here soon or my meal will be, so I assume the latter.

My pasta is delivered by the restaurant's least enthusiastic waiter, who lingers only to grate a grudging layer of cheese across the top. He repeats this duty for a bland-looking risotto, although it's top notch tasty, apparently, thankfully. Waiter number one then waits until I have a mouth full of tomato sauce before mumbling a query about whether or not I'm enjoying it. I mumble back, and he thanks me profusely for whatever it is I might have said.

The dessert course requires further exuberant negotiation. The slice of tiramisu that follows is so large that the lady at the neighbouring table feels moved to lean over and point out that her portion was noticeably smaller. My panna cotta goes unremarked, but slips down nicely, and I am at least able to clear my plate.

The bill arrives with additional flourish, and a grinning "grazie", presumably in the hope of earning an augmented pay off. But the bottom line already includes 12.5% extra, so I pile up the precise amount in notes and coppers and that'll have to do. Further gratitude is offered on the walk to the door, and on the way through it, and all feels genuine. A most pleasant evening, courtesy of the ES's annual wintertime special offer, thanks.

 Thursday, January 24, 2013

I've had a smartphone for five weeks and, I have to say, I was expecting it to change my life more. I'd coped admirably with my previous phone for five years, but I thought upgrading to the modern world would make more of a difference. Not so. I mean, it's great how the shiny contraption in my pocket can now do so many (so many) clever things. But impressively life-changing, no, not really.

The biggest difference is being connected to what's going on in the world even when I'm not sat at home. If a famous film actor dies, or someone recommends a tumblr post, or Prince Harry speaks, I don't need to wait to find out. I can sit on the bus and read what's in the paper, rather than read the paper. I can even check what everyone's saying on Twitter while I'm at work, rather than waiting all day and having to read back through ten hours of random mumblings later. If only that were more exciting.

I thought being able to use wifi underground would be useful, enabling me to update, read and refresh as I travelled between stops. Alas not. Virgin's subsurface wifi turns out to be woeful, and churns away patiently while the train's in an underground platform without ever loading anything. But wifi's brilliant elsewhere, assuming I can actually log on, and 3G's a bit of an eyeopener above ground.

I have successfully used my phone to locate a branch of Rymans while in Hammersmith, and to update my blog whilst on a train through Essex, and to check whilst out and about where a particular South London street might be. But I always used to plan this sort of stuff in advance, and 90% of the time it worked and the other 10% it probably didn't matter. All my new iPhone has taught me to be is a little lazier.

I still haven't watched a film on my commute to work, even though I probably could, because I'm not a video-centric person. I can't get the hang of listening to music because I prefer to listen to a random playlist, but my smartphone seems too tightly regimented to allow such open-mindedness. I have acquired a subscription for a well known daily newspaper, but only once have I bothered to plough through more than half a dozen pages because the navigation is too much of a faff.

I don't think I've got the hang of accumulating apps. I've only downloaded twenty or so, and deleted a number of these for being rubbish. I'm sure there are lots of great things out there I could be adding to my phone but I can never think what they might be, so I don't. I'm not a games player, especially not a firing things at coloured balls kind of person, and filling my journeys with endless thumbswiping doesn't really appeal.

I haven't switched from reading blogs online to reading them on screen. I know a significant number of you are reading diamond geezer on your mobile because I can see you all landing on a page with an /?m=1 suffix. But I'd still much rather read what everyone else has to say in a sensible font size, and more than five sentences at the same time, and with the speed that my laptop's bookmarks provide. Smartphones are merely dumbing down the internet, not enhancing it.

The thing I'm least impressed with is Apple's way of entering text. The keyboard is tiny and fiddly, and relies on me tapping thin electric rectangles with fingers too big to aim properly. I regularly tap the wrong letter, then face the choice of trying to delete it or allowing predictive text to guess what the word was supposed to be. That guess is often wrong, and requires copious additional swipes to undo, and the text is so tiny it's often impossible to see I've spelt something wrong until I've (oops) accidentally sent it. On my previous phone I learnt to type almost without looking, whereas now if I don't look carefully I often write gibberish.

Perhaps I'm over-familiar with a "proper" keyboard and can't adapt. Perhaps I'm not young enough to be a digital native, unlike those of you for whom pressing and clicking are things only grandads do. Whatever, I haven't really got into sending emails and blogging from my smartphone because writing coherent sentences is too much hassle. I don't even find the 160 characters of a text message straight-forward, plus with so much 'noise' from incoming stuff I now regularly fail to spot that a text message has arrived.

For a device that's supposed to be intuitive, some of the necessary shortcuts are ridiculously well hidden. I was disturbed to discover how many apps I thought I'd turned off were still running in the background - some with potentially awkward consequences. Oh, and the iPhone's battery life is woeful, especially for someone who's used to only recharging every five days. These days I can sometimes manage two, but more usually I have to remember to plug the thing in before I go to bed every night, and I'm not even a heavy user.

Whatever, I don't regret my smartphone purchase, not at all. Some of the things it can do are amazing, for someone brought up on only SMS and phone. Just last night on the way home from BestMate's house I was able to determine that a train home was imminent and run and catch it, whereas pre-iPhone I'd have been stuck waiting on a freezing platform for the next ten minutes. I'm well impressed to have uploaded a photo from Kew Gardens, and blogged from Lincoln, and all the "on the move" stuff that's suddenly become possible.

I haven't yet turned into one of those zombies who walks down the street without looking where they're going all the time. But I still don't feel like I'm taking full advantage of my smartphone, or using it properly, or treating it as anything more than an occasionally flashy electronic brick. I'll get there, possibly, eventually, maybe. But impressively life-changing, no, not really.

 Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Solar System is big, really big. And that's why, in several locations around the world, people have gone to a lot of effort to build a scale model across the landscape to show just how big the Solar System is. They've picked somewhere to place the Sun, selected an appropriate scale, calculated where all the planets go, then stuck some sort of markers in the ground to represent everything.

There's a scale model along 40 miles of coastal road in Maine, USA. There's a huge scale model covering the length of Sweden. There's the Spaced Out scale model across the whole of Britain. There's a bikeable scale model outside York. There's a really lovely model in the small town of Otford, north Kent (I've been). But there isn't a proper outdoor scale model of the solar system in London. In 2010 an artist called Louise O'Connor gave some shopkeepers along the Kingsland Road a series of balls to represent the Sun and planets, starting with a 75cm gold yoga ball in Afro World, but alas her project has now ended. Which means the capital is ripe for a fresh attempt to represent the solar system, thereby creating a valuable resource for learning and enlightenment. The Greater London Solar System. Shall we have a go?

[Google map]

The Sun (Trafalgar Square): There are many places in London you could place the centre of a solar system model. I toyed with the Royal Greenwich Observatory, except too many of the inner planets ended up inside Greenwich Park near to close to nothing particularly exciting. So I went for the traditional centre of London instead, the statue of King Charles I at Charing Cross. If my solar system idea takes off, maybe we could replace the statue with a glowing red ball, perhaps sponsored by The Sun newspaper... or maybe not.

I'm scaling this model by placing Neptune on the edge of London. That's 15 miles on the ground to represent nearly 3 billion miles in space. That's quite some squish.

Mercury (375 yards, St James's Park): With Neptune on this scale you might expect Mercury to be located really really close to the Sun - perhaps attached to the nearest traffic light or at the foot of Nelson's Column. Not so. Being 36 million miles from the Sun equates to just under 400 yards, which enables Mercury to orbit some distance from Trafalgar Square. Under Admiralty Arch and along to the closest corner of St James's Park, that's where Mercury should go.
Venus (700 yards, Covent Garden): This is a good place to plonk Venus. The eastern corner of Covent Garden Market, on the forecourt just outside the London Transport Museum. I think they'd approve of a tourist-friendly orb adjacent to their front door, I really do.
Earth (½ mile, South Bank, Waterloo Bridge): The Earth is the most crucial planet in the entire model because it defines the scale of the piece to the average inhabitant. So I've looked all around a circle with a half mile radius from Trafalgar Square, and the best location I can find is on the South Bank under Waterloo Bridge by the second hand book sellers. A watery globe on the banks of the Thames - it seems appropriate.
Mars (¾ mile, Green Park): A red planet in a green park, that's not ideal. But there's plenty of space to locate the Martian globe here, up at the western end close to (but not quite as far as) Hyde Park Corner. Alternatively Mars could be positioned outside the British Museum, and perhaps that might be more appropriate.

There's a big jump here, courtesy of the asteroid belt, which could be marked by appropriating St Paul's Cathedral or the Elephant & Castle roundabout.

Jupiter (2.6 miles, Camberwell Green): We'll give the largest of the planets to the London borough of Southwark, to the patch of grass by the crossroads where kids play, dogs squat and beer drinkers congregate.
Saturn (4.8 miles, Mudchute City Farm): Saturn can go on this unlikely patch of greenspace on the Isle of Dogs, south of Canary Wharf, close to the grazing sheep and the alpacas. That'll look well smart.
Uranus (9.5 miles, Cockfosters): Apologies, but I've located the planet with the schoolboy-giggly name at the tube station with a similar reputation. If that doesn't attract the crowds, at least it'll encourage graffiti.
Neptune (15 miles, Heathrow Terminal 5): The outermost planet appears on the far western edge of the capital, in the closest thing London has to a spaceport. Because that's how big the Solar System is at a scale of approximately 200 million to one... from Heathrow to Charing Cross, damned huge.

Pluto (20 miles, Fen Lane, North Ockendon): And yes I know it's no longer a planet, but it would seem right to add a Pluto to this model. Even better, at its average distance from the Sun it just fits inside the Greater London boundary, beyond the M25 down a quiet country lane at the far end of a hedgerow. I've been, if you've ever wondered where the very easternmost corner of the capital is. That's Pluto, that is.

My Greater London Solar System is nothing special. Anyone can pick a centre, a scale and a series of arbitrary orbital locations to determine an imaginary experiment such as this. But it's been fun to devise, and hopefully it's thought-provoking to consider. Now all I can hope is that someone out there might have the money (and the balls) to make it real.

 Tuesday, January 22, 2013

There are many ways to hide a consultation.

Say you're running a consultation for the extension of a Cycle Superhighway along Stratford High Street. You could organise just two consultation events. You could schedule both of these a fortnight after the initial buzz of the consultation period has faded away. You could locate one of these events in a metal box 500m away from the road in question. You could ensure that there are no signs advertising the consultation event posted on the exit from the main road or anywhere on the route to the venue. You could fail to stick signs anywhere on the exterior of the venue to announce the existence of the event. You could locate the group of project representatives on a table by the back door and only give some of them badges. You could ensure that the display pinned up on the wall has no legible title, so that regular visitors to this space would have no idea what was going on without asking. And you could accidentally schedule the event for a very snowy Sunday when a lot of people would be staying home.

So it was with the consultation event that was held at the View Tube on Sunday afternoon. The pre-publicity was rather better, thankfully, because a leaflet announcing the event had been poked through my letterbox a couple of weeks previously. And rest assured you can't keep cyclists away from a consultation this important, so they turned up in number.

The plans are to extend Cycle Superhighway 2 from the Bow Roundabout to the centre of Stratford. Newham Council blocked the progress of CS2 beyond Bow a couple of years back, saying they weren't happy with the plans. Everyone lambasted them at the time for not getting with the programme, but now it seems they might have the right idea after all. The first three miles from Aldgate got nothing but a cheap lick of paint and some minor rejigging, forcing cyclists to share lanes with other traffic and manoeuvre their way round umpteen bus stops. The last mile to Stratford gets segregated cycle lanes, speed tables, contra-flows, bus stop avoidance measures and a traffic signal bypass. It's an extension to be proud of, rather than the cheapskate tickbox exercise which runs past my front door.

Full plans were available at the consultation event, including six pages of written detail and five A3 pages of maps. All in full colour, all on much glossier paper than my office is ever allowed to use, and all piled up in a box ready for potential distribution. You can find all this online, where the consultation is being hosted impeccably, but it's useful to have a physical copy when discussing the finer detail, and also for holding the planners to account afterwards.



Let's ride from Bow roundabout to the Romford Road and see what's scheduled.
A new cycle track along the pavement off the roundabout → a separate 2m wide cycle lane → permission to ride on the shared pavement → new road surfacing at the entrance to Cook's Road → an indented bus stop so that the cycle lane can pass between buses and the remaining lane of traffic → an Advanced Stop Lane at Marshgate Lane → a yellow box removed → a segregated cycle lane replacing an existing lane of traffic, → a special bypass at Abbey Lane allowing cyclists to skip the traffic lights (but not the pedestrian crossing lights, if they're red) → reinstatement of the Olympic-time crossing at the Greenway for pedestrians and cyclists → a bus stop bypass where cyclists cut inside a thin island where passengers wait → a lengthy segregated cycle lane replacing a lane of traffic → a two-stage right turn into Rick Roberts Way for less confident cyclists → traffic islands adjusted to allow a cycle lane through → further signalised pedestrian and cyclist crossings → another cycle bus stop bypass → another segregated cycle lane replacing a bus lane → cyclists asked to enter Stratford Broadway via two existing pedestrian crossings → an exemption to allow cyclists to use the contraflow bus lane past the shops → a pedestrian crossing across the bus lane withdrawn (boo) → additional cycle parking → new segregating islands on the turn into Romford Road
Good, isn't it? Not perfect, but considerably closer to the Dutch ideal of full segregation than anything the Cycle Superhighway programme has churned out before. The London Cycling Campaign point out that 2m cycle lanes are wide enough for faster cyclists to overtake slower, which is good. They like the fact that cyclists will be taken out of conflicts with buses, and that space has been taken from the carriageway and not the pavement. It's mostly thumbs up from them. Cyclists In The City are impressed that TfL's design takes bits from Japan, bits from New York, and bits from Copenhagen and combines them to suit East London. They think that cyclists in other parts of town will be jealous not to have similar arrangements in their own neighbourhood. It's mostly thumbs up from them too.

But this extension doesn't complete CS2, because that was originally intended to continue three miles further to Ilford. Carving a superhighway along the Romford Road will be much harder, and to this standard nigh impossible. Stratford High Street's super Cycle Superhighway is only possible because this is a massive road with surplus lanes and wide pavements, and the rest of London isn't like that. This is the ideal place to build a flagship project, but alas the blueprint is unlikely to be wholly transferable elsewhere without seriously inconveniencing other road users.

And the CS2 extension will merely point out, through sharp contrast, how rubbish the remainder of the blue-striped route is. In particular it'll speed cyclists to the Bow Roundabout, where there remains a hideous disconnect. A number of the cyclists at Sunday's consultation remained very annoyed that this accident blackspot will remain essentially untamed, even after all the adjacent improvements have been made. There's a flyover for heaven's sake, surely that should be the ideal safe route for avoiding the roundabout altogether... if only there were some safe and sensible route on and off, which alas remains unlikely.

I discovered from chatting to an official representative at the consultation that yet another scrutiny of the Bow Roundabout is planned, in a further attempt to keep as many groups of road users as safe as possible. TfL might even try to do something for pedestrians this time, although it's still not clear if anything simple and practical could be done. It seems that up until now the needs of motorists on the A12 have been paramount, because (apparently) it would be terrible if arterial traffic continually backed up on the sliproads. Alas there's been no such reluctance to cause tailbacks on the A11 or Stratford High Street, as I've noticed several times sitting in a bus queueing to slip through a miserably short eight seconds of green light.

The situation at the Bow Roundabout will eventually get better, honest, although the money's not there for the ideal solution which would be to knock the whole thing down and replace it with a crossroads. In the meantime we have to acknowledge that Cycle Superhighway 2 is being completed piecemeal, and this latest piece along Stratford High Street is probably the best of the lot.

To take part in the consultation for the Cycle Superhighway 2 extension, head online. If you didn't take time to meet staff and tell them your thoughts in person, as some of us did, your only chance to be heard is to send electronic feedback by February 11th. If you want to see more Dutch-style segregated cycle facilities across London, now is not the time to sit back in the saddle.

 Monday, January 21, 2013

After a weekend of guesthouse management, there wasn't much time to do a lot of other stuff. But I did go for a walk in the snow, as I suspect you did, because it was a magical snowy day in London yesterday. I walked up to the Olympic Stadium from the Bow roundabout and back, as you do, so let me tell you about that. It'll be the same as all the other times I've told you about it, but with the addition of a lot of snow everywhere. You can probably skip reading this, to be honest.

The Bow roundabout looks much as it always does, but with a lot of snow everywhere. The planters on the central island are mostly engulfed, but with spiky leaves pushing through a layer of white. Traffic circulates almost entirely unaffected. A puddle of slushy water is apparent at the entrance to the cycle early-start box on Bow Road, where TfL's realignment has accidentally created a sizeable dip with absence of drainage. There are no cyclists in sight, they're presumably all up on the flyover. [photo]



The Lea towpath looks much as it always does, but with a lot of snow everywhere. All trace of the Olympic security gate has finally vanished, but Crossrail has moved in big time instead. They've been burrowing tunnels on the other side of the brick wall for months, but now half the river's width has become an additional building site. Scaffolding and ladders hang over from the main worksite, giving this outpost greater significance, but the notice that's supposed to show "Emergency contacts" is unnervingly blank.

Old Ford Lock looks much as it always does, but with a lot of snow everywhere. One of the locks has frozen solid, like a particularly unpleasant ice lolly, while the other is blocked by a not-so-narrow boat above the gates. The roof of the former Big Breakfast cottages is white, as you'd expect, while the Olympic Stadium rises indistinctly through the mist beyond. Two swans float around the pool near the waterbus stop, as a variety of well-wrapped snow-gawping humans walk/ride/jog by.

Fish Island looks much as it always does, but with a lot of snow everywhere. Forman's salmon smokery is still advertising itself as the Fish Island Riviera, which is embarrassing six months on, not least in whiteout conditions reminiscent of the Arctic. A blue badge guide strides through, snow-topped umbrella raised, leading a dozen tourists on a tour of the outer Olympic site. A bit late to the party, perhaps, but they're showing remarkable resilience when there's so little to see. [photo]

The Greenway looks much as it always does, but more White than Green. Footfall is fairly low, so some of the patches off the main path remain pristine. A single security guard sits in a booth overlooking what used to be the tunnel down to the warm-up track, and which is now merely a curve of traffic cones. The Olympic Stadium looks more of a white elephant than usual, cold and empty behind a hedgerow heavy with snow. There'll never be a Winter Games here, but today they could have a decent stab. [photo]



The View Tube looks much as it always does, but surrounded by a lot more snow. Pruned rose bushes and straggly stems create what passes for a winter garden, while a recycled sign promises that spring bulbs lurk underneath [photo]. Several punters are enjoying brunch and/or coffee tucked up inside the main building, while a few risk looking at the exhibition in the colder containers outside. The best view, as ever, is from the platform up the stairs, but today the snow has blown in and the panel below the window is entirely obscured. [photo]

Pudding Mill Lane looks much as it always does, but with all the usual caveats. A second arch beneath the railway has opened up, so now two sets of guards are needed to keep an eye on two sets of pedestrians crossing two sets of traffic. Trains are not running while something Crossrail-friendly involving a crane takes place on the viaduct. Meanwhile on Stratford High Street a wild banging rave is taking place inside a deserted factory on the corner of Hunts Lane. Grizzled smokers hang around the entrance with beers in hand, while a former punk in tartan bondage trousers heads off to Tesco for refills.

And back to the Bow roundabout, which looks much as it did an hour ago, but with more snow.

 Sunday, January 20, 2013

There are four teenage girls in my bedroom.

This is, as you can probably imagine, extremely unusual. Normally I never have any visitors round at all, but today I have four, and what's more they're staying the night.

I should point out that one of the visitors is my niece, and she's stayed the night before. Another is her best friend, and they've known each other since primary school. But two of the girls I've never met before today, so goodness knows what they're making of being dragged round to Uncle DG's house for an overnight stay.

The first I knew of this East Anglian incursion was over Christmas while I was staying with my family. I'd been in Norfolk for five days, but only in the last ten minutes was the subject of this particular weekend brought up. My niece and her best friend were planning to attend a music event in North Greenwich, and it finished rather late, and maybe it would be possible for them to crash on my floor rather than have to book some hideously expensive hotel. Obviously, sure.

Things then went rather quiet until last week, when it seemed pertinent to check the details of this visit rather more carefully. Trains had been booked, apparently, arriving in town at lunchtime on Saturday and heading home about 24 hours later.And two other girls were coming too, and that would be alright wouldn't it, they only needed space enough to unfurl a sleeping bag. Ah, OK.

A final check this week revealed an additional complication regarding sleeping bags, because they're not the best thing to take to a major arena event, so would it be OK if everyone unloaded their luggage on the way down thank you very much. And that was fine, I wasn't planning to do very much with my Saturday except for cleaning the flat, so obviously I could rendezvous in Stratford and lug one, two, three, four bags home on the bus.

Yesterday, standing on the platform as the Norwich train rolled in, I discovered there weren't only four girls attending the event, there were more than a dozen. The others weren't ever coming home with me, but this was clearly a major weekend out for the schoolgirl contingent. The posse eyed me up and down - some middle-aged bloke who happened to be related to one of their number - in the same way I might have done when I was seventeen. And then they careered off, in entirely the wrong direction, and I tagged along behind.

The encounter was over rather quickly, terminating as soon as the four girls realised they could pass their various bags over to me. And away they dashed, engrossed in the possibility that Norfolk's finest might win the imminent 'Open Mic' competition, and OK yeah I'd see them later.

And now there are four teenage girls in my bedroom. They're utilising a combination of mattresses, pillows, sleeping bags and floors, but a string of giggles suggests they haven't quite got round to sleeping yet. Meanwhile I'm on the floor in my spare room, ousted for the night, with a sheet across the window because nobody's ever thought to hang curtains. It feels most unusual.

I'm having to come to terms with the fact that my bathroom is no longer my own. The door is shut, which it never normally needs to be, and come the morning I may not be able to fight my way in for some time. I hope they're OK with the fact I don't have a shower, and aren't gasping in horror at the paltry range of non-designer toiletries lined up along my bath.

A tupperware box has appeared in my fridge, and there are various winter boots lined up by the door. I realise I have no idea what time the girls might wake up, and whether they'll want to hang around or else escape at the earliest possible opportunity. I hope they like the bits and pieces I've sourced for a potential breakfast, but if not I can work my way through the extras as the week goes on.

I'll get used to the incursion, in the short time they're here, and I might even enjoy having company around. But I've become so accustomed to living alone that the very idea of sharing space is something I usually try hard to avoid. Four visitors crossing the threshold of DG Towers is already way above my average annual total, and it's only January.

I doubt I'll be getting the best night's sleep, although I am glad to be of service and I know my help has been appreciated. Perhaps I might even learn to encourage people to come round more often, be that long distance stays or a quick visit from someone closer by. But I will still be secretly pleased later today when I get my bedroom back, and my bathroom back, and my fridge back, and my independence back. Night all.

 Saturday, January 19, 2013

I'm reading Angelmaker at the moment.
You'd probably enjoy it.
8:59am: The stores at Stratford City are preparing to open. Staff hover behind sliding panels, waiting to pull them back so the day's trading can begin. But Westfield's malls are almost deserted, bar a few early souls wandering purposefully to their intended destination. The volume on the bouncy background music drops, and a voice announces that "our stores are now open". Nobody rushes. Assistants take their time to prop shop doors open because they know that nobody is waiting, and the cavernous trading floors remain empty. By this afternoon it'll be crazymadbusy in here, as teens and couples and families clog the malls with zombie shuffling, but for now Westfield is about as good as it gets. In John Lewis the staff outnumber the customers by some considerable margin, especially on the upper floors. The London 2012 shop on the third floor remains open, still attempting to flog the last remaining Mandeville shoulderbags and £2 Paralympic teacosies. I have soft furnishings almost completely to myself, but a member of staff still springs into action to man the empty cash desk as I approach with a handful of sale-price bed linen. Waitrose is a joy, because nobody drives this far this early, and the day's selection of price-reduced produce remains as yet unclaimed. The wise go shopping before the masses are even out of bed.
It's an East End fantasycrime novel, with clockwork bees.
I haven't got to the clockwork bees bit yet.
1:00pm: It's bloody cold on the upper platforms at Stratford station. Trains are being terminated here because of engineering works, and staff are busy trying to direct more-lost-than-usual souls to the correct location. The train to Norwich has been cancelled, so passengers huddle in two small shelters for warmth. Eventually the next train from Norwich pulls in, and freshly-wrapped Anglianfolk pour out of the carriages. A dozen schoolgirls cluster by the top of the steps, trying to work out where the rest of their party might be. They're off to support someone local in a singing competition, and have been busy making placards out of old cardboard boxes on the journey down. The bus station is surrounded by an off-grey layer of freezing snowy sludge. Near to the entrance a short lady with a very loud voice is inviting sinners to repent and accept the Lord Jesus before it's too late. Two other gentlemen are trying to dispense leaflets inviting the curious to a 3-Day Prophetic Convocation (starts Thursday, opposite the Holiday Inn), to little effect. One of them asks if I'd like a free book about a man whose parachute failed to open, but no thanks, and anyway my hands are full of rucksacks.
But the lead character's already been down the Fleet sewer.
Thumbs up for any novel which manages this in chapter 1.
7:00pm: The washing machine is spinning, and the washing up bowl is full. I've been giving the flat a bit of a pre-spring clean, which means finally banishing a pile of Christmas decorations to their out-of-season storage box. I've discovered £3.30 in change, a pencil I thought I'd lost, a long-unfrozen pea and a couple of receipts for items I no longer own. One particularly stubborn stain, which I'd started to think was untreatable, has finally proven susceptible to two different chemical solutions and vigorous scrubbing with an old toothbrush. I should probably hoover the floor again, or I should buy socks that don't leave curled-up black strands across the carpet. And I need to remember to dust behind the three doors in my flat that I don't usually close, because it turns out there's ground level evidence. The worst thing about clearing up is knowing that I'll never remember where I put half this stuff, even though now it seems the most logical place to stash it. Come tomorrow the gradual untidying can begin again, but for now, yeah, that'll have to do.
The first eight pages of the book are taken up with glowing book reviews.
This strikes me as overdoing the praise somewhat.
11:30pm: An all-day event at the Dome is chucking out. Despite announcing in all the blurb that it would definitely finish by eleven, it definitely didn't, and those with last trains to catch have had to leave before the finale. Some head to the river, for a sinuous journey back into town. Most head to the tube, where North Greenwich's escalators are coping well with the influx. Nobody heads for the cablecar, because it's useless, and anyway it's closed. And only a handful queue for a bus, which is good because it's easy for everyone to get a seat. The 108's departure is slowed by an Oysterless non-Londoner who presents the driver with a ten pound note, unfamiliar currency round these parts. And then we're off, and no really we're going under the river, and look there's the Olympic Stadium, and here is where we get off.
Anyway, I suspect you might enjoy Angelmaker too.
I just wish I'd had time today to read more of it.

 Friday, January 18, 2013

This week the National Lottery announced it was doubling the cost of a ticket, from £1 to £2. That's the first price rise since 1994, and it'll kick in this autumn. So you'd expect the prizes to double too, wouldn't you? Ah no, not that simple.

 Prize
1994-now
Prize
from 2013
Odds
3 balls£10£251 in 57
4 balls£60*£100*1 in 1033
5 balls£1500*£1000*1 in 55492
5+bonus£100000*£50000*1 in 2330636
6 balls£4200000*£5000000*1 in 13983816
* approximately, depending on the number of winners

3 balls (£10→£25): This prize more than doubles. That's very good. A tenner never feels like a very exciting prize, and people often plough it back into buying more tickets, whereas £25 feels a bit more substantial. If you play the lottery once every Wednesday and Saturday then you ought to win the three balls prize about twice a year. At present that's £20 back on an annual outlay of £100, in the future it'll be £50 back on an annual outlay of £200.
4 balls (£60→£100): This prize doesn't quite double. The extra money Camelot are spending on the three ball prize is being partly taken back here. But this is quite a rare prize to win. If you play twice a week, then you'd only expect to win the four ball prize once every ten years. Meanwhile you'd expect to have won the three ball prize twenty times, which means the four ball payout is really quite miserly.
5 balls (£1500→£1000): This prize actually drops. You'll be paying out twice as much in stake, but your winnings will be only two thirds of what you'd have won before. And this is a much (much) rarer occurrence than three or four balls. Playing twice a week, guessing five balls correct should happen only once in 500 years (ie, during the average lifetime, never).
5 balls + bonus (£100000→£50000): This prize halves. That's a really miserable return, given that guessing five balls and the bonus should happen, on average, only once every twenty-two thousand years. That's roughly how long ago it is since the last Ice Age. £50000's not to be sniffed at, but there are much quicker ways to earn it.
6 balls (£4.2m→£5m): The jackpot rises, but not by much. Camelot could have doubled it, but they've chosen not to, correctly noticing that £5m is life-changing enough so why give £8m. If the very first humans had bought two lottery tickets a week, they might by now have won the jackpot once. Don't get your hopes up.

Come the autumn there'll also be an additional way to win, which'll be called the Lotto Raffle. In every draw 50 people will be picked at random to win £20000 each, which'll be a nice surprise. This is a new innovation, with prizes totalling £1m, which helps to explain why some of the prizes offered for other categories are being reduced. But you're still very (very) unlikely to be picked - in this case only once every 6000 years.

One way to assess the impact of Camelot's new regime is to calculate what would happen if you bought 13983816 tickets. That's every possible combination of balls once, and would (currently) set you back £13983816. Here's how much you'd win.

1994Number of
winning tickets
PrizeMoney won
3 balls246820£10£2468200
4 balls13545£60£812700
5 balls252£1500£378000
5+bonus6£100000£600000
6 balls1 £4200000£4200000
  TOTAL£8458900

At current prices you'd have paid £14m for your tickets but you'd only get £8½m back. That's a 60% return, which isn't great.

OK, now let's try the same in the new £2-a-ticket regime. What happens if you buy one of every ticket, but at twice the price?

2013Number of
winning tickets
PrizeMoney won
3 balls246820£25£6170500
4 balls13545£100£1354500
5 balls252£1000£252000
5+bonus6£50000£300000
6 balls1 £5000000£5000000
Raffle(up to) 50£20000£1000000
  TOTAL£14077000

In the future you'd have paid £28m for your tickets but you'd only get £14m back. That's a 50% return, which is worse than before.

Camelot's price rejigging sounds like it's in their favour, not yours. But these figures are warped by the jackpot, which is relatively stingier in the £2-a-ticket model. Let's try a more realistic calculation, based over a typical human lifetime.

What would happen if you entered the lottery twice a week every week for 50 years? During that time you'd expect to win 100 three ball prizes, 5 four ball prizes and nothing else. Under the current scheme you'd win £1300, but would have spent £5000 altogether - a return of 26%. Under Camelot's new scheme you'd win £3000, but would have spent £10000 - a return of 30%. So the new scheme's actually slightly better, percentagewise, although you'd have thrown away £7000, so in that respect it's worse.

In conclusion, the doubling of the National Lottery price will mean more chances to win, and a better return for those getting three balls correct. But it'll also suck twice as much money out of your budget, without returning twice as much in prizes. If you can afford to lose £7000 over a lifetime, I say go for it. You never know, you might get lucky... but Camelot will always be luckier.


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