diamond geezer

 Monday, January 31, 2005

The best of January

TV programme of the month: Hmm, a difficult choice. I've been enjoying Dragon's Den [BBC2] (where incompetent entrepreneurs pitch pet projects to a panel of smug venture capitalists, generally with little success). I quite liked Desperate Housewives [C4] (although I missed the latest episode and realised I could live without it). I thought the 28th series of Grange Hill [BBC1] was back to its old school charms (yes I know I'm the only adult in the country who still watches this). And I enjoyed Celebrity Big Brother 3 [C4] rather more than I ought to have done (mainly for the constant ingenuity of the producers in coming up with something original for the inmates to do every day). But I think I have to award my monthly laurel wreath to the third series of Monkey Dust [BBC3], the shadowy black comedy that continues to speak the unspeakable but gets away with it because everyone's a cartoon character.
10:30pm update: Just 90 minutes of the month left and a late entrant stakes a convincing claim for January's top TV trophy. The second series of Look Around You has taken early 80s Tomorrow's World as its role model and delivered a magnificent spoof science show full of beige jackets, Letraset subtitles and misplaced enthusiasm. A true broadcasting gem.

Book of the month: It's still a bit early in the year for new books to be flooding out onto the market. There have been a few, like that recycled website published by the anonymous whore-blogger, but most bookshops are still trying to clear out all the Christmas stocking fillers we failed to buy last month. Which is how I stumbled upon the hardback edition The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss for half price. It's a sort of Victorian James Bond novel under a mock antique cover, the sort of adventure novel you might expect if Stephen Fry's Oscar Wilde had written Sherlock Holmes. Very inventive, quite witty, rather treacly, slightly repetitive, and probably worth waiting for the paperback.

Album of the month: LCD Soundsystem by LCD Soundsystem. It's very rare that I pick up an album and buy it without having heard a single track, but that's what I did here. The front cover design (and the name of the opening track - daft punk is playing at my house) suggested some kind of alternative dance record, and so it proved to be. This is an eclectic disco-punk mix - quite a lot of guitar, plenty of synth and several blatant influences - and no tracks are in any way the same. There's even a bonus CD of singles and b sides, making this an absolute bargain for under a tenner, and I fully expect to see this album making several of the trendier end-of-year best-of listings.
n.b. With 17 hours of the month still remaining, it is still possible that LCD Soundsystem will be ousted from my January pedestal by the latest Lemon Jelly album which is released today. Watch this space.
8pm update: Yes (as I suspected) the new Lemon Jelly album is very fine indeed and, after just one play, instantly appealing. '64-'95 is a collection of unrecognisable cover versions showcasing the duo's usual inventiveness in a fresh and unusual way, and you can expect to hear every single track as TV backing music over the next 12 months.

Single/Film/DVD/Gig/Magazine of the month: category not awarded.

London walk of the month: If you fancy a two hour walk around the capital, I can heartily recommend the guided strolls organised by London Walks. For just £5.50 you get to choose from a comprehensive list of daily tours, following a knowledgeable escort round some of the city's more intriguing backwaters. Yesterday I joined the Gangs of East London tour (which only runs twice a year), ably led by historian Ed Glinert (author of the essential London Compendium). Our bracing stroll from Shoreditch to Whitechapel was a fine excuse to revel in the nefarious activities of the Kray twins in the very streets they once ruled and terrorised. For one brief stretch, walking through the crowds of market thugs wheeling and dealing at the western end of Dunbridge Street, it was easy to believe that nothing at all had changed in the last 40 years. Recommended.

 Sunday, January 30, 2005

Watching you watching me

It always amazes me how good the human brain is at spotting faces in a crowd. I pass thousands of people travelling around London every day and my brain manages to filter out almost every single one of them as people I don't know. Very occasionally, however, some mental alarm is set off as a face suddenly registers in my subconscious. "Hmmm, I'm sure I know that person from somewhere..." Sometimes it's a face from my distant past, someone I used to know through work or even school, and my brain has to confirm that the view I see before me is consistent with how that person might look decades after the last time I saw them, and then maybe suggest to my mouth that I might want to say hello, remember me? And sometimes, rather more often in London than anywhere I've lived before, it's the face of somebody famous. There are different levels of fame, of course, so it's only been mildly thrilling to recognise Peter Stringfellow, Bob Crow and that bloke who plays the bit parts in Little Britain, it was rather more exciting to notice Neil Kinnock, Ricky Gervais and Una Stubbs, and it was quite humbling to realise that I was in the presence of Glenda Jackson (behind me in a queue buying Christmas cards), Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan, no less) and Dermot O'Leary (twice now, such is my luck).

Last week I walked into a Central line carriage and sat down opposite Lee Hurst. I spotted he was famous comedian Lee Hurst straight away, but it appeared that nobody else in the carriage had recognised the man with the green Marks & Spencer carrier bag and the square-toed shoes (with the exception of Mr Hurst himself, that is). Everybody else carried on doing what they might normally do when sitting in a train carriage (reading books, staring out of the window at the passing blackness, picking their nose, etc) whereas I just became mildly self-conscious. I realised that stand-up comedians gather most of their material from observing what goes on around them (like the ever-astute Richard Herring, for example), and that I was in danger of becoming part of Lee's next act. I didn't want to be audience fodder so I tried to look normal and hid behind my newspaper. Then I realised that one glimpse of the masthead had probably pigeonholed me within a certain stereotypical subdivision of society, wondered whether it might be better to play a game on my mobile instead, thought better of it, stopped myself from instinctively picking my nose and hid back behind the headlines again.

At which point I realised that I was worrying about nothing. I was in no danger of being singled out by a comedian's sharp eye because there were far weirder people all around me. Lee, were he interested, would be far more likely to develop a comedy routine based on the nearby diamond-earringed fashion victim with a ridiculous woolly hat perched on his head, or the snoring drunkard displaying his beer belly behind paint-splattered overalls, or the teenage couple happily snogging each other in full view of the rest of the carriage. More importantly I realised that my blog probably has a slightly larger readership than the capacity of Lee's esteemed Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green. As a media-owning comic writer myself I was actually the one in control here, which gave me the power to turn the tables and write an in-depth routine about Mr Hurst instead. So I have.

 Saturday, January 29, 2005

Great British Roads - A6: Luton - Carlisle
The first mile: Luton town centre - Wardown Park

No, really, I'm not going to be making this journey. A trip to Luton isn't my idea of a good day out, plus the first mile along the A6 isn't exactly beautiful. There's a risky subway underneath the initial roundabout, there's the ghastly concrete shed of Luton bus station and there's the backside of the Arndale Centre to contend with. But there is one important London landmark here - the early trickles of the River Lea. This flows directly underneath the first mile of the A6, from the boating lake in Wardown Park to the Luton Airport approach road, before continuing 30 miles south to London and flowing into the River Thames. Hmm, following London's rivers... there's another idea I might return to in the future.

As for the remaining single-digit A roads, they're all in Scotland. The A7 and A8 both start outside Waverley Station in Edinburgh (where the A1 also finishes/starts). The A8 takes the more interesting route, along Princes Street towards Haymarket, while the A7 crosses the middle of the Royal Mile, passes the cafe where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel and heads into the southern suburbs. As for the A9 that now begins further west, connecting junction 5 of the M9 to the Falkirk bypass, which I'm afraid sounds eminently unexciting. So I'll not be writing about those (although I hope somebody will). But I might come back and write about the first mile along the A10, A11, A12 and A13 sometime, because they're really local....

 Friday, January 28, 2005

Great British Roads - A5: London - Holyhead
The first mile: Edgware Road

Road begins: Marble Arch
The A5 begins in the dead centre of town. Not the middle, you understand, but at the Tyburn Tree - site of London's public executions for more than six centuries. More than fifty thousand criminals were hung here, originally from the branches of a tree beside the Tyburn river but later from a purpose-built wooden tripod of death. A memorial to these notorious gallows is paved into a traffic island at the very bottom of the Edgware Road, just to the left of the white van in the photo (and if you want to know more, I wrote all about the gruesome goings on here last year). The most famous landmark in the vicinity today is Marble Arch, originally designed by John Nash as a triumphant entrance to Buckingham Palace but moved to its existing location when the palace was extended in 1851. Of greater personal significance, however, are the hallowed seats of the Odeon Marble Arch on the corner with Oxford Street, the first London cinema I ever visited (to see Bedknobs and Broomsticks when I was an awestruck child of six).

Like the A2, the A5 follows the Roman road of Watling Street, of which this is the start of the northern section. The road from Marble Arch to the edge of the suburbs is the longest straight line in London, never once deviating to left or right for a full twenty miles. The first mile is a cosmopolitan shopping street, although probably not one you'd go out of your way to visit. Unless you were Lebanese, that is. There's a distinctly Arabian flavour to the very bottom of the A5 - perfect for stocking up on pomegranates, using your Bank of Kuwait cashpoint card or smoking aromatic tobacco out of some mysterious piped bottle. It'll be a handy local high street for Middle Eastern electioneer Tony Blair when he eventually retires and moves into his new townhouse just round the corner in Connaught Square. The local school is the architecturally innovative Hampden Gurney Primary, a six-storey circular glass and brick tower with the hall in the basement and a sheltered playground on the roof. A few hundred yards further along, beside the hotel with possibly the worst view in London, the Marylebone Flyover cuts across the Edgware Road like a concrete wound. The elevated multi-lane A40 Westway is a reminder of the twisted nightmare that the old Roman A5 could have become, but thankfully hasn't.

Directly north of the flyover is Paddington Green police station, the secure strongbox where Britain's most dangerous criminals and suspected terrorists are locked away. Paddington Grey would be a more appropriate name. The shopping street continues, but it's now more markets and poundstores than Marks & Spencers. Here you'll find Church Street Market, Westminster's largest collection of stalls and traders, selling all the useful everyday stuff that Portobello doesn't. I watched one shopper in a dirty black anorak emerge from the market wielding a bottle of cheap perfume. She stood in full public view on the pavement and sprayed herself from top to bottom with the fake scent, masking one unpleasant smell with another, then shuffled off in the general direction of the tube station. I proceeded up the gentle hill until the shops ran out.

Mile ends: Regent's Canal, Maida Vale
The shops run out exactly one mile up the A5, at which point a miraculous transformation takes place. In the space of just a few yards, across a short bridge, the road suddenly becomes an extremely desirable place to live. Here the Edgware Road renames itself as upmarket residential Maida Vale and there isn't another shop to be seen. This is one of the few areas of London to be named after a pub - in this case "The Hero of Maida Vale" (in turn named after an 1806 Napoleonic battle). The border into respectability is marked by the Regent's Canal, seen in this photo heading off towards Little Venice (although I thought that there was more than a hint of Amsterdam here instead). Houseboats and expensive terraced villas line the waterway, while well-heeled ladies (wearing expensive perfume) take yappy canine triplets for walkies along the towpath. I reckon there's a whole new series of posts to be written about the canals of London but, for the time being, my trunk road trip ended here.

Road continues: Maida Vale, Kilburn High Road, Shoot Up Hill, Cricklewood Broadway, Hendon, Edgware, [15 mile gap past Watford], Harpenden, Dunstable, Milton Keynes, Towcester, [Watford Gap], Nuneaton, Tamworth, Telford, Oswestry, Llangollen, Betws-y-coed, Bangor, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Holyhead.

A5 links
A5 route description (from uk-roads)
Watling Street
See all the shops along the Edgware Road
Today is the last day of Routemasters on the Edgware Road (on Route 36)

All five Great British Roads on one page

 Thursday, January 27, 2005

Great British Roads - A4: London - Bristol
The first mile: Holborn - Charing Cross

The A4 used to start in the same place as the A3, at the Monument. Ten years ago walking the first mile along the A4 would have taken me west along Cannon Street, round St Paul's Cathedral, down Ludgate Hill and up Fleet Street. Writing about this journey could easily have filled a blogging week all by itself. But that's not the first mile any more. Terrorist paranoia in the City of London has beheaded this particular mile from the route, forcing the A4 to retreat to the edge of the City beyond a miserable security checkpoint cordon. And now the Great West Road starts somewhere rather less glamorous.

Road begins: Holborn Circus
Six roads meet at Holborn Circus, which is now little more than a glorified roundabout surrounding a statue of Prince Albert trapped in the middle. The new route chosen for the A4 follows the most insignificant of these roads, that tiny street in the centre of the photo squeezed inbetween a branch of Lloyds Bank to the left and the glass-fronted Sainsbury's head office to the right. This is New Fetter Lane, which leads before very long to the similarly quiet and narrow Fetter Lane. At the junction of the two stands London's only cross-eyed statue, a memorial to 18th century libertarian John Wilkes. Here too are magnificent Gothic buildings which once formed the Public Records Office but now house the King's College library. If you own a copy of Peter Ackroyd's London - the Biography (especially if you've always been meaning to get around to reading it) then you might enjoy the centuries-old story of this historic backstreet in Chapter 22.

At the foot of Fetter Lane the A4 turns finally turns right to join its original path along the western end of Fleet Street. Still world-renowned as London's journalistic heart, the press have long since moved out and the only papers you'll find in Fleet Street nowadays are sold in a tiny newsagents. This end of the street, however, has always found more favour with financial and legal practices. Here you'll find Child's (Britain's oldest bank, 1661), Hoare's (London's only remaining independent bank) and a branch of Coutts (the Queen's bank), none of which (inexplicably) has a cashpoint outside. A magic timbered portal on the south side leads through to the Temple, where the country's top legal minds scurry round a maze of ancient passages and courtyards in search of the perfect argument. And opposite the entrance, standing guard in the middle of the road, stands the dragon that acts as a replacement for Temple Bar (about which I've already written far too much). It may not look as impressive as its arched predecessor, but at least traffic can get past it.

After Temple Bar Fleet Street metamorphoses into the Strand, named after the foreshore of the River Thames which once lapped closer than it does today. Benjamin Disraeli described the Strand's heady mix of palaces, hotels and playhouses as 'perhaps the finest street in Europe', although much of the gloss has been lost since then. At the top end of the road is the coffee house where Thomas Twining established his first teashop, and also the Strand's most famous theatre - the Royal Courts of Justice. Next, alongside Aldwych, the A4 passes three famous houses - Australia House (your portal to Down Under), Bush House (BBC global HQ) and the monumental Somerset House (once home to the General Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages but now more well known for its winter ice rink - closes Sunday).

Strand's most well-known stretch leads from Aldwych down to Trafalgar Square along a bustling boulevard packed by theatre-goers and tourists. There's a raised cobbled strip down the centre of the road that most pedestrians use as an elongated traffic island, but I took this path to complete my journey. This kept me away from the restaurants, the red phone boxes and the hotel foyers, and a safe distance from the mobile phone shops, the bewildered foreigners and the Starbucks clones. I avoided the demonstrations outside the Zimbabwean embassy, resisted the charms of Stanley Gibbons the stamp dealer and bypassed the Savoy Hotel at the end of a tiny cul-de-sac (the only road in the UK where traffic drives on the right). But most of all I mourned the passing of the magnificent mansions that once lined this historic street.

Mile ends: Charing Cross
The end of my journey was also the final resting place of Queen Eleanor of Castile. She died while on royal walkabout in Lincolnshire in 1290, and a grieving Edward I had a cross erected at each of the 12 places where his wife's coffin rested on the long journey home to London. Seven centuries later just three Eleanor Crosses remain but alas the monument at Charing Cross is not quite one of them, being merely a stone replica erected in 1863.

OK, so the first mile of the new A4 does appear to be at least as fascinating as the original. And the second mile's even better, continuing from Trafalgar Square to pass along Pall Mall and Piccadilly (which I've already spent an entire month writing about). Of all the capital's major trunk roads, it's the A4 that gets off to the best start.

Road continues: Trafalgar Square, Pall Mall, Piccadilly, Knightsbridge, Brompton Road, Cromwell Road, Hammersmith, Brentford, Heathrow, Slough, Maidenhead, Reading, Newbury, Hungerford, Marlborough, Chippenham, Bath, Bristol, Avonmouth.

A4 links
A4 route description (from uk-roads)
A walk down the Strand and Fleet Street
My journey down Piccadilly (the second mile down the A4)

 Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Great British Roads - A3: London - Portsmouth
The first mile: London Bridge (north) - Elephant & Castle

Road begins: Monument
The A3 starts where London nearly finished - at the Monument. The Great Fire of London was kindled just around the corner in Pudding Lane, killing only six people but destroying four fifths of the City. The Monument was built by Sir Christoper Wren to commemorate the conflagration, and is exactly as far away from the bakery where the fire began as it is tall. At 202ft it remains (I believe) the world's tallest free-standing stone column and became one of London's first tourist attractions with its stunning panorama over the rebuilt city. The view from the upper platform now includes rather more office blocks and rooftop ventilation units than would have been the case in the 17th century, but in my experience it's still well worth making the 311 step ascent to the top.
To be truly accurate, the A3 really begins in front of the House of Fraser department store on King William Street, but somehow that's not quite so interesting.

The A3 spends only a few hundred metres north of the river before reaching the capital's oldest permanent river crossing - London Bridge. The current bridge is at least the tenth on the site, the original built by the Romans in AD80. Several timber bridges followed before construction of the first stone bridge was completed in 1209. The 200ft span was supported by 20 arches, and featured a drawbridge, traitors' heads on spikes, numerous houses and a big chapel in the middle. The bridge survived the Great Fire because it had only been partially rebuilt following an earlier fire and the flames couldn't jump the gap, and this medieval structure went on to provide more than 600 years of service. A granite replacement was opened by King William IV in 1831, only to be sold off in the 1960s to an American businessman who shipped it across the Atlantic to span Lake Havasu in Arizona. The latest London Bridge (opened 1971) with its six lane highway is more able to cope with modern traffic but definitely lacks the architectural charm of its predecessors. At least the view downstream towards Tower Bridge is still spectacular.

Southwark Cathedral guards the southern end of the bridge (although this is soon to be dominated by the 310 metre tall London Bridge Tower). Underneath the railway arches lurks Borough Market, famed foodie nirvana where you can buy squidgy cheese, fruit juice with bits in, organic scallops, wild boar meat, spicy chutneys and (allegedly) some produce which actually tastes nice. To the south stretches Borough High Street, an important bridgehead thoroughfare in medieval times when it was packed with all the bawdy revelry and lewdness that wasn't permitted north of the river. Only one of the old coaching inns now survives - The George. It may be cunningly hidden up an alley just off the High Street but all the tourists and real ale drinkers still seem to find it, and rightly so. Up a neighbouring alley, where Copyprints now does business, stood The Tabard Inn from whence Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims supposedly set off in 1386.
"Byfel that in that sesoun on a day,
In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay
Ready to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury, with ful devout courage,
At night was come into that hostelrie,
Wel nyne and twenty in a compainye.
A little further on, where the local library now stands, is the site of the infamous Marshalsea Prison (opened 1373). When Charles Dickens was 12 his father was imprisoned here as a convicted debtor, leaving the young boy to face six months working in a nearby bootblack factory. The experience traumatised impressionable Charles who later based much of Little Dorritt ("a child of the Marshalsea") in the local area. Borough High Street wends its way southwards, becoming less historic and more lacklustre as it goes. The A2 begins at a junction outside Borough station (we took that route yesterday) while the A3 heads on towards the now-less-pink Elephant & Castle. Thankfully my first mile concluded just beforehand, outside a huge white mansion that serves as the Crown Court for half of London. Not somewhere you'd want to end up, but thankfully I was free to walk away.
Mile ends: Inner London Crown Court, Borough High Street

Road continues: Elephant & Castle, Kennington Park Road, Clapham High Street, Battersea Rise, Wimbledon Common (west), Kingston bypass, Chessington, Cobham, Guildford, Hindhead, Petersfield, Waterlooville, Portsmouth.

A3 links
A3 route description (from uk-roads)
Old London Bridge Museum
Old maps of Southwark (including Borough High Street 1658)
London SE1 community website

 Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Great British Roads - A2: London - Dover
The first mile: Borough - South Bermondsey

The A2 is the road to Europe, and has been for almost two thousand years. The modern road follows the alignment of Watling Street, along which Roman soldiers would have trooped on their way from London to Dover and beyond. The section between London and Canterbury was almost arrow-straight, and Chaucer's pilgrims (of whom more tomorrow) would have journeyed along what was left of this ancient road more than a thousand years later. Watling Street was still visible across south London back in the 18th century, but nothing remains today except a line on a map.

Road begins: Borough, SE1
The A2 is the only one of London's five major trunk routes to begin south of the river. It starts innocuously at a junction with the A3 outside Borough tube station, then heads southeast down the major intercontinental highway quiet residential street you can see in the photo. Great Dover Street has a real mix of housing along its half mile length. At the top there's the Dover Castle, a pub that's also a cut-price backpackers' hostel, and further down there are student halls of residence for freshers attending Kings College. There are plenty of council flats in long blocks, some old and some new but almost all with satellite dishes pointing southwards. Visible to the southeast is the Trinity Estate, a well-preserved collection of 18th century terraced houses and the only part of the area where you might actually aspire to live.

Next comes the Bricklayers Arms roundabout (more a squareabout really), a giant road junction carved out of what were once residential streets. The roadway is five lanes wide, with a concrete flyover sweeping across from Elephant & Castle carrying traffic towards the coast. In the centre there's a large grassy patch with benches that you can reach by subway or pelican crossing, though goodness knows why anyone would want to sit here breathing in swirling exhaust fumes. A railway terminus was established here in 1844, but closed down within a decade when passengers from Kent realised they'd much rather travel closer to London and arrive at London Bridge instead.

Mile ends: Old Kent Road
The A2 then turns into the cheapest property on the Monopoly board. Personally I reckon the Whitechapel Road is more downmarket these days, but the Old Kent Road definitely deserves its place in the inexpensive light brown corner. This disadvantaged thoroughfare has resisted all attempts at gentrification and remains stubbornly inexpensive. At the northern end there's a giant Lidl supermarket (say no more), while the nightclub over the road advertises Wacky Wednesday Karaoke ("Hats are not to be worn at any time. Anyone found wearing a hat or cap will be asked to leave"). Further down come numerous small shops of the non-chainstore type, perfect should you ever want to eat fried chicken, order a minicab, have your hair braided, get your nails buffed, stock up on bottles of rum, buy a sandwich or pick your way through trays of Jamaican vegetables. It's built-up, it's busy and it's bustling, but I still reckon £250 for renting a little red hotel round here is a bit steep.

Road continues: New Cross Road, Blackheath Hill, Shooters Hill Road, Rochester Way, Bexley, Dartford, Gravesend, Rochester, Chatham, Gillingham, Sittingbourne, Faversham, Canterbury, Dover.

A2 links
A2 route description (from uk-roads)
A2: London's lost Roman road?
Watling Street

 Monday, January 24, 2005

Great British Roads - A1: London - Edinburgh
The first mile: Barbican - Islington

Road begins: Aldersgate (Museum of London)
Britain's most important trunk road starts somewhere rather unimportant. This wasn't always the case. The A1 used to begin outside St Paul's Cathedral, following an old coaching road north up St Martin's-le-Grand, past Little Britain and past the site of the magnificent Victorian General Post Office. That was before the IRA came along, causing City authorities to erect 'the ring of steel' in the mid 1990s. The A1 now starts a few yards past an unstaffed security checkpoint at a shadowy characterless roundabout. A circular brick island rises up in the centre of the roundabout - this the well-hidden entrance to the Museum of London (which is well worth a visit, by the way). And the A1 heads north from this lonely spot, unlabelled, unsigned, unnoticed.

This is Aldersgate, a medieval street once the site of one of the seven gates into the old city of London. There's nothing medieval about the road today, however. Here lies the Barbican estate, a sprawling monument to 60s architecture complete with arts centre, lake, tall towers and a baffling labyrinth of concrete walkways. I looked into renting one of the two thousand posh flats here when I moved down to London, but a quick check of my bank balance soon put an end to my dreams. Those with deeper pockets might appreciate the huge residents' car park beneath the Barbican, from where it's easy to slip one's BMW or Bentley out onto the deserted A1. A little further up the road lies the rather less affluent Golden Lane Estate, the northernmost outpost of the City of London. Weekly rents here are only in double figures, and rows of grimy net curtains betray the fact that the residents here are more likely to be cleaning under a desk in some financial institution rather than sitting at one.

A griffin on a pedestal near the junction with Old Street marks the shift from the Square Mile to the London borough of Islington. There's an obvious change as Aldersgate becomes the Goswell Road - lower wealth, lower status but not quite lower class. The Hat & Feathers pub (Victorian, yellow and ornate) has long closed down through lack of business, and there's a gaping scar behind which has been taken over as a makeshift NCP car park. For a few hundred yards the A1 is lined by small shops and services, including Dennis Motor Accessories, Nicola Jane (mastectomy wear) and Spunkies Imaging (they look quite legit, don't worry). But after Kings Square Garden (think dog waste bins, patchy grass and pigeons) the A1 opens out and heads rapidly downmarket, bordered by boxy modern tenements and one very ordinary tower block. You wouldn't imagine such social housing to exist so close to the financial centre of town, but a lot can change in a mile.

Mile ends: The Angel, Islington
At the Angel the A1 climbs gently to meet London's Inner Ring Road, the A501, and the road number is signposted for the first time. All of a sudden there is proper traffic, and a bustling busyness that hasn't been present along the road before. Cars whizz round the one-way system, trapping pedestrians on a small triangular island in the middle of the flow. A well-kept clock stands here on a square green pillar in the middle of a pristine flowerbed. On each side is written in gold leaf the name of J Smith & Sons, once eminent local clockmakers, along with their long defunct telephone number - Clerkenwell 1277. Just around the corner Upper Street beckons, and thence the long journey to part of Britain that only really exists on road signs - The NORTH. There are still 408 miles to go until the A1 reaches Edinburgh's Waverley station, but I suspect the final mile is rather more impressive than the first.

Road continues: Upper Street, Holloway Road, Archway Road, Barnet By-Pass, Borehamwood, South Mimms, Hatfield, Stevenage, Peterborough, Grantham, Doncaster, Scotch Corner, Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Edinburgh (Waterloo Place/ Princes Street)

A1 links
A1: The Great North Road (an in-depth e-book)
A1 route description (from uk-roads)
the route of the A1 in North London (then, later and now)

 Sunday, January 23, 2005

Great British Roads - from the beginning

100 years ago Britain's main roads weren't numbered because they didn't need to be. Cars were new-fangled inventions that had yet to take over the world, so most important roads still had names from the era of the horse and cart. Most were named after the town at the other end (Cambridge Road) or the direction in which they travelled (Great West Road) or perhaps the Roman road that they followed (Watling Street). But then motor transport started to get popular and in 1921 the newly-formed Department of Transport decided that all of Britain's major roads should be numbered.

Civil servants selected six particularly important roads leading out of London (most starting close to the Bank of England) and numbered them A1 to A6 (clockwise from the north). Then they took three important roads leading out of Edinburgh (starting at Princes Street) and numbered them clockwise A7 to A9. These nine key trunk routes were as follows:

A1 London to Edinburgh (409 miles, originally the Great North Road)
A2 London to Dover (77 miles, originally Watling Street)
A3 London to Portsmouth (74 miles)
A4 London to Bath (103 miles, originally the Great West Road)
A5 London to Holyhead (270 miles, originally Watling Street)
A6 London to Carlisle (282 miles, actually started in Barnet)
A7 Edinburgh to Carlisle (101 miles)
A8 Edinburgh to Gourock (67 miles, via Glasgow)
A9 Edinburgh to Wick (273 miles, via Inverness)

You might have thought that the remainder of Britain's roads were numbered fairly haphazardly, but there is in fact a clinical logic to the fact that the A366 is in Somerset, the A666 is in Lancashire and the A966 is in the Orkney Islands. And it works like this:
The Numbering of Roads (Michelin Guide, 1921)
For the purpose of numbering the roads, Great Britain has been divided into nine sectors, six of which radiate in clockwise order from London, and the remaining three similarly from Edinburgh. Sector I includes all the roads situated between roads A1 and A2, and so on clockwise for the remaining sectors. Note: an exception occurs between road A2 and the estuary of the Thames which is part of sector II and not sector I. All roads take their initial number from the sector in which they start, eg A12 and A17 start in Sector I, A36 and A310 start in sector III. A road does not necessarily terminate in the same sector in which it begins. The commencement of a road is determined by the end of it which would be reached first by the hands of a clock radiating from London.
It may help to imagine the country divided up into nine 'cones', six emerging from London and three from Edinburgh (there's a helpful diagram here). For example, all the roads in Devon start with a 3 because they lie between the A3 and the A4. And the A57 from Liverpool to Lincoln starts with a 5 because Liverpool is the first of the two towns reached clockwise from London, and because Liverpool lies between the A5 and the A6. Erm, simple. There are exceptions, of course, but that's roughly how the system still works.

In honour of the fact that the country's first five arterial roads all start in central London, I've decided to take a walk along the first mile of each of them. Join me every day this week to discover where and how these five Great British Roads begin. I'll meet you tomorrow morning on the A1 just north of St Paul's Cathedral...

Great British road links

The Society for All British Road Enthusiasts (SABRE)
Chris's British Road Directory - with detailed FAQ
Major Roads of Great Britain - including a history of road numbering
Roader's Digest - a comprehensive list of every numbered road on the UK mainland
The First 99: A1-A99 listings
Roads by 10: A100-A999 Listings
A history of British traffic signs
The History of North London's Radial Roads
Ordnance Survey Road Map of Great Britain 1932
Traffic England - live traffic information updated in real time

 Saturday, January 22, 2005

Bow Road station update: We're now ten months into the renovation of my local tube station - six months where the contractors prepared to maybe do something followed by four months of gradual change. Visit my local tube station now and you'll usually be able to spot a few workmen hanging around looking less than busy, probably out the front taking a fag break. You'll see loads of ugly cables draped across the ceilings and down the stairwells. You'll see extra cameras all over the station as well as stickers showing where even more cameras are going to be installed. You'll see mucky blue walls along the platforms behind which restoration work may or may not still be happening. You'll see gaps where tiles used to be, repainted window frames and a whole host of unfinished repairs. But as of this week you'll also find one less blue wall in the ticket hall, which is being slowly gutted and replastered but not yet redecorated. You'll find the floors have just been stripped away beyond the ticket barriers and down the stairs, leaving an ugly uneven concrete surface surrounded by homemade safety notices. And, most excitingly, you'll also be able to see the front of the station again because they've just taken down the scaffolding that's been shrouding it for the last nine months. I suppose the brickwork looks slightly cleaner than it did last April but quite frankly I can't see why it's taken so long to give the front of the station a fractional facelift. You can keep up to date on what is or isn't going on with my daily reports from the station in the comments box, or thrill to the complete story on my special Bow Road blog page.

100 things that seem to take forever: paying off your mortgage, saving up enough money to afford a mortgage in the first place, learning to play the piano, Monday mornings, the bit of the week from Monday morning to Friday afternoon, the gap between Stone Roses albums, reading the Sunday papers from cover to cover, winter, childhood, waiting for the final whistle in a cup match when your team's one goal ahead, the hour between 4am and 5am when you can't get to sleep, a watched pot boiling, American presidential elections, George Bush's presidential term, waiting for a star to fall, trying to think up a really good idea, the split second before a car crash, recovering after a stay in hospital, waiting for your 10th birthday, losing weight, running a bath, the football season, the gap between football seasons, waiting for Blogger to publish what you've just written, paying off a credit card bill, queuing up at the post office, finishing off a bucket of cinema popcorn, suffering from a cold, completing a game of Monopoly, January, waiting for payday in January, watching the second hand on a clock tick round once, Bow Road station regeneration, waiting for your lottery numbers to come up, driving to Cornwall, second class mail deliveries, cooking a jacket potato in the oven, growing out an embarrassing hair style, airport security checks, Big Brother, coming of age, rebooting a PC, waiting for scars to heal, fast-forwarding through the movie trailers at the start of a video, sitting in a laundrette, ironing shirts, trying to attract the waitress's eye in a restaurant, finding the end of a roll of sellotape, sitting through a really dull film, persuading a friend or colleague to change their annoying habits, walking between platforms at Holborn tube station, post-tsunami recovery, trying to throw a six at the start of a board game, a prison sentence, being at a dinner party with somebody else's friends, completing a crossword, waiting for the meat to cook at a barbecue, getting rid of hiccups, deleting spam, growing your own vegetables, inter-continental flights, puberty, deciding what to wear before you go to a party, waiting while someone else decides what to wear before you go to a party, the decade before you retire, escaping from a relationship that's going nowhere, being stuck in traffic, evolution, thinking up the rest of this list.

 Friday, January 21, 2005

Flat feet

I was never blessed with an instinct for fashion. Not that I wander around in tweed jackets, nylon trackies or sandals, you understand, but the latest trends in clothing tend to pass me by. I have a functional wardrobe, and little desire to augment it with catwalk chic or cutting-edge style. You won't find me frequenting those smart boutiques that abound in certain quarters of London, nor hunting through the racks in high street chain stores in search of cut price imitations. I'm far more likely to carry on wearing one particular item long after the rest of the country has discarded it as passé, then when that item finally wears out to go wandering around the sales trying to find something that matches it as closely as possible. I don't understand how people tune into the fashion zeitgeist, nor how they work out what's in and what's out. So my question today is this. How the hell did square-toed shoes get to be so fashionable?

They've caught me unawares, square-toed shoes. I own round-toed shoes, and have done for several years because I thought they were nice and normal. But I looked down on the tube yesterday morning (like you do when the carriage is packed and your head's at a funny angle) and half the world was wearing square-toed footwear. I checked again in the office and, sure enough, a significant number of people had joined the square-toed clique. It was generally the younger trendier folk, the ones who wander around in chocolate coloured trainers on dress-down Fridays, but this new faddish footwear had permeated my workplace without me noticing. Why wasn't I told?

And they were everywhere on the tube on the way home too. In one Central line carriage all of the six seats opposite me were filled by an improbable line-up of matching square-toed men and women. I even managed to snap four of them here (lace-ups, heels, boots and slip-ons) in this surreptitious cameraphone photo. What is up with these people? Do they have sawn-off toes? Are they sheep? Where has this fad sprung from?

I'm guessing here, but I suspect there's a conspiracy afoot. Chief executives of footwear companies must sit around in smoky committee rooms plotting out which style of shoe they want the public to buy next. They cycle each season between round-, pointy- and square-toed shoes, encouraging the gullible to replace their footwear every year with the latest must-have tip-shape. No matter that pointy shoes pinch your toes something rotten (so I'm told), last year people were happy to suffer them in the name of fashion. No matter that flattened shoes look like part of some medieval pantomime costume, this year it's hip to be square. At least next year my ordinary curved shoes should be back in fashion without me having to pay a penny to the shoemakers. Load of cobblers, all of them.

 Thursday, January 20, 2005

10 top tips for tourists visiting London

1) Bring a torch: It's always foggy in London. Every single day the capital is clouded in thick peasouper fog (except between noon and 1pm which is when they take all the official tourist photographs). Over the last few centuries all Londoners have developed chimneysweep eyes which enable them to see in the pitch black streets. This endless murk is also the reason why London's trains run underground - it's lighter there. Visitors are advised to buy a fluorescent white iTorch from the Apple Store on Regent Street.
2) Bring an umbrella: It always rains in London, which is why Londoners carry umbrellas at all times. The umbrella evolved from an ancient jousting weapon used by knights in medieval times (that's before the invention of history). Londoners also all wear bowler hats, each with a rim specially designed to act like guttering and keep the rain off. If you want to keep dry and blend in properly while you're in London, make sure you never leave your hotel without a bowler and brolly.
3) Stay in the suburbs: Hotels in central London are extremely noisy places to stay because the sound of Big Ben wakes everyone up every fifteen minutes during the night. Take our advice and stay slightly further out in quaint market towns like Nuneaton, Swindon or Calais. These towns are cheap and convenient, each located less than 100 miles away from the centre of the capital as well as being international tourist magnets of their own.
4) Don't drink the tea: Tea is the devil's drink, an unnatural blend of chopped leaves which defies all attempts at vending machine palatability. Londoners are brought up drinking this acidic brown drink from an early age which is the reason why all their teeth are stained and rotten. But don't worry - there are plenty of coffee shops everywhere in London, maybe even more than there are at home.
5) Don't bother learning the language: The English don't speak proper English like Hollywood actors do, they speak Cockney which is an ancient street slang invented by William Shakespeare. Those wishing to brush up on their Cockney should watch Dick Van Dyke's performance in Mary Poppins several times prior to their visit, Alternatively, should you be unwilling to waste your time learning an alien language, just shout loudly until the locals eventually understand and bring you a root beer.
6) See the sights from the back of a taxi: There's nowhere better to view the sights of London than from the back seat of a black cab (except perhaps from the top deck of a Routemaster, but that would mean sharing seats with the locals and would clearly be unhygienic). Ask your friendly cabbie to take you on "the scenic route", and prepare to enjoy your extended journey at a very special price.
7) Be vigilant: London is always jam-packed full of foreigners so be sure to keep a watchful eye open for potential terrorist activity. Look out in particular for people with oversized rucksacks talking in strange accents standing around outside major tourist attractions taking an unnatural interest in their surroundings. You may even be one of them.
8) Order double portions: London cuisine is world-renowned for being bland, uninspiring and undersized. Restaurants always serve up stingy portions, sometimes just a slice of roast beef on a few leaves squirted artistically with watery sauce. Should your waiter forget to serve up a huge side portion of french fries with your meal then remember that negative tipping operates in the UK, and that there's almost certainly a McDonalds down the road where you can pig out properly.
9) Pop in to see the Queen: Arrive at 11am in time to watch the Changing of the Guard. You may even be lucky enough to be chosen to join the voting panel that decides which guard should be changed. Her Majesty loves to welcomes visitors, especially those in fancy dress. If the policeman at the front gate won't let you in, bring a ladder and try shimmying up over the side wall instead. However, whatever you do don't let Her Majesty offer you a cup of tea - just look at her teeth...
10) Your choice. The comments box awaits.

 Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Voyage of the dawn treader: Very occasionally my job takes me somewhere different. Yesterday it took me on a 20 mile train journey to a small town in Thurrock (that's the arse end of Essex). I set off in darkness, travelled eastwards up the Thames estuary (via Barking, Dagenham, Grays and Tilbury) and arrived at my destination just after sunrise. It was a journey into dawn, and here are some of the sights I saw.

Dawn minus 50: early truckers tucking into drive thru breakfasts, a tiny cloudburst of blue fire dawning in the eastern sky
Dawn minus 40: discarded copies of Metro in an empty carriage, compressed commuters rattling past in the opposite direction, gasholders silhouetted against approaching morning
Dawn minus 30: redbrick valleys and concrete cuttings, litter-strewn back yards cloaked in shadow, bleary car workers lined up on platform 7 with tabloids in hand
Dawn minus 20: motor city, tarmac fields blanketed by identical saloon cars, industrial deserts where nobody lives, whirling wind farms driving away the darkness, a busy trunk road on concrete stilts
Dawn minus 10: unspoilt expanses of gloomy marshland, the dawn chorus sung by waves of waterfowl, le nouveau chemin de fer exprès vers Paris, distant chimneys belching smoke into daybreak, affordable housing in blocks and boxes, jammed traffic suspended in midair across the QE2 bridge
Dawn: delivery lorries at the Poundstretcher hypermarket, long lines of containers stacked tall by the dockside, warehouse after warehouse after warehouse after warehouse, ocean-going ships revealing the river's hidden path, towering pylons stalking the landscape, water towers reflecting the first glints of sunlight
Dawn plus 10: power stations that Londoners never see, local traffic queued at level crossings, a flock of gulls alighting on a silent lake, medieval churches perched on tiny hillocks in a muddy patchwork of brown and green, a load of bullocks on Mucking Flats, far-flung communities under threat of tidal flooding, an orange globe peeking over the lowland horizon, a new day rises in the east

Forum update: The diamond geezer forum burst into life yesterday when 17 new users (and several guests) posted more than 50 messages in a total of 9 threads. We learnt where to take a visitor who's on a whistlestop tour of London, which tube stations don't have ticket gates and which other forums you spend your lives reading. Between us we posted approximately 2000 words, which is far more words than would normally be posted in my comments box in one day and a lot more interactive than this blog normally gets. I was impressed, but not quite impressed enough. I still prefer blogs to boards because I prefer oneness to multiplicity. On a blog everything new is on the front page, whereas on a board you have to dig down one layer for the latest content. We can probably only cope with monitoring one or two message boards each day, whereas blogs are such a concentrated source of information that it's possible to digest more of them. Maybe that's why my forum ran out of steam yesterday after the climactic 'Tea at three' cuppa-sharing half hour. It's been a fascinating experience, but welcome back. Unless maybe there's some future in establishing a London Bloggers forum? It might have some longevity, that. Anybody interested?

 Tuesday, January 18, 2005

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum

Where are all the people who could be reading blogs? There are millions of people on the net every day, but only a tiny proportion of them are reading blogs. So, where's everybody else? I suspect a large number of world wide webbers are off reading forums or message boards instead. Maybe you're a user yourself.

Message boards are a bit like blogs. They're online portals for amateur publishing with a potential worldwide audience. People write stuff, offer opinions or ask questions on all sorts of diverse topics, then other people write back with their comments. Sometimes there are scores of new comments every day, sometimes nothing gets posted for months. So far so bloglike. But message boards aren't much like blogs. The dialogue is much more two-way, a chance to enter a conversation rather than react to one. Boards may be moderated but there isn't really one person in control - anybody can suggest topics rather than waiting around to see what today's subject is. And boards tend to focus on one small area of interest, rather than being personal viewpoints on the way life is. Boards are more interactive, blogs are more reflective, but both can build supportive online communities.

So, I thought I'd get myself a forum. Here it is. <click here for the diamond geezer forum>

I found a free service from Forumer.com and the whole thing only took a couple of minutes to set up. I divided up my message board into London and non-London sections, set up special categories for London places, London events and London transport, then asked a few questions to start you off. You can pop over there and ask questions, post replies, start threads, make comments and generally interact with one another, if you like. You'll need to sign up to comment (don't worry because I'm not planning on selling your details to the spam merchants) or you can just read for free. Click <here>, OK? (4pm update: 48 posts so far)

I doubt that the diamond geezer forum will take off, though. Most successful forums target a very specific core interest, and mine doesn't really. And, to be honest, there's normally quite enough interaction in the comments boxes on this page without me diluting your thoughts by taking them off-site. In fact I'll be surprised if my forum gets any hits at all after this week, it's not really meant as a long term thing, but it'll be an interesting experiment for the few hours it survives. As an incentive for you to take a look I've set up a special Tea at three forum and I'm inviting you to join me there for a cuppa at 3pm (GMT) (ah, the joys of working from home this afternoon). But I'll see you back here on this page tomorrow - blogs still rule.

35 forums (just a sample)
Science and nature: phenology, weather, Open University, keeping poultry, PC hardware/software
Getting around: UK transport, caravanning, hot air ballooning, scuba diving, rollercoasters
Media: Digital Spy, Radio Mute, TV Forum, Big Brother, Tivo, US TV
Places: London SE1, London, genealogy in Rutland, Alaskan gold, climbing in S Australia
Food and drink: Jamie Oliver, chocolate, allotments, winemaking
Sport: Arseblog, Football365, punters' forum
Other: Chavscum, Web User, BBC Messageboards, freemasonry, left-handers, pure 80s, Popbitch

 Monday, January 17, 2005

Number One quiz
Here are clues to the names of 20 artists who've had five or more number 1 records in the UK singles chart. The artists are arranged in descending order - the more number 1s they've had the nearer the start of the list they are. How many can you identify? (Answers in the comments box)

 Sunday, January 16, 2005

Number One number 1100
It Doesn't Matter Any More - Buddy Holly (February 2009)
I visited my local shopping centre in Stratford yesterday to see who was still buying singles, and the answer was seemingly nobody. In common with hundreds of other towns across the country there's now only one shop left in Stratford where you can still buy singles and that's Woolworths. Tucked between the albums and the endless racks of DVDs was a small section devoted to the 50 mainstream singles that Woolworths' buyers thought would least offend their customers this week. A small girl in a pink coat wandered over and picked up the latest single by Steps clones Pop! which had been conveniently positoned at seven year-old eye level. She gazed for a couple of seconds at the grinning bronzed singers on the cover, perhaps wondering whether the Blue Peter team had finally made a record, then carefully placed the plastic case back on the shelf and wandered off to look at the PlayStation games instead. Nobody else, even on a busy Saturday afternoon, gave the singles section a second look. Long live the download.
"Now you go your way and I'll go mine, now and forever till the end of time. I'll find somebody new and baby we'll say we're through and you won't matter anymore"

Number One number 80
One Night / I Got Stung - Elvis Presley (January 1959)
Number One number 1000
One Night / I Got Stung - Elvis Presley (January 2005)
And so the 1000th number one goes to the dead American who also had the 62nd, 67th, 80th, 85th, 109th, 112th, 115th, 119th, 129th, 134th, 136th, 140th, 143rd, 154th, 197th, 289th, 412nd, 930th and 999th. Which is kind of appropriate, if not very inspiring. Thanks to a 70th birthday marketing stunt we've been lumbered with this ancient double A side atop the millennial chart, rather than anything new, fresh and forward-looking. I reckon that by March the British public will be so pissed off by Elvis re-releases that thay'll welcome the imminent merger of over-the-counter sales and downloads with open arms, only to discover that a stagnant chart dominated by six month-old U2 tracks is even more depressing. In the meantime let's all sing along with Elvis... erm, has anybody actually heard either of these songs anywhere in the last week?
"One night with you is what I'm now praying for, the things that we two could plan would make my dreams come true."

Number One number 900
Lady Marmalade - Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya and Pink (June 2001)
Just three years later Lady Marmalade returned to number 1, again sung by an all-girl quartet but this time an urban supergroup assembled to promote Baz Luhrmann's movie Moulin Rouge. The film is a masterpiece, so I'm told, but stripped of its visuals this single merely sounds like four American starlets screeching shakily through a seventies standard. Christina had already topped the charts once (with a work of Genie-us), and both she and Pink would do so again, but this was as good as it got for the less well known Lil' Kim and Mya. Only two singles have ever reached number 1 twice not performed by the original artist. This LaBelle cover is one, while the other is Against All Odds (which first hit the top for the execrable Westlife and Mariah Carey, then returned to the summit just a fortnight ago for X Factor winner Steve Brookstein).
"He met Marmalade down in old Moulin Rouge, strutting her stuff on the street... Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?"

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