diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 31, 2007

No, you're right, it could never happen.
<never never happen>
<never happen>
<never happen>

 Monday, January 29, 2007

Bow, London: Suddenly there's one hell of a racket outside my front door. There's yelling, and whooping, and what sounds like one of the front doors on my landing being kicked in. It's not my door, but it's much too close for comfort. Must be looters, I guess. And there's me having just put all of my cash and valuables into a rucksack - which'll only make the whole lot especially easy to steal. I'm trying to tell myself events won't come to that.

Except now there's banging coming from the flat nextdoor. And (I'm trying to pretend it isn't) screaming (but it is). I really don't want to imagine where those thugs might be heading next, or why, but my elevated heartbeat hints at the probable truth. So now I'm crouched down on the floor between my bed and the wall, hiding beneath a carefully positioned duvet, in the hope that the flickering light from this mobile doesn't give me away. Bloody typical - I journey all that way home through the end of civilisation as we know it, and home turns out to be even more dangerous than outside. My flat's just a dead end - one way in, no way out.

So I'm powering down now, and waiting for the future. I hope yours looks brighter.
Posted at 23:53 from 51°31'41"N 0°1'5"W via my Z470xi mobile <battery low>

Bow, London: I'm packing a rucksack, ready to leave my flat and make my escape first thing tomorrow morning. It's hard to decide what to take and what to leave behind. Food, toothbrush and a change of underwear, obviously, plus those disposable contact lenses I came all this way to fetch. I'm taking my passport and my birth certificate and my full home insurance documentation, because that might save a lot of hassle later. I've packed my Oystercard because you never know, it might come in useful (more useful than any compulsory ID card would have been, that's for sure). I want to take my laptop, but it won't fit in my rucksack and I fear it'll just slow me down. I'll try to back up as many important files as I can onto something more portable before the batteries drain away. I've also been round my flat by candlelight scrutinising all my worldly possessions to determine which are important enough to join these other essentials in my bag. There are so many irreplaceable things here that mean the world to me and that I'd hate to lose, but I can't take more than a handful of them with me. All I can hope is that this flat survives whatever the next few days may bring, and then I can come back and pick up my life again later.

Come first light I'm out of here. I hope I can make it out of the capital on one of those evacuation trains, if they're still running, or maybe I'll just walk. Fingers crossed the rest of my family up in Norfolk are far enough away from this mess to still be safe and well, and hopefully I can reach them with the minimum of further hassle. In the meantime, however, I think an early night is called for. It's almost certainly the best way of forgetting everything that's gone on today, just for a few precious hours.
Posted at 20:17 from 51°31'41"N 0°1'5"W via my Z470xi mobile

Bow, London: Home, sweet home? I finally made it inside about half an hour ago, after creeping my way tentatively up a pitch black staircase. I was glad to see (or rather feel) that my front door was still intact, and to discover that my front door keys were indeed still in my pocket. The flat may be cold and isolated and dark, but at least it's still home.

First success - I keep a torch beside the front door for use in power cuts or when the fuse blows. At last, illumination is under my control again. First mistake - I dashed into the bathroom and used the toilet, then flushed the chain. Damn, the cistern didn't refill (or even gurgle) so that's my sewage arrangements buggered. Second success - I bought a bag of IKEA tealights several years ago, and it appears I still have more than 80 of them left. I took nearly five minutes to find a box of matches though. Second disaster - there's a pool of ice-cold water spreading across the kitchen floor where the fridge-freezer has started defrosting. At least the milk hasn't gone off yet. Third disaster - the taps are dry, and I don't believe in buying bottled water so I don't have any in the house. Grrr. Fourth disaster - my gas hob isn't working, so I couldn't make a soothing cup of tea even if I wanted to. Come on, it's what we Brits do when disasters outnumber successes, and I feel like I'm missing out.

So, no gas, no electricity and only the water I can salvage from the kettle and the defrosting freezer. Things could be better. But I have fruit, and bread, and tins of baked beans, and a surprisingly large number of Creme Eggs, so I'm not going to starve in the near future. The lack of electricity is probably my biggest problem. Without electricity much of modern life doesn't function. I can't cook, I can't watch television, and I can't find out what the hell's going on out there. The telephone appears to be dead, and even my super-duper new mobile doesn't seem to be able to raise a meaningful signal. All of my radios are mains-powered, bar one (which I don't have sufficiently large batteries for). At least my laptop still has a couple of hours of power left, but without a wireless network to connect to it's not much use.

It looks like I face an evening trying to make my own entertainment. I've got a stack of books here that I've never quite got round to reading, even if flicking through them by candlelight isn't going to be good for my eyesight. I've got a fully functioning mp3 player, even if chirpy upbeat music doesn't sound especially appropriate at the moment. And I've got a vivid imagination, which isn't going to help me one little bit as I sit here cowering in the flickering darkness wondering what the hell might be going on outside.
Posted at 19:09 from 51°31'41"N 0°1'5"W via my Z470xi mobile

Bow, London: My flat is now in sight, but getting to my front door's not going to be easy. I'm back on the main road again, and events here have started to get nasty. One or two cars have broken down and then been abandoned by their occupants, blocking progress for everyone else. Some major fisticuffs have broken out, and one Renault has been overturned beside the church making the situation even worse. Up on the Bow Flyover a bendy bus is aflame (so things aren't all bad). My local Costcutter has been gutted, and the cashpoint machine outside the bank nextdoor looks like its been sledgehammered away from the wall. And now there's a major scuffle in progress on the pavement outside my block of flats, the door to which is hanging limply from one upper hinge. I hope to be able to slip inside soon, to relative safety. Maybe I should have taken that train to Essex instead.
Posted at 18:32 from 51°31'43"N 0°1'9"W via my Z470xi mobile

Bow, London: I'm almost on home turf now, but these back streets are still unexpectedly unfamiliar. I've just stumbled upon a Sikh temple I've never seen before, facing out onto a scrappy square of dogturd-splattered grass. Hundreds of candles have been lit inside, and the worshippers spilling out onto the pavement are in calm contrast to the increasingly uneasy atmosphere on the surrounding estate. I've seen several other things on my walk I might normally go home and blog about (there was a Banksy earlier, and a spookily derelict Jewish cemetery, and an East End tower block called 'Pauline House'), but tonight I'm far more interested in just getting home.
Posted at 18:14 from 51°31'42"N 0°1'44"W via my Z470xi mobile

Mile End, London: A gang of youths are hurling bricks at the shops and restaurants beneath the Green Bridge, presumably because they fear no recrimination. So I've retreated into Mile End Park to find a safer route around. It's suddenly very dark again. I've climbed up on the mound in the park to get my bearings, and to check there are are no undesirable elements creeping up on me. A not-quite-full moon is shining weak light across the canalside, and visible above is a truly unfamiliar sight - the glimmer of countless stars and constellations. Meanwhile several miles to the west, somewhere beyond the jet black shadow of the Gherkin, the sky is glowing a more disturbing shade of demonic red. London's burning, fetch the engines?
Posted at 17:58 from 51°31'32"N 0°2'14"W via my Z470xi mobile

Mile End, London: Bloody canal. There's no way across (bar swimming) between Roman Road and Mile End Road, so I've been forced out of the backstreets onto the main road. The eastbound carriageway is filled with a stream of gridlocked vehicles, honking repeatedly in a futile attempt to try to get the traffic ahead to budge. At least their headlights are working, which finally brings some much-needed illumination to my journey home. On the opposite side of the road a convoy of army vehicles is ploughing steadily towards the City, brushing other road users aside as necessary. They seem more intent on moving forward than taking control here, thankfully, but I'll be glad to cross the canal and retreat back into the shadows.
Posted at 17:46 from 51°31'22"N 0°2'31"W via my Z470xi mobile

Stepney, London: I don't think I've ever walked through these particular back roads before, so I'm not 100% certain I'm heading in the right direction. The streets are lined with a random collection of high-density housing, from Victorian terraces to grim 70s tenement blocks, with only a few signs of flickering candlelight suggesting that anyone's at home. Several families are out packing boxes of essential belongings into the back of their cars and are attempting to exit the area by road. Over towards the railway viaduct a yard full of rubber tyres has been set alight. With no fire service to keep the blaze in check, I fear the other residents may have to consider evacuation themselves before the night's out.
Posted at 17:30 from 51°31'27"N 0°2'59"W via my Z470xi mobile

Whitechapel, London: A mob of desperate Londoners is looting the Sainsbury's superstore behind Whitechapel High Street. The windows are smashed, and the car park is full of previously law-abiding citizens wheeling away trolleys piled high with consumer goodies. I'd have thought that food should be the priority at the moment, but instead the most popular stolen goods seem to be TVs and DVD players. They'll never get them powered up when they get home, surely, and a few tins of soup would be much more useful. But this is no time for rational thought, it seems.
Posted at 17:21 from 51°31'18"N 0°3'32"W via my Z470xi mobile

Whitechapel, London: It's starting to get properly dark now, and the streetlamps aren't coming on. I've decided to avoid the main roads on my trek east, just to avoid patrolling officialdom, but I'm starting to wonder if these gloomy back streets are any safer. Piled-high council estates aren't the nicest places to be walking, even in normal daylight, but at least the locals seem wholly disinterested in my passing. They're scurrying around on their own urgent missions, or hurrying home to make sure their families are safe. Or at least I hope they are. A sign on the wall behind me reads "Be aware, CCTV in operation". Somehow I doubt that's true. I think I'd better walk a little faster.
Posted at 17:13 from 51°31'11"N 0°3'45"W via my Z470xi mobile

Spitalfields, London: Brick Lane is not buzzing. Normally at this time on a Monday it'd be heaving, but not today. I've weaved my way through the backstreets of Spitalfields, to get here, and the whole place is unnervingly quiet. And I'm starving, so it's a bit annoying that nowhere selling food seems to be open. The smell of curry is not in the air. I swallowed a few (much needed) gulps of water earlier, from a drinking fountain opposite Spitalfields Market, but that's the best I've managed so far. All the Bangladeshi convenience stores around here seem to be firmly locked, with just a few sacks of onions piled up on the pavement outside. A fat lot of good that is, when what I really need is a takeaway.
Posted at 17:05 from 51°31'7"N 0°4'16"W via my Z470xi mobile

Broadgate, London: Escaping from the evacuation queue turned out to be much easier than I'd expected. PC Kevin and his traffic warden entourage were having real trouble trying to shepherd hundreds of unwilling Londoners towards the platforms - too many civilians and not enough officials. So when a fracas broke out on the station concourse (a mob of angry stock traders refused, point blank, to board a train to Lowestoft), about fifty of us took our chance and scarpered. We legged it out of the station up the eastern stairs, shielded by the lengthening shadows of dusk, and then we scattered. I'm now holed up in a narrow alleyway on the other side of the road, safely tucked out of sight from any passing police officer. Or so I hope (this live geo-blogging is a dead giveaway to the authorities, isn't it? I'd better move on quick). I intend to carry on skulking eastward through Shoreditch and Whitechapel, beneath the cloak of nightfall, because things don't look quite so smoky and grim out in that direction. And that's where my bed for the night lies waiting.
Posted at 16:52 from 51°31'3"N 0°4'44"W via my Z470xi mobile

Broadgate, London: And so we queue to evacuate the capital, lined up on the pavement outside Liverpool Street station waiting for our one-way journeys to Essex and beyond. Hundreds of us who'd escaped from the stalled tube, along with the last of the City workers who'd got caught up in events above ground, and one power-crazed policeman with a gun keeping us all in check.

Naturally we've been pumping everyone else in the queue for more information about what happened earlier this morning, but no consistent picture of events has emerged. The Prime Minister is either dead, kidnapped or running the country from a bunker deep beneath the Pennines, depending on who you believe. All the early media and internet speculation dried up fast once the power failures began, so nobody really seems to be sure of anything any more. All we really know is that several places have exploded, probably, so things are very very bad, somehow. Our new life in the countryside could only be an improvement, surely.

Except that, like Martin, I really don't want to be forcibly dispatched on a random train journey out of the capital. I don't want to end up this evening in an East Anglian church hall being fed tea and sandwiches by eager Women's Institute handmaidens. I don't want to go to bed tonight in a government-issue sleeping bag. I don't want to be stuck in the clothes I'm wearing for the next however-many days. I don't want to spend the foreseeable future marooned in a far-flung village armed only with an empty wallet and my Oyster Card. And (you know, I hadn't considered this before) I don't have any spare disposable contact lenses in my pocket, so I really don't want to wake up tomorrow morning spectacle-less, myopic and visually crippled. No, I want to go home instead. Just so long as I can get there without dying in the process.
Posted at 16:21 from 51°31'2"N 0°4'56"W via my Z470xi mobile

Broadgate, London: And then we met Police Constable Kevin, or rather he found us. He whistled from halfway down Threadneedle Street, waved his arms and jogged down to meet us. At long last, after several hours underground, we'd finally made contact with officialdom in the outside world! Maybe now we'd get some answers. But this policeman was in no mood to tell us what was going on, just to order us around.

"Oi! You lot! You're not supposed to be here! Follow me! Now!"

So follow him we did, and fast. Our imaginations scanned rapidly through a selection of nightmare scenarios (crazed gunmen, dirty bombs, rampant Ebola, alien death rays, the usual), and our feet sped up with each terrifying thought. We headed past the undamaged fortress walls of the Bank of England, then turned left into Old Broad Street. Eventually we reached a limp strip of blue and white tape stretched across the roadway, ducked beneath it and reassembled on the plaza in front of Tower 42.

Acres of fragile glass hung ominously above our heads, but PC Kev seemed unperturbed. Instead he pulled himself up to his full five foot seven (plus helmet) and introduced himself to a bemused sea of weary faces. He told us that the area we'd just left had been sealed off since quarter to nine this morning when a suspect white van had been identified. He said that the whole area had been evacuated, along with large parts of the rest of Central London, and that the last six hours above ground had been "especially manic". He kept mentioning the "ongoing situation" and "national security" but never quite provided details (despite our lengthy pleading). The mobile networks were down, he explained, so we'd be wasting our time trying ring our families. And he apologised for the diminished police presence in the City, because all his colleagues had been called away to "the Westminster incident" several hours ago and now there was only him and a couple of traffic wardens left to mop up any last stragglers.

"What I need to ask you to do now," he said, "is to continue down this street and join the queue of evacuees waiting around the corner. We need to clear the affected area in the centre of London, so you'll all be embarking on special trains at Liverpool Street. A special evacuation service will transport you away from the rail hub and deliver you to an unloading point outside the capital. Here local authorities will provide for your basic needs until normality is restored. It's all part of an official government resilience plan called Operation Sassoon, ladies and gentlemen. There's no need to worry. It's for your own safety, you understand."

We were all shocked and downheartened, but Martin was the only one of us to vocalise his opposition. He explained that he lived in Shoreditch which wasn't far away, and he'd be going straight home thank you. No way was he ending up being dumped in godforsaken Braintree, or Ipswich or somewhere. He had a game of squash booked tonight, and his tropical fish needed feeding before bedtime, and his girlfriend was expecting him. PC Kevin told him he had no choice - the area was being evacuated and that was that. Martin was having none of it, and walked off in the opposite direction, back the way we'd come. He ignored the policeman's loud protestations and strode on, yelling something about not living in a police state. Kevin's bullet caught Martin between the shoulder-blades and he slumped messily to the floor. And the rest of us, once we'd torn our gaze away from the spreading pool of blood, shuffled off meekly to await yet another miserable train journey.
Posted at 15:29 from 51°30'58"N 0°5'0"W via my Z470xi mobile

Bank, London: Sweet sweet daylight. I'd almost forgotten what it looked like. But there it was, bright and inviting, streaming down into the ticket hall at Bank station. A few final steps through the nearest exit, and escape from the underworld at last, back to normality. Except it wasn't quite normal at all.

This should be one of the busiest road junctions in London. We're right outside the Bank of England, for heaven's sake. There should be buses, taxis, cars, vans and cyclists queued up at the 7-way traffic lights, and pedestrians weaving between. It may be Monday afternoon in the middle of the City of London, but there's nobody here at all. Well, obviously there's 500 of us spilling out of the tube station, but there's nobody else. The streets are somehow completely empty, bar a couple of parked vans and a lot of traffic cones. It's almost like being here on Christmas Day - alone, isolated and forgotten. Whichever direction you look there are just bare roads, and empty pavements, and what looks like blue tape stretched across the street in the far distance. We seem to be in the middle of a human vacuum, an artificial exclusion zone, and it's highly disturbing.

And then there's the sky. Something about the sky is very wrong. There's a swirling fog below the clouds, much lower than normal and much pinker. Or it might be smoke. It's thickest to the west, in the direction of St Paul's Cathedral, but we can't actually see that far to work out what might have happened there. And there's pink in other directions too, and a bit of orange, and some black-specked maroony-red all along the western horizon. And still no people. Where the hell has everybody gone?
Posted at 14:50 from 51°30'49"N 0°5'18"W via my Z470xi mobile

Bank, London: That. Was. Scary. Edging your way along an unlit tube tunnel is something I hope I never have to experience again. For a start there was the fear of stepping down onto the tracks in the first place. We're programmed from a very young age never to walk on railway lines and it's a hard habit to break, especially when nobody's told you officially that the power's been switched off. Then there's fear of the darkness, which in this case is a genuine fear of the unseen unknown. There could be a hole in the tunnel floor (there almost certainly isn't, but there could be). There could be rats scampering around at your feet (there almost certainly are, so it's best not to think about it). And the power could be switched back on at any time (there's no chance, obviously, but that doesn't stop the worry). The walk up to Bank can't have been more than half a mile in distance, but it felt far longer mentally than physically. I was right at the back of this subterranean human convoy, aware that there was nothing behind me but an ever-lengthening void. I just kept my head down and tried to stay close to those around me, laughing and joking to conceal my trepidation. Our pace slowed as we tried to encourage the infirm and the petrified to keep moving forward, but everyone struggled forward. And eventually, oh so eventually, we emerged into the relative safety of our destination station.

The westbound Central line platform at Bank isn't the best place for 500 lost commuters to assemble. It's narrow, and curved, and a whole rabbit warren of interlocking passages lead off deep into the station along its entire length. Of all the stations on the network we've had the bad luck to end up in the most complicated, and the lights are out. But we're the last of the passengers to arrive, and the advance guard have already explored the various potential avenues of escape. Downwards, along the legendary "escalator link" to Monument, is not an option it seems. A few brave souls investigated the spiral staircase down towards the Northern line platforms and found water lapping halfway up the first set of escalators. Nobody really wants to imagine how it got there, or how fast it might be rising. So our final catch-up group hurried instead along the curving platform (taking care to mind the gap and not fall back onto the tracks) and headed for the atrium at the foot of the main escalator. There's still a bit of a queue waiting to walk up the non-moving staircase to the surface, but at least everything here appears to be intact. Our return to the outside world is, we hope, only a few minutes away.
Posted at 14:38 from 51°30'47"N 0°5'20"W via my Z470xi mobile

London EC2: We've been trapped down here on this train for more than five hours now, and our situation is getting increasingly desperate. It's not natural to cram several hundred people into a confined space like this, and characters are beginning to crack. Several people have been sobbing openly, and panic attacks are becoming increasingly common. There's no food, no water and no sign of any external interest in our predicament. We've kept ourselves busy by swapping newspapers, and we've eased our aching feet by taking it in turns to sit down on the seats. A few flirty relationships seem to have sprung up in this confined atmosphere. A dewy glance here, a brushed hand there, even a swapped mobile number or two... they think the rest of us haven't noticed, but we have. One desperate smoker recently lit up a sneaky cigarette, which only served to aggravate the rank atmosphere in the carriage even more. At least it's not the height of summer, because the heat in these tunnels would surely be unbearable by now.

But at last a glint of hope is in the air. There's an independent move from another group of passengers to evacuate the train from the rear. Rumours to this effect have been travelling up and down the train by word of mouth, reverberating through the connecting doors from each carriage to the next. It's about time. Unfortunately I'm in the front carriage, so it looks like there'll be a lot of queueing and waiting and shuffling through the train before it's finally my turn to disembark. And then something I hoped I'd never have to do - a nightmarish walk along a pitch black tube tunnel. The next stop is Bank station. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.
Posted at 13:41 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile

London EC2: And then Martin came back. He'd survived his trek along the tunnel to St Paul's station (and back) and now he had a tale to tell. We were expecting him to say that he'd met Arnold Schwarzenegger on the platform, or maybe even Professor Quatermass in a pit, but no. He said it was much worse than that.

First there had been the torchlit darkness to contend with. The tunnel had twisted first left and then right, which soon blocked out even the faint light streaming from our train behind. It had been hard to pick out the rails beneath his feet, so he'd stumbled and tripped several times. At one point he'd fallen into an inspection pit between the rails and nearly twisted his ankle (we wondered if this was Martin embellishing his story somewhat, but we let him continue unchallenged). And then, as the tunnel finally opened out into the cavernous westbound platform at St Paul's, he told how his progress had been checked by a pile of earth and masonry slumped across the tracks. It had taken him a long time to pick his way through and clamber up onto the platform, and longer still to push his way through the debris towards the "Way Out" sign. But there was no way out. The entire escalator chamber was full of rubble, presumably tumbled down from an explosion above. Nobody would be reaching the surface via this route, nor sending down a rescue party in the opposite direction.

Martin showed us a few of the photos he'd snapped on his mobile. He even Bluetoothed a few round the carriage, just to show off. You couldn't see much in most of them, just a few jagged grey shapes. But we were glad to receive these images from the "outside world", however grim the reality they depicted. Martin said the far end of the platform, away from the exit, was a lot clearer from obstruction. But there were no alternative exits, not even a way through to the parallel eastbound platform, just another dark and forbidding tunnel mouth. And he didn't fancy the long walk on towards Chancery Lane, not with his torchlight fading fast, so he made his way slowly back to the train. Our carriage is at the "dead end" end of the train, so it seems. Let's hope nobody at the opposite end of the train has a similar story to tell.
Posted at 12:54 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile

London EC2: Martin's been gone for half an hour now. He finally lost patience with the whole situation, strode up to the locked door at the front of the train and yanked on the ringpull labelled "Emergency access. Penalty for improper use". As expected, the driver's cab proved to be as empty as we'd feared. But the side door was hanging open, providing access to the tunnel, and so Martin took his chance. He checked that the power was off by throwing some copper coins down onto the tracks. Then, when they didn't spark, he jumped down onto the tunnel floor himself. It wasn't the most scientific of experiments, but Martin seemed satisfied enough. We cheered him off down the tunnel towards St Paul's, all secretly glad that he was going instead of us. He said he'd be OK. He used to be in the Territorial Army at weekends, apparently. His mobile doubles up as a torch, he assured us, so he'd be able to see where he was going. And he promised he'd break into the chocolate machine on the platform, because we're all starting to get hungry now and we've only got two packets of crisps and a cold panini left between us. It's a lot quieter in the carriage with Martin gone, but we're missing him already.
Posted at 12:35 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile

London EC2: There's an "Emergencies" notice above the rear door of the train carriage which is meant to provide helpful advice and reassurance to members of the travelling public in situations such as this. We've been trapped down here for so long now that I've finally got around to reading it.
Alarms are provided at all doorways and can be operated by passengers in the event of an emergency. Operation of the alarm will enable you to talk directly to the train driver and will automatically stop the train if it is in a station.
We've tried the alarm already, of course. Ages ago, and at regular intervals ever since. But we get no response from the driver, and he's not announced anything over the loudspeakers recently either. Martin says our driver must have walked up to the next station when whatever happened happened. Martin's the accountant stood across the gangway from me, and he's busy expounding his theories on "what happened" to anyone who'll listen (which unfortunately is everyone in the carriage). It's aliens, he says. Definitely aliens, or perhaps Iraq, or maybe meteorites like that DVD he watched with his girlfriend over the weekend. He says Sylvester Stallone will soon be knocking on the window of the carriage, and guiding us all safely to daylight over a heap of burning rubble through a flooded water main. We wish Martin would shut up.
If the train is in a tunnel it will continue to the next station before stopping.
But our train never made it to the next station before stopping. St Paul's must still be several hundred yards ahead - so close and yet tantalisingly out of reach. If the train had been fifteen seconds further ahead in its journey then we'd all have disembarked normally, several hours ago. Instead we're sitting out eternity in a metal box with no obvious means of escape.
In the event of power loss the emergency lights will come on automatically.
The emergency lights are all that's keeping us sane down here. Our subterranean prison would be unbearable in pitch black darkness, but with illumination we can carry on some semblance of normal commuting. A lot of people have turned to the Metro's Sudoku for sustenance, and some have surprised themselves by completing it for the very first time. One important-looking lady has kept herself occupied by composing a stern letter of complaint on her laptop. Men in suits have been pointedly staring at their watches every few minutes or so, as if to say "I have somewhere so important to be, and I'm oh so very late." Bad luck, gents. Some people have attempted to hide behind a screen of headphoned music, at least until their iPod batteries run out. And others have finally broken the habit of a lifetime and are talking to their fellow commuters. "Hi I'm Sheila from Wanstead, and I have three kids and a poodle who I love to bits." "And I'm Sandra from Chelmsford, and my boyfriend works as a fireman, and I wish he was here now." Or maybe not.
To provide emergency ventilation, operate the slide mechanism above the seats or lower the window in the end door.
We're in great need of emergency ventilation right now. There's been an all-pervasive smell of urine inside the carriage since one of the younger passengers couldn't hold himself in any longer, and promptly dribbled embarrassedly down his trousers. Since then we've ganged together and rounded up all the empty coffee cups and Red Bull cans in the carriage, ready for if (or when) another bladder emergency arises.
Do not attempt to leave the train outside a station unless instructed to do so by a member of London Underground staff.
And here's the real problem. There are no London Underground staff to instruct us. The driver's long vanished, and there never was a guard on the train in the first place. The withdrawal of guards may have saved London Underground a lot of money over the years, but on this occasion it's left us lost and leaderless fifty feet down. Nobody's yet plucked up the courage to "attempt to leave the train", just in case the rails are still connected to a live supply of electricity. They probably aren't, but without any official guidance that's not a risk anybody's been willing to take. Except for Martin. He's all for taking a look up the tunnel, because it's better than standing around waiting to be rescued. And who are we to argue, because no rescue is apparent. We don't even know that anybody knows we're here.
Posted at 11:49 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile

London EC2: That last bang was much louder than any that had preceded it. It echoed along the tunnel from somewhere far ahead of us, reverberating on for several seconds. The emergency lights flickered briefly, and the train rocked slightly from side to side. One man at the far end of the carriage let out a hysterical scream, bracing himself for a wave of destruction that never materialised. All we got instead was a faint whiff of smoke, bonfire-strength, and a sudden uneasy silence.
Posted at 09:04 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile

London EC2: Something is definitely wrong. Our Central line train hasn't moved for almost half an hour, and we're not happy. It's bad enough travelling face-to-armpit during a normal rush hour, but being stuck underground in cattletruck conditions with no sign of escape is far far worse. There must be well over 500 of us crammed in down here, and only a lucky handful with somewhere to sit. Our lives are on hold, deep beneath the streets of the City.

Something is definitely wrong. The occasional remote thud confirms this, causing the train's windows to rattle gently. We're all imagining the worst. The driver's not been very helpful so far either. First he came over the loudspeakers to say that the train was being held here and would be moving ahead as soon as possible. Ten minutes later he said he'd asked the control room what all the loud bangs were, and they'd promised to get back to him. Then he told us that his radio had gone dead, so we'd have to sit it out until power was restored. And he's just come on to say he's going to nip out of his cab and wander ahead up the tracks to St Paul's station to see what's going on. I hope he finds some answers.
Posted at 08:57 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile

London EC2: What the hell happened there?!?!

Our train left Bank station as normal, not quite so jam-packed as before after several financiers and City traders disembarked. I nearly managed to open my newspaper, but not quite because there was still 15 stone of overcoat in the way. We rumbled on. And then, after half a minute or so, there was a really loud noise somewhere. Nowhere close, nowhere on the train, but somewhere. It must have been loud because we could all hear it above the usual screeching of the train. The lady to my right removed her headphones to experience more clearly what was going on. Two schoolkids stopped chattering and grabbed hold of the nearest handrail. Nervously we broke the golden rule of commuting and started making eye contact with one another. Only briefly, but long enough to spread a look of fear across the carriage. Did you hear that? Yes, me too. What the hell was it? It's amazing how swiftly the veneer of commuting normality can be wiped away.

The carriage vibrated, maybe more than normal, maybe not. We could feel the brakes being applied as the train decelerated. I bounced against the doors behind me, but there was never any danger of anything or anyone toppling over. Slower now, and reassuringly slower again. Everything was going to be fine, really it was. A disembodied female voice cut the air - The next station is... St Paul's - and we hung on her every word. Then suddenly there was another really loud bang, again impossibly far distant. And then the lights went out. I have a feeling we're going to be stuck here for a while.
Posted at 08:36 from 51°30'51"N 0°5'41"W via my Z470xi mobile

Bethnal Green, London: The Central line is rammed. I'm standing pinned against the doors of the first carriage, my back to the tunnel walls, hurtling beneath the streets of the East End. A man I've never met before is staring into my ear. His gym bag is pressed into my right side, and the tinny rhythms from his headphones are just audible above the roar of the train. The woman a few inches in front of me is trying to read the City pages of her newspaper, and failing. Her scarf is of-the-moment, but the pink enamel ribbon pinned to her lapel is months out of date. Two builders hog the space to my left, our mutual floorspace minimised by the presence of a dirty brown holdall. Beyond them stand a dozen condensed souls, and beyond them several dozen more. We've assembled here as mutual strangers, on our way to a random selection of offices, schools and workplaces. Our hands hang from the overhead bar, swaying, swinging. We stare conspicuously into nothing. The Monday morning commute is underway.
Posted at 08:23 from 51°31'37"N 0°3'42"W via my Z470xi mobile

Mile End, London: Test post, from a westbound tube platform several metres below ground. It'll never work, surely?
Posted at 08:17 from 51°31'32"N 0°1'56"W via my Z470xi mobile

 Sunday, January 28, 2007

North Greenwich, London: A very happy Sunday morning to you. I'm blogging live from the site of Britain's first Super Casino, on a reclaimed gasworks north of Greenwich. Otherwise known as the Dome, soon to be known as the O2. Nobody was surprised last week when Tessa Jowell announced the government's preferred location for the Super Casino, were they? Just as Shilpa Shetty is a dead cert to be voted in as tonight's Celebrity Big Brother winner, so Greenwich was always going to win the nation's top gambling prize. Blackpool didn't stand a chance, Glasgow's bid was hope-less and Cardiff was on a hiding to nothing. The Dome's been pencilled in for the Super Casino for years, surely, but nobody in power has been willing or able to admit it. At last the long-plotted truth is out into the open. The citizens of Greenwich are not yelping with delight.

The Sunday silence here in Drawdock Road is tangible. There's nobody here celebrating - in fact there's nobody here at all. The construction site behind the blue wall is closed today, so it's just me and the seagulls. Work to transform the interior into an "entertainment hub" will continue tomorrow. And, with the casino plans finally announced, work can finally begin on filling the hollow western quarter of the Dome. This vast chunk of undeveloped indoor space had been "set aside" for the Super Casino, "just in case" it came to Greenwich. But there was never any danger of it staying empty for long, was there? The roulette wheels, crap tables and slots are on their way, ready to fleece the good and gullible punters of the UK. You voted for it, it's your own fault.

By the riverside, where the Greenwich Meridian cuts the edge of the Dome's outer footprint, is a fenced-off triangular piazza. Millennial tourists came here to drink tea and take photos astride the zero degree line. Now the pavilions lie locked and forgotten as buddleia slowly reclaims the view. But not for long. The success of the Super Casino bid means that a whopping great hotel is now destined for this barren site, with shoebox windows overlooking the towers of Canary Wharf across the river. Future guests will be able to waste a fortune on an overnight stay, before wasting an even greater fortune at the card tables nextdoor. If you're ever planning on joining them, good luck to you. I think I'll give it a miss myself. The Dome has consumed enough of my money already.
Posted at 10:52 from 51°30'06"N 0°0'00"W via my Z470xi mobile

Updated 2pm: Excellent! It looks like live-blogging using my new "Gizmobile" is a success. OK, so the photo's a bit small, but the words have published perfectly. I'll try some more "on location" reporting tomorrow...

 Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ringing the changes

I've had my mobile phone for too long. I know this because people now laugh at it. They didn't laugh back in 2004. They thought my Sony Ericsson's new colour screen and WAP connection were cutting edge. But not in 2007. Friends with 3G-enabled interfaces smirk knowingly when they see my prehistoric remnant. Assistants in the Orange shop sneer openly and ask me when, rather than if, I plan to upgrade. Even my mum has a more up-to-date mobile than I do.

So this morning I've been out to acquire a mobile device worthy of the next generation. I found a shop in the City that was actually open on a Saturday morning, and earned the undivided attention of the bored assistants. They jockeyed to show me all the latest models with all the latest features - multi-megapixels, Walkman-enabled, quad-band and WiFi. "But can they still make phone calls," I asked, "or do they only screen multimedia video content? And do any of them have a normal ringtone that sounds like a telephone?" They were very patient with me.

After about half of hour of them being over-enthusiatic and me being unimpressed, they wheeled out one last model. It was a Z470xi, or some other brand nickname, which they said they only had in on special trial. It's slightly larger than your average phone, but that's because it's got a proper keyboard hidden beneath a slidy screen. It's geo-aware (so it knows where I am) and it works on emergency band frequencies (so it ought to function in places where most mobiles fade away). Best of all it's got a ringtone that sounds like a telephone, which I think is why they let me have it for a ridiculously reasonable price. I signed up and scarpered swiftly. I could tell they were glad to get rid of me.

So now I'm the proud owner of what I've nicknamed the "Gizmobile". It's sleek, it's silver and, best of all, you haven't got one. I am again technologically superior to the rest of you, and aren't I pleased? Of course by this time next year you'll all have something similar, if not even better, and by 2010 you'll all be staring at my ancient model with blatant disapproval once again. In the meantime, please let me enjoy my brief moment of technological superiority. Just as soon as it's fully charged and I've worked out how to turn it on...

 Friday, January 26, 2007

Two policewomen, with guns, stand outside the entrance to my local tube station. After 18 police-free months their sudden appearance comes as an unexpected jolt. The pair chat quietly to one another, their cloudy breath floating off into the early morning chill. They're not looking at anything, or anyone, in particular. They're just observing the steady drip of bleary-eyed commuters streaming past, ensuring that their armed presence is noticed. Presumably they're trying to make us all feel safer. Alas, they're having completely the opposite effect.

Animal word search: This word search may be small but it contains the names of 30 different animals (each with a name that is three letters long). How many can you find? Look horizontally, vertically and diagonally.
(Answers in the comments box and, please, no more than two animals each)


 Thursday, January 25, 2007

Critical thinking

I found an email from MI5 in my inbox when I woke up this morning. Maybe you did too, if you've signed up to their not-terribly-secure alert service. According to the email from the National Security Advice Centre (NSAC), the latest Threat Assessment (TA) for our Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) has elevated to the highest possible level. Yesterday it was Severe, but this morning it's Critical. An attack is no longer "highly likely", it's "expected imminently". This, presumably, is a bad thing.

Of course nobody's willing to tell us what this threat actually is. We could be in peril from dirty bombs, or poisoned reservoirs, or mutant nanogenes, or approaching asteroids, or total planet core meltdown. Or maybe some amateur terrorist organisation has found a way to make in-flight explosives by mixing suntan lotion with bottles of Diet Coke. They're not saying. The nature of the threat is not important, so it seems, just so long as we know that such a threat now exists. It's probably just the Home Secretary getting twitchy, but vigilance must now be our watchword - anywhere, everywhere, just in case.

But, as it turns out, there was no need for MI5 to send an email at all. As soon as they updated the threat level on their website, the nation's media leapt on the news with a vengeance and started dissecting its every nuance in full public view. I'd heard the news on the radio, read about it on the web and seen it debated on Breakfast TV long before I opened my insignificant MI5 notification email. And shortly, no doubt, I'll be reading about it in the morning paper and discussing it in depth with colleagues at work. If civilisation is indeed about to end, I expect MI5's "Armageddon underway" email will be disseminated three hours after we've all lost the power to read it.

 Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Silver discs (January 1982)
A monthly look back at the top singles of 25 years ago

My ten favourite records from January 1982 (at the time)
Kraftwerk - The Model / Computer Love: German electronic meistergroup accidentally record stonking commercial smash which becomes half of their first number one record. Computer Love later forms the basis of Coldplay's Talk. [video]
The Stranglers - Golden Brown: Punk meets harpsichords, and tricks the listening public into buying a sweet gorgeous single about heroin. [video]
Human League - Being Boiled: Record company exploits band's recent success by re-releasing raw brooding song about silkworms. [live 1978]
Dollar - Mirror Mirror: Trevor Horn provides the spark which makes Therese and David's cheese sparkle. [video]
Mobiles - Drowning in Berlin: Weird one-off hit by awkward Eastbourne futurists, and easily my very very favourite record of the month. [ToTP]
Brown Sauce - I Want To Be A Winner: Noel, Keith and Maggie follow the Tiswas crew into the charts with this unnecessarily catchy Swap Shop ditty penned by BA Robertson. Criminally rhymed Kevin Keegan with Ronald Reagan. [video] [lyrics]
Olivia Newton John - Landslide: I know you're supposed to prefer her other stuff, but I love this dead ordinary song for its interjecting synth strings. ['live' performance]
Mari Wilson and the Wilsations - Beat The Beat: Glamourpuss Mari revives the sensational 60s with her improbably high beehive and this adorably catchy happy clappy song (which criminally stalls at #59 in the charts).
Emma Sharp and the Features - I'm A Millionnaire: Wholly forgotten Brighton outfit, and their chirpy Groganesque singer, extol the virtues of merry unemploymentdom.
Nick Nicely - Hilly Fields 1892: Perfect psychedelic masterpiece inspired by an afternoon spent in a small park in Brockley, South London. Composer Nick revisited Hilly Fields for an acoustic set last summer. (18th of July, marked it with a circle of red)

10 other hits from 25 years ago: Land of Make Believe (Bucks Fizz), It Must Be Love (Madness), Get Down On It (Kool and the Gang), I'll Find My Way Home (Jon & Vangelis), Waiting For A Girl Like You (Foreigner), Yellow Pearl (Phil Lynott), Oh Julie (Shakin Stevens), Arthur's Theme (Christopher Cross), Here Is The News (ELO), European Son (Japan) ...which hit's your favourite? ...which one would you pick?

 Tuesday, January 23, 2007

2012 days to 2012

2012 days to go
A PR-gift of a milestone passes. The clock outside Stratford station records the moment correctly, second time around. Local businesses make plans to flee the area. Quartermile Road will soon become the first local road to be permanently closed off. Bulging white sacks of Japanese knotweed (labelled "Contaminated Materail") are piled up in a fenced-off compound beside the City Mill River. Some minor preparations are apparent but there's not much work in progress, not yet.

this way to the new Dome?
Beneath the Greenway on Marshgate Lane, East London's cynical artists have been out expressing themselves again. The previous graffiti inviting the International Olympic Committee to eff off has been painted over, replaced by a fresh bank of black and white arrows. They point northward under the sewer pipes, towards the site of the 2012 stadium. This way, they say, to the government's latest misconceived overpriced white elephant. Another ministerial folly with no sustainable future is on its way. In only 2012 days we'll know if they were correct.

 Monday, January 22, 2007

7am update: I think my Blogger upgrade went OK. It took absolutely ages to complete, but at least everything seems to look much the same as before.

Do let me know if you notice anything strange...

BloggerBeta Bloggers

Nearly six months ago, Blogger announced a new improved 'beta' upgrade. They were very excited about it. People who didn't understand HTML could tweak and customise their templates. Shy people could make their blog private. People could change the format of their RSS feeds, a bit. And people could categorise posts by adding tags at the bottom of each one. All throroughly exciting, apparently. But I wasn't desperately interested, and they weren't going to force me to switch over, so I didn't.

Last month they brought the new system out of beta. Please, they said, please switch over. It'll be great, and we promise not to lose your blog while we're migrating it over, honest. But I heard nothing positive from those who'd made the switch - just bugs and glitches, awkward interfaces and unnecessary tweaks. And all unnecessarily integrated into blogs which had worked perfectly well in the first place. So I left mine alone.

But I'm not sure how much longer I can hold out. It's been a month now, and there can't be many of us left who've not switched. Once Blogger have the "old guard" down to manageable numbers, they're going to force us all to upgrade no matter what. I don't want to be wrenched from safety at a time of their choosing, and then have to wait for hours while they reformat thousands of my posts. I want to stay in control of my own blogging destiny.

So I'm taking the plunge and pressing the Blogger upgrade button. Scary stuff. I may be some time. Keep your fingers crossed for me and my archives. I hope there won't be any strange side effects...

 Sunday, January 21, 2007

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 16: The Museum of Childhood

Location: Cambridge Heath Road, E2 9PA [map]
Open: 10am - 5:45pm
Admission: free
5-word summary: the toys of grown-up kids
Website: www.vam.ac.uk/moc
Time to set aside: an hour or two

The Museum of Childhood (entrance)Bethnal Green's not somewhere you'd usually think to take children, especially not to a museum. But the V&A owns a showcase here devoted entirely to all things youthful, recently reopened after a £8m refit, so you might well think again. The building housing the Museum of Childhood started out 150 years ago as a temporary exhibition space in South Kensington. The iron-framed structure was no longer required when the V&A's current permanent home was built, so the curators dismantled it and shipped it across the capital to provide a new home for knowledge and culture amongst the slums of the East End. And the museum's still here, its mission since 1974 to concentrate on "objects made for and made by children". Toys R Them.

From the street outside the red-brick shell of the museum looks somewhat reminiscent of a large Victorian railway terminus, albeit with a modern trendy foyer bolted onto the front. Inside it's more a strange mix of meat market and cathedral, with two floors of open-sided galleries running along each side of a cavernous central aisle. At your feet is an extensive marble-tiled floor, painstakingly laid by women prisoners from Woking, upon which today's curators have dropped an information point, shop and café. Ignore those, and head up the steps to the galleries.

The Museum of Childhood (interior)You don't need to have a pair of kids in tow to enjoy the museum. In fact, you may find they get in the way. As an adult, you'll be immediately drawn to the old toys and games displayed in a series of glass cases. They've been arranged thematically rather than by age, so you'll find an 18th century doll in the same cabinet as Play School's Jemima, and a Victorian zoetrope alongside a Chad Valley slide projector. I wandered the floors on a nostalgic journey, my eye drawn by long-forgotten treasures once stacked inside my own toy cupboard. The hand-me-down Meccano of my childhood is now a museum exhibit, as is that tub of Play-doh, that Spirograph box and that Scalextric set. Even items I never realised other kids owned - such as Lott's Bricks, Playplax and Blast Off - are all catalogued here with unexpected importance.

The newly-revamped museum has tried hard to keep its younger visitors amused. They've provided a ball pond by the board games, a dressing up area by the dolls houses, and something to clamber on near the teddy bears. There's even a big Robbie The Robot to meet and greet, and an interactive magnetic game based on a best-selling 60s Beatles toy. But all the best toys are in the glass cases, out of reach. Look, Matchbox cars! Look, Weebles! Look, a Binatone TV Master Mark 6! No child will have the staying power to view the entire collection, not when they have far more exciting games they could be playing at home. So if you decide to visit, I'd recommend packing your kids off to the child minder for a couple of hours. Then meet up with a few mates of a similar age, head over to Bethnal Green and enjoy reliving your mutual childhoods. Yes, those really are Smurfs, and did you have that blue scooter too? Great stuff.
by tube: Bethnal Green

 Saturday, January 20, 2007

Don't shop for it

The new Argos catalogue is out today. I know because I picked up a copy yesterday from a shrinkwrapped pallet outside a central London store, and a mighty fat monster it is too. When did it get this huge? The Argos catalogue used to be a lot thinner, well under 500 pages, but it's since evolved into a mammoth retail encyclopaedia. The latest citrus-coloured volume has a massive 1688 pages (50% thicker than 5 years ago) and weighs in at just over four pounds. There's no need to buy any of the sets of dumbbells on page 218, just grab yourself a couple of catalogues and pump iron on the walk home.
A few catalogue highlights:
» Fat pig poly-resin weather-resistant garden ornament (p60, 720/2313, £12.99)
» Alba (mmm, top quality brand) DVD player (p364, 533/5382, £17.79)
» Bratz fluffy pixies affair alarm clock (p872, 027/0517, £9.99)
» Cubic zirconia growling bulldog pendant (p1322, 219/4749, £34.99)
» Adult-size Darth Vader costume [with jumpsuit, cape and injection moulded mask] (p1448, 024/0499, £29.79)
» Adult-size Wonder Woman costume [with dress, cape, boot tops, tiara and belt] (p1448, 024/2095, £39.99)
Items that used to merit no more than a page now sprawl across several spreads. There are 10 pages of tents, 48 pages of telephones and 90 pages of classy Elizabeth Duke jewellery. And, more to the point, there are twenty pages of LCD flatscreen TVs and 40 pages of sofas. You'd never be able to cart those home in a lime green carrier bag. But that doesn't matter, because the Argos emphasis is no longer on buying in store. They recognise that we don't want to queue up twice in a rundown high street shop when we can click on their website in the comfort of our own home instead. It'll cost at least £4.95 extra, and we'll have to wait 48 hours rather than ten minutes, but apparently that's what we want. The Littlewoods catalogue of the 1970s is reborn (only without the well-thumbed underwear pages).

So heaven help you if you venture into an old-school Argos showroom this morning. You'll have to battle past hordes of shoppers intent on picking up the brand new catalogue (and then probably dropping it). You'll have to hunt through a spiral-bound folder for the item number you require, then find a functioning biro to write it down. If you're lucky you'll get to queue once at the till and then again while the work experience lackeys shove your desired purchase down a hidden conveyor belt. But more likely you'll hear the plaintive cry "sorry dear, that's out of stock".

It seems that Argos's ever-thicker catalogue has an unfortunate downside. There may be more products available, but there's still only the same finite amount of space in the storeroom. Those 271/3522s and 367/1883s aren't piled high any more, so they disappear off the shelves far quicker than they ever used to [number in stock: 0]. You walk in with high hopes, but all you walk out with is a two kilogram paper brick. That was my Friday experience, anyway. Maybe next time I'll try a real shop.

 Friday, January 19, 2007

Email etiquette

When you receive a personal email from somebody you've never met, out of the blue, should you send a reply? Politeness suggests yes. But what about replying to their reply to your reply? How long should an email conversation continue? When is it socially acceptable to abandon a shuttling email and not pen a response? Will the sender be offended if you hit 'delete' rather than 'reply' and shut the conversation down dead? These are tricky questions of modern online etiquette.

1) A personal email arrives out of the blue (↓)
When a fresh email lands in your inbox, then you really ought to reply (assuming, of course, that it's from a real person and not an evil spamlord). It's only polite. Otherwise the sender may think that their email never arrived, or that you never read it, or even that you're deliberately blanking them. Even if you're not. People get paranoid like that sometimes. So it's right to reply.

2) Somebody replies to a first email that you sent (↑↓)
You started this conversation and they've replied. Hurrah, they must have been interested in what you had to say. But should you chance your luck a second time? If you write back again, will this start up a wonderful online friendship based on common interests? Or will they just think you're a boring stalker? There are usually clues in their reply. If it's less than ten words long, stop now. If it's longer, and interesting, then a response is almost certainly worthwhile. But don't hit 'reply' if the email's too long. Five screens of rambling anecdotes suggests that the writer is either bored or obsessive, and you don't want to get trapped into a game of email ping-pong with them because they'll never go away. Delete the offending communication now before it's too late.

3) Somebody replies to your reply to their initial email (↓↑↓)
This is going well. Having kicked off the conversation in the first place, now they've written again in an attempt to maintain the conversation. But is that what you want? It might be, in which case write back straight away. Alternatively, they may have misunderstood your first reply as 'interest' rather than 'politeness'. Don't feel guilty. Halt the conversation here. You have better things to spend your time on.

4) 5) The email exchange continues (↑↓↑↓) (↓↑↓↑↓)
This is probably as far as most email conversations go. You've both said your piece, you've explored any repercussions, and that's probably all that needs to be said. It's OK to stop here.

6) 7) 8) 9) etc etc etc (↑↓↑↓↑↓) (↓↑↓↑↓↑↓) (↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓) (↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓)
Sometimes the conversation continues. Back and forth, email after email, on and on. But at some point the conversation on this particular topic will come to a natural end. Either you'll fail to reply, or they will. No need to feel hurt. And maybe in a day or two, or a week or so, you can send them another email and start up another chat. Everyone's happy.

29) A lengthy dialogue has developed (↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑↓↑)
Most email conversations have stumbled well before this point, but some never stop. By this stage it's got much more difficult not to send a reply. If you've invested this much effort in an exchange, you don't want to be the one who's seen to abandon ship. You might be replying out of a sense of duty, not because there's anything more to say. Let's hope not.

It's all so very complicated, isn't it? And if you disagree, I beg you not to send me an email saying so.

 Thursday, January 18, 2007

Jumping red lights

They're getting worse, aren't they? No matter that the traffic signal is at red. No matter that they ought to stop and wait. These road users display a flagrant disregard for the Highway Code. They watch out for a gap, however tiny, then dash through it at great speed. They know they shouldn't be doing it, and yet they go ahead and flout the law anyway. Every such incident is a traffic accident waiting to happen. Our streets and road junctions are becoming increasingly dangerous as a result of their perilous impatience. I refer, of course, to bloody pedestrians.

We're getting worse, aren't we? I know that most of the blame for thoughtless behaviour in London's traffic has been aimed at cyclists, but pedestrians are fast becoming just as bad. We used to be willing to wait for passing traffic to stop, but not any more. We don't see why we should stand on the pavement until the red man changes to green, oh no. We have busy lives, and we're not wasting 30 extra seconds when we could be dashing headlong in front of a fast approaching bus. We no longer 'Stop Look Listen', we just stride up to the kerbside and keep going. Deep down we know we have no right to be crossing the street while road traffic has priority, but we still charge out between the speeding vehicles regardless.

London's pedestrians seem to have developed a lemming-like deathwish, and no road junction is safe. It must be particularly disturbing to watch from the driving seat of a car, bus or taxi. There you are trying to negotiate your vehicle through the capital's nightmare traffic, thankful that the traffic light ahead of you is green for once. But then you have to slow down because some two-legged chancer has spotted a half-second gap in the traffic and is intent on exploiting it at your expense. Don't hit them, whatever you do, because their cross-road trajectory is reliant on you taking evasive measures. At the next junction it may be even worse, with a whole stream of pedestrians taking the law into their own hands and crossing prematurely en masse. You'll have to stop, even though the traffic lights say otherwise. What chance does a car driver have against a steady stream of soft litigious flesh?

So I'd like to apologise to the drivers of London for the increasingly poor behaviour of its pedestrians. We no longer want to hang around at pelican crossings for any longer than we absolutely have to. We have places to be, and you're just getting in our way. We believe the streets are ours by right to wander across at will, even though they're not. We know that we can dash across the traffic whenever we choose because you dare not run us down. We don't even pay road tax, for heavens sake, but we treat your tarmac as an extension of our pavement. You may call it jaywalking, but we call it freedom. Sorry, it's inexcusable, but we just don't seem to be able to stop.
(...but I'm still not apologising to the cyclists out there, because you bastards are even worse...)

 Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ticking down to Doomsday: See, I told you the planet was doomed. On the very day I discovered that my domestic actions couldn't meet UK emissions targets, so the world-infamous Doomsday Clock has clicked ominously closer to midnight. This symbolic timepiece belongs to the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and they occasionally shift its minute hand according to the perceived threat of global annihilation. The clock started out at "7 minutes to midnight" in 1947 and has oscillated back and forth ever since, reaching a scary high of 11:58 at the height of the Cold War in the 50s and a low of 11:43 in the relative international calm of the early 90s. Today, five years after the last change, the clock juddered forward from "7 minutes to midnight" to "5 minutes to midnight". This time shift is partly a response to increased nuclear capability in the developing world but also (for the very first time) recognition of the increasing seriousness of impending climate catastrophe. We're all going to die soon, apparently, either blown to pieces or slowly drowned. I just wanted to apologise if this sudden apocalyptic jolt is in any way connected to my lack of loft insulation.
A Doomsday Clock timeline (1947-2007)

Why I can't save the planet

The UK has set a target to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2010. If we can each cut our own emissions by 20%, then collectively we'll meet this target and save the planet. That's the idea behind an online challenge [here] devised by the Energy Saving Trust (an upstanding government-funded body). So I had a go, only to discover that apparently I can't save the planet after all. And here's why.

The EST website proposes 10 things that we should all do to save energy, which I've listed below. Each of these has a percentage saving attached. You select the 10 actions you can commit to, and they total up your percentage saving to see if you've hit 20% or not. Here are the ten pledges, and I've duly ticked all those I could sign up to myself. All two of them...

Only boil as much water as I need [0.2%]
(But I do that already, so I can't save any more energy on kettle-boiling)
Turn down my thermostat by 1°C [4.0%]
(But I don't have a thermostat, and I barely have my heating on anyway)
Turn appliances off standby [1.1%]
(I turn off most of them, but not all. Could do better)
Install cavity wall insulation [14.1%]
(But I don't have cavity walls, I have Victorian brick)
Top up my loft insulation to 270mm [6.3%]
(But I don't have a loft, there's another flat above mine)
Replace 3 light bulbs with energy saving light bulbs [0.3%]
(But most of my bulbs are energy saving already, so I don't have three more to change)
Install a condensing boiler [10.7%]
(But my flat is rented, so installing a boiler is my landlord's responsibility not mine)
Buy Energy Saving recommended appliances [1.4%]
(But I don't want a dishwasher, and it's my landlord's fridge, and I don't need a new TV)
Wash my laundry at 30°C [0.2%]
(OK, I can do that most of the time, although my 'cotton' wash doesn't go down that low)
Leave my car at home for short journeys [1.5%]
(But I don't own a car, so how can I leave it at home?)

My total pledgeable saving is a miserable 1.3%, which falls shamelessly short of the 20% target. But I couldn't have hit 20% even if I'd tried. I don't have cavity walls or a loft, and without those two big percentages I'm doomed to fall short. And I'm saving lots of the things they'd like me to save already, so I can't pledge to change my behaviour to save more. The list seems to be aimed at wasteful families living in modern semis with a car parked out front, and these households can hit 20% easily. The rest of us, no matter how green our lifestyle, are doomed to fail.

So, well done to the Energy Saving Trust for concocting an over-simplistic exercise which completely misunderstands how percentage savings work. Their over-accurate figures can't possibly be correct for all of us, can they? And if we've been good and cut most of our carbon emissions already, then we can't cut them again, can we? Sigh. Why not see how you get on, either on the EST website [Commit now! Commit now!] or by ticking the appropriate boxes above to discover your total. Will your household be able to save the planet? Somehow I doubt it.

Sorry if you've overdosed on London-stuff here lately. I've just spouted six consecutive days of capital-based bloggage, and it's time for a break. So today's London article has been hidden offline instead, in the pages of Time Out magazine. Which means that you don't have to read about my walk around the perimeter of the O2 Millennium Dome unless you really want to. Thank you for your patience.

 Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Random borough (12): Lambeth (part 3)

www.flickr.com: a Lambeth walk
(Now with all 30 photos, including the real Lambeth Walk)

Somewhere retail: 32 Ambleside Avenue, Streatham
You wouldn't guess from the down-at-heel High Road today, but Streatham used to have real class. The UK's first Waitrose supermarket was opened here in 1955, along what is still reputedly the longest shopping street in Britain. So maybe it's no surprise that something entirely exclusive was once on sale in a detached house around the corner, for luncheon vouchers.

This is 32 Ambleside Avenue, formerly the home of Madam Cynthia Payne [photo]. To this detached villa she invited bank managers, high court judges and other gentlemen of impeccable breeding to indulge themselves at one of her notorious sex parties. This wasn't playtime at the Playboy mansion, it was a pinstripe tea party with prostitutes and plumped up cushions. Middle-aged men had their fantasies indulged, so long as they were nothing too heavy. All of this Home Counties hedonism took a knockback in 1978, however, when police broke into the house during one of Madam Cyn's sexual shindigs. They must have enjoyed themselves because they were back again in 1986, although this time they were unsuccessful at bringing a conviction.

Number 32 is just an ordinary home today. It's large and rambling, with a well-kept front garden and a creamy-white porch. It's the sort of house which might easily have been converted into a doctor's surgery (ooh, nurses) or a dental clinic (mmm, fillings). You can get some idea of the interior and back garden from the website of the bed and breakfast nextdoor (although obviously nothing dodgy goes on there either). The road outside is now a residential offshoot of the town's one-way system, rather busier than it must have been when city gents sidled up to the front door with a guilty grin on their face. And dearest Cynthia has long since moved on (although she is available for after dinner speeches, and I bet she's a scream).
by train: Streatham;   by bus: 133, 249, 315, 319, G1

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