diamond geezer

 Monday, April 30, 2007

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

What was on Top of the Pops this week in April 1982 (hosted by Richard Skinner)

Hot Chocolate - Girl Crazy: Home-grown funky disco from Errol Brown (MBE) and his Brixton-based band, who were still churning out deceptively simple singles after 12 years in the business. Pads out their Greatest Hits album nicely.
"I'm girl crazy, crazy for a girl who's boy crazy for a boy like me"

Bardo - One Step Further: One of the very best UK Eurovision entries. Well I reckon so, anyway, although you may disagree (especially after watching their desperately twee Top of the Pops performance). Sally-Ann and Stephen's song and dance routine clearly owes much to the memory of Bucks Fizz's victory the previous year, but they couldn't quite deliver a barnstorming performance on the Harrogate stage and only came 7th. Nowadays the UK dreams of coming 7th. [ToTP] [Eurovision performance] [lyrics]
"All this time I didn't get anywhere, I could have taken one step further and I would have been there"

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts - I Love Rock and Roll: Raw leather-jacketed rock from Philadelphia-born Joan, whose less than innocent tale of jukebox seduction struck a chord with hormonal record buyers worldwide. Many's the teenage bedroom that melted under her steely sneer. [video] [lyrics]
"I saw him dancing there by the record machine, I knew he must have been about 17"

Yazoo - Only You: And then genius. Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet were an odd couple, he freshly escaped from Depeche Mode, she a larger-than-life disillusioned R&B singer. Together, however, they were exquisite. On this first single the arresting introductory arpeggio hinted at pure sweet synthpop, before a deep female vocal swooped in to create an exquisite blues-y confection. I adored it, and 25 years ago my cassette player was on repeated rewind. Vince and Alison went on to create two masterwork albums, combining precision and sensuality, during an all-too-brief joint career spanning little over a year. This song still stands out as their first and maybe their best. But let's not mention the Flying Pickets, OK? [Cheggers Plays Pop] [lyrics]
"Looking from a window above it's like a story of love. Can you hear me?"

Simple Minds - Promised You A Miracle: Another damned impressive first hit single, this time for Jim Kerr's seminal Scottish post-punk outfit. The band had shifted towards a more electronic sound, perfectly captured on the classic album New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84), but evolved into something rockier and more globally successful as the years passed (81-82-83-84). But I doubt that they'd have have got so far if they'd carried on calling themselves Johnny and the Self-Abusers. [video] [lyrics]
"Belief is a beauty thing, promises promises, as golden days break wondering"

Nicole - A Little Peace: Let's face it, Bardo stood no chance. 17 year-old German schoolgirl Nicole Hohloch swept the board at the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest with this innocent guitar ballad, pleading with the nations of the world to be nice to one another. Good try, dear. For this post-Eurovision Top of the Pops performance she left her harpist behind, perched on a stool and sang in English. Within a fortnight this adolescent heart-tugger had become the UK's 500th Number One single, leapfrogging over such futile competition as Joan Jett, PHD and the England World Cup Squad. And Germany still loves her still. [Eurovision performance] [lyrics]
"Wie eine Blume am Winterbeginn, und so wie ein Feuer im eisigen Wind, wie eine Puppe die keiner mehr mag, fühl ich mich an manchem Tag"

Spandau Ballet - Instinction: Trevor Horn rescued the band's fading career by remixing this song into gleaming chart-worthiness, complete with funky off-kilter melody and pretend brass section. Result - another top ten hit, and the beginning of the band's Gold-en period. [video]
"Stealing cake to eat the moon"

Monsoon - Ever So Lonely: Typical, your first record hits the charts and you go down with appendicitis, just when you're about to appear on Top of the Pops, and they have to put dance group Zoo on instead. It happened to Sheila Chandra, poor girl. [ToTP (3 weeks later)]
"Ever so lo-lo-lo-nely without you... be my friend tonight"

Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder - Ebony and Ivory: Two musical superstars conspired to write this moral equality anthem, whose bland lyrics remain ideally suited to any school assembly. Perhaps it wasn't a good idea to relate skin colour to piano keys, there being rather more white keys than black (and often not "in perfect harmony" at all). Never mind you two, just keep grinning. [video] [lyrics]
"Ebony and Ivory live together in perfect harmony side by side on my piano keyboard. Oh Lord, why don't we?"

Rocky Sharpe and the Replays - Shout Shout Knock Yourself Out: Doo wop, Butlins style. Nuff said. [ToTP]
"You gotta scream! Scream! You know what I mean! Put another dime in the record machine"

20 other hits from 25 years ago: My Camera Never Lies (Bucks Fizz), Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag (Pigbag), Ain't No Pleasing You (Chas and Dave), More Than This (Roxy Music), Fantastic Day (Haircut 100), i Won't Let You DOwn (PHD), Give Me Back My Heart (Dollar), Dear John (Status Quo), Have You Ever Been In Love (Leo Sayer), Don't Love Me Too Hard (Nolans), Blue Eyes (Elton John), House On Fire (Boomtown Rats), I Can Make You Feel Good (Shalamar), This Time We'll Get It Right (England World Cup Squad), Really Saying Something (Bananarama and Funboy Three), Catpeople (David Bowie), Freeze Frame (J Geils Band), Shirley (Shakin Stevens), Private Eyes (Hall and Oates), Stone Cold (Rainbow) ...which hit's your favourite? ...which one would you pick?

 Sunday, April 29, 2007

Eat London

» Copy an idea that worked well in Melbourne three years ago
» Divide up central London into 14 grid squares
» Gather together community groups from across London, and share out one square each
» Get each group to plan special recipes for the iconic buildings therein
» Bake a range of native and ethnic foods representing diverse cultures
» Ooh look, a Gherkin made out of grapes, Tower Bridge built from stacked samosas, and an Elephant and Castle chocolate fudge cake
» Mmm, the Houses of Parliament constructed from cucumber sandwiches and the London Eye as a giant pizza with red pepper capsules
» Pile everything up on 14 big trolleys and wheel into the middle of Trafalgar Square
» Make speeches, bang drums and take photographs
» Wheel sections back to tents around the perimeter of the square and feed to a ravenous public
» Oi, stop pushing in you annoying teenagers, there's enough for everyone
» Hmm, how long have these sandwiches and sausage rolls been left out in 20° heat?
» Hmm, all that spray from the fountains flying everywhere, surely that can't be healthy either?
» And the pigeons! Surely Health and Safety should have something to say about the pigeons
» I wonder how much of this food they'll end up throwing away at four o'clock
» Oh never mind, London's never tasted better

A slice of Elephant and a chunk of Castle (from edible grid square C4)

 Saturday, April 28, 2007

Screen 1: This Is England (18)

It's July 1983, and life on a Grimsby housing estate isn't a lot of fun when you're a lonely nearly-teenage boy wearing his Dad's cast-off flares. But there's always a way out, and in young Shaun's case it involves a Ben Sherman shirt, a number two crop and some sub-standard not-quite-DM boots. There follows what ought to be an idyllic summer holiday of brace-snapping fun, larking around with a bunch of moonstomping skinhead mates. But a malevolent intruder is out to recruit the more impressionable gang members to his blindly nationalist cause, and Shaun's earlier innocence takes a rapid tumble. Ah yes, it can only be another semi-autobiographical Brit movie, this time from acclaimed independent film director Shane Meadows. He must be acclaimed because the South Bank Show are doing him on Sunday, and they're not getting around to Jarvis Cocker until June.

Shane's come up with a raw and powerful film, full of strained friendships and misplaced loyalties, set amidst a bleak post-Falklands urban landscape. It's a very frank and natural film which much of the time feels like it hasn't been scripted at all, and is all the better for it. It's an uncomfortable and emotional film, exploring flawed comradeship, the awkwardness of first love and deep hatred. But it's also a very moral and uplifting film, as one by one the main characters stand up to baseless racial prejudice and walk out of the spotlight.

Star of the piece is undoubtedly the actor who plays young Shaun, utterly convincing on his six-week journey from wide-eyed to world-weary. His tentative romantic scenes with an awkward punkette were a particular delight, though all too brief. I appreciated the attention to period detail, from Shaun's mum's frizzy perm and Su Pollard specs to a shop display of proper fizzy Corona lemonade bottles. But I left the cinema unnerved by the charismatic power of misguided seductive rhetoric, and the thin line that still exists today between passionate pride and blind bigotry. Because this is still England.

This Is England (official site) (film released yesterday)
• more reviews
Shane Meadows website (with all the latest news)
South Bank Show (29/04/07)
exhibition of skinhead photos at BFI Southbank (until 10 May)

 Friday, April 27, 2007

Age-related advice regarding property ownership
(contains several broad sweeping inexcusable generalisations)

Under 10: "Ooh that's a lovely picture of a house, Kyle. I like the four square windows, and the big pointy roof with a chimney on top, and the front garden with the wiggly path up to the door. But it looks nothing like your mum and step-dad's 9th floor flat, does it?"

10-19: "For goodness sake Carly, you treat this place like a hotel. Tidy up your room, and turn that music down, and take the recycling out, and go feed the rabbit, and get your feet off the bloody sofa. And don't think we haven't realised you've been smoking in the bathroom with the window open."

20-29: "Sorry Mum, I'd really like to move out but I can't afford to yet. Let me give you twenty quid to cover this week's meals, because I'm saving up the rest for a deposit on a bedsit. Is it alright if Sharon stays for breakfast?"

30-39: "Oh god oh god, I know it's risky but if we don't get our foot on the housing ladder now we never will. Five times our joint salary is madness, especially if interest rates continue to rise, but we have GOT to have a place of our own. We'd be incompetent social misfits otherwise."

40-49: "We're off to IKEA and B&Q on Saturday morning. And then we're going spend the rest of the weekend painting and hammering and tiling and grouting in an attempt to make our little terraced house look more like the one we saw in that Channel 4 programme last night. And then we're going to sell it."

50-59: "We're having the builders round. The new house isn't quite what we wanted, so we thought we'd knock through the kitchen wall to make a larger multi-purpose living space. They're a bunch of cowboys, obviously, but we're past the stage of doing it ourselves these days."

60-69: "Do you like the garden? It's lovely isn't it? It's taken us years to get it the way we like it, and an awful lot of trips to the garden centre. Perfect for sitting in during the summer, and then there's our lovely conservatory for the winter. Pot of tea, anyone?"

70-79: "We thought this might be the right time to downsize to a bungalow. Somewhere with a ground floor bathroom now that the stairs are getting a bit more awkward. And we really don't need the two spare bedrooms any more either, because you lot don't come round to stay as often as you once did."

80-89: "Look Dad, it's for your own good. You know you can't get around like you used to, and the garden's getting a bit overgrown. How about we get an estate agent round? I mean, not to be harsh, but it would be a shame to waste the full value of this place on inheritance tax, wouldn't it?"

90 and over: "Hello Mum. Sorry it's been a while, but we've been busy spending all the money we got from selling your old place. Look, we've brought you some flowers. It's nice in here, isn't it? OK, it smells a bit, but at least they wheel everyone down to the TV room sometimes. See you next month."

 Thursday, April 26, 2007

The week after I've had an article published in Time Out, I always turn first to the magazine's letters page to see if anybody's written in to pick apart what I wrote. And this week, the jackpot...
Letter of the week
Surely the shortest tube journey is the downhill amble from Charing Cross to Embankment on the Northern line. Reading diamond geezer's Big Smoke article in your tube special while approaching Charing Cross on said line, I counted 38 seconds between the doors closing at Charing Cross and the doors opening at Embankment. Admittedly I didn't use a stopwatch, nor did I then dash up Villiers Street to prove that it was quicker to walk but, in the interests of accuracy, I urge a recount. Blink and you'll miss it!

Russell Mills N10
Well Russell, I hope you enjoy your £29 bottle of champagne, but I have to disappoint you. I don't just make this stuff up, I do my research first. And London's shortest tube journey, according to TfL's own website, is indeed the journey I wrote about...
Shortest distance between stations: Piccadilly line (Leicester Square to Covent Garden) - 0.26km (0.161 miles)
Remember that this is the distance from platform to platform, which is not always the same as the distance you can measure on a map at street level. So if TfL say that this is London's shortest tube journey then I have to believe them. And it is possible to check further. Geoff used to have a map with all the distances between stations marked on it - how useful that would have been in this situation <cough>. But we can also check elsewhere, at über-geek level, on Clive's "Underground line guides" website. He lists the official distances of every station on the network (in kilometres, from Ongar), which allows us to compare Russell's journey and mine.

Charing Cross 37.03Leicester Square 40.84
Embankment 36.77Covent Garden 40.58
distance 0.26kmdistance 0.26km

Damn, that's a draw - each 260 metres apart. But these figures are only accurate to the nearest 10 metres. Before rounding, one of these journeys must have been fractionally shorter than the other. Only TfL know the exact distances, and they say that Leicester Square to Covent Garden is shorter. So it is. Hurrah.

But Russell wasn't talking about distance, he was talking about time. He says his trip from Charing Cross to Embankment took just 38 seconds. Hmmm. Because when I timed several tube journeys from Leicester Square [doors shut] to Covent Garden [doors open] they were always between 40 and 45 seconds long. Drat. Maybe the Northern line is quicker because it's downhill. Maybe the Northern line trains are faster. Maybe Russell counted wrong. Maybe his journey is quicker in time and my journey is shorter in distance. Never mind, because I'll never get the chance to tell him he might have been right, and he'll never read this to know he was almost certainly wrong.

Other things I've done this week...
• Sat all by myself in the middle of Hampton Court maze
• Walked eight miles along the Thames with only a few swans for company
• Felt wholly outnumbered by grey-haired ladies in a National Trust property garden
• Walked past Richard E Grant (holding two carrier bags) underneath Richmond Bridge
...but I won't bore you by going into enormous detail. Maybe later.

 Wednesday, April 25, 2007

 Shakespeare quiz
Here are 15 modernised Shakespearean quotations.
Can you translate them back into the Bard's Olde English?
Answers in the comments box.

1)  †me?
2)  This bacon's off
3)  Hard pencil or soft pencil?
4)  One would like to place a bet
5)  Welcome to the Globe Theatre
6)  April 26th, April 26th, April 26th
7)  I can only see Brooklyn and Cruz
8)  Into the garden, you bloody dog!
9)  What time's the next ménage à trois?
10)  The Aphrodisiacs are a great band! Encore!
11)  Smash the glass and shine your torch inside
12)  Mmm, this prickleflower has a lovely perfume
13)  Oh Fraulein Maria, how shall we escape the Nazis?
14)  Julius, mate, can I borrow your headphones? Anyone?
15)  It's January 1979 and there are binbags in Leicester Square

Shakespeare's Stratford: I was expecting Stratford-upon Avon to be a tourist hellhole, wrecked by commercialisation and clogged with coaches. I was wrong. Maybe it was still too early in the season, but even on a sunny Saturday in April there were no queues at the major attractions and very few annoying snappers getting in the way of all my photographs. And the town was gorgeous. Trees dripped with blossom, abundant flowers were in bloom and countless swans thronged the riverbank. Even the Pizza Hut in the High Street was tastefully disguised as a genuine half-timbered 17th century townhouse. It's enough to make you wonder why William Shakespeare ever left the place.

Shakespeare's Stratford: Holy Trinity Church
Stratford's old parish church on the banks of the river Avon is where William Shakespeare began and ended his life. He was baptised here on 26th April 1564 (his "23rd April" birth date is pure speculation based on this one fact) and buried in the chancel 52 years later. I failed abjectly in my attempts to venture inside to see Will's grave, kept at bay by the Harpenden Choral Society. They'd just started singing Faure's Requiem to an appreciative audience, and it would have been rude to interrupt their recital by trying to sneak past for a quick look at a stone slab and a plaster bust. Lovely singing it was, but damn you Harpenden Choral Society, damn you all the same.

Shakespeare's Stratford: The Royal Shakespeare Company
Forget the upstart Globe Theatre down in London, the place to see Shakespeare performed properly is in this big brick building beside the Avon. All the luvvies come here to play their favourite Shakespearean roles, usually something from one of the tragedies because you get to appear more dramatic that way. Sir Ian McKellen and Sylvester McCoy are treading the boards in King Lear at the moment (one's a king, one's a fool), before the Swan Theatre closes down later in the summer for a major refit. The RSC take their Shakespeare seriously, and are as likely to be performing one of his lesser historical plays as a crowd-pleasing romance. One hope they never get tired of playing to full houses of lank-haired GCSE students.

This coming weekend, as part of Stratford's official Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations, the RSC are holding a special Open Day where you can go behind the scenes and take part in workshops and stuff. They've even invited Gyles Brandreth along, should you be so inclined. You really don't get this sort of cultural depth in most minor English market towns, do you? But then, thanks to one single birth here nearly 450 years ago, this is no ordinary English market town.

 Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Shakespeare's Stratford: Anne Hathaway's Cottage
A mile to the west of Stratford, in the small village of Shottery, is possibly the most famous cottage in all of England. William Shakespeare never lived here, but he did pop round quite a lot while wooing his wife-to-be. There was no open-topped sightseeing bus in those days so he had to walk across the fields to see his beloved - farmer's daughter Anne Hathaway. She lived in this picture-perfect thatched farmhouse beside the Shottery Brook, seen here with its scaffolded left-hand half carefully cropped out of shot. There are twelve plainly furnished rooms inside, including an upper storey supported by a gnarled wooden floor just one plank thick. It doesn't take long to wander round, and if you can't make it up the stairs you can view what you're missing in a Virtual Tour room nextdoor. The cottage garden is another modern addition, seemingly introduced to boost production of quaint Ye Olde English jigsaws and chocolate boxes. Further up the hill there's an extensive tree garden, complete with adventurous Shakespearean sculptures and a yew hedge maze, plus a couple of very well-screened coach parks. All this plus a gently-flowing stream, with ducks. Foreign tourists who only get to visit one village during their whistlestop tour of Britain probably think we all live like this. It would be a shame to disappoint them.

Shakespeare's Stratford: Hall's Croft
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust own five properties in and around Stratford, of which this is possibly the least exciting. Its claim to fame is that it was built for William's daughter Susanna and her husband John Hall, the town's only physician. But they only lived here for three years before inheriting William's main residence, so the historical link is a bit weak. Only in Stratford could a house such as this become a major tourist attraction. It's a fine building with a lovely garden, don't get me wrong, and if you've never been inside a well-to-do timber-framed house it must be quite impressive. But the interior is a little drab, and the limited selection of exhibits somewhat underwhelming. As for the upstairs exhibition about 17th century medical practice, that's little more than a room full of printed text pinned to boards, and somewhat reminiscent of the provincial museums I was dragged around as a schoolchild in the 1970s. I wish the restoration appeal well - there is much to be done.

Shakespeare's Stratford: Mary Arden's House
I never got as far as Shakespeare's Mum's house, out in the village of Wilmcote, to see the farmhouse and sheep and chickens and pigs and falcons. But I'm told that my £14 five-property joint entrance ticket remains valid indefinitely should I ever choose to return. I shall store it somewhere safe, just in case.

 Monday, April 23, 2007

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise...
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

[Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1]

Not only is today St George's Day, but it's also the anniversary of the birth (and death) of England's most celebrated wordsmith. Which was a good enough excuse for me to pay a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon over the weekend, to take a look around the Bard's home town. It was a whistle-stop tour in four hours flat, sandwiched between two very long train journeys, but I crammed in as much as I could. Where there's a Will, there's a way.

Shakespeare's Stratford: Shakespeare's Birthplace
William Shakespeare born here:
23rd April 1564

The greatest playwright that ever lived was born in a half-timbered Tudor cottage in a Midlands shopping street, just up the road from Argos and opposite a store which sells Christmas decorations all year round. It's a small miracle that his house still stands at all, to be honest. But this is one of England's first proper tourist attractions, acquired by a charitable trust in the mid 19th century, and millions of visitors have since passed through its hallowed portals.

Entrance is via a separate visitors centre, of dubious architectural merits, inside which there's a worthy but dull exhibition about Shakespeare's life. You pass out into an ornamental garden, blooming rather beautifully at this time of year, and then enter the cottage itself. This was home to the comfortably-off Shakespeare family, upstanding citizens of Tudor Stratford, and the interior has been sympathetically restored as it might have looked in the late 16th century. Each of the small rooms has its own custodian, only some of whom manage to sound like they haven't given the same talk umpteen different times before. The elfin guide hovering in the cottage hallway delivered a bravura performance on topics ranging from Elizabethan cutlery to the manufacture of leather gloves (Will's father's trade). Upstairs in the bedroom, probably the site of one of the human race's greatest chromosomal couplings, the guide was somewhat less enthusiastic. She spent the requisite amount of time discussing the main features of the family bed, deflected my follow-up questions with querulous disinterest, and then directed me out in the general direction of the gift shop. Here it was possible to buy a huge range of Shakespearean paraphernalia, from Complete Works to fridge magnets, in commemoration of the baby genius born just a few yards away some 443 years ago.

Shakespeare's Stratford: New Place
William Shakespeare died here:
23rd April 1616

New Place, the house in which Shakespeare died, hasn't fared so well. Whatever Stratford's snapping tourists may think it's not the building dripping with wisteria in the photograph. That's Nash House - his granddaughter's residence nextdoor. Our William lived out his last years in the foreground of the photo, where the grassy lawn now stands. Here's the story.

Nobody's quite certain when Shakespeare left Stratford to seek his fortune in London, but by 1597 he'd amassed enough money to pop back and purchase his first property in his hometown. He bought a large brick and timber townhouse in the shadow of the old Guild Church, and it was to this house that he retired in 1610. Six years later he died right here at New Place, on the day believed to be his birthday, and the house passed into the ownership of his eldest daughter Susanna. But, as every tour guide in Stratford delights in telling you, William Shakespeare has no direct living heirs. His only son died aged 11 and, although both his daughters married, neither of their families continued beyond the next generation. The genius's genes died out with them.

New Place and Nash House were therefore eventually sold on to a Cheshire vicar, a certain Reverend Francis Gastrell. He was no fan of the Bard, nor of the regular stream of sightseers who came to peer at his famous house, so in 1759 he decided to take drastic action. First he lopped down the splendid mulberry in the garden, a tree supposedly planted by William's own hand. And then, when this merely enraged rather than discouraged, he had the entire house razed to the ground for tax reasons. Following this wanton destruction all that remains today are a few arches from the original cellar wall, and the remainder of the estate is given over to grass and a gorgeous garden.

Tourists can now access the remnants of William's historic home via Nash Place nextdoor, the house with the photogenic wisteria. The ground floor of this visitor attraction has been restored to resemble a 17th century middle class residence, while upstairs there's an exhibition devoted to the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Don't go expecting anything exciting and interactive, it's just a single room containing a few old books in cabinets and a missable bit of a film. Oh, and there's also a "Top 10 favourite plays" chart compiled weekly from the votes of visitors (currently led by Macbeth, followed closely by Romeo and Juliet). I was intending to contribute my own top 3 until I realised that I've only ever read two Shakespeare plays in my life, and that was because I was forced at school. This either makes me extremely uncultured, or extremely normal. I suspect it's the latter. The tourists thronging Stratford may have been there to celebrate Shakespeare's unmatched linguistic flair, but they seemed far more likely to walk away with a tea towel or a novelty apron than a copy of one of his plays.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (with 5 properties to visit)
Shakespeare - the Complete Works
Shakespeare - a brief biography

 Sunday, April 22, 2007

London Journeys: Last mile of the marathon

The final mile of the annual London Marathon is a visual treat for any athlete. Along the Embankment opposite the Eye, past the Palace of Westminster across Parliament Square, then round St James's Park to end in the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace. Inspirational.

But in six years' time, when the Olympics come to the capital, the summer marathon route will be very different. Athletes will still pass Westminster and Buck House, just rather earlier in their journey. The Olympic marathon has to end up at the main stadium, and if that means the 2012 race terminates in a rundown East London backwater then so be it.

The world's finest marathon runners will begin their final approach to the new Olympic stadium atop the Bow Flyover. From here, if they're not too busy panting, they'll have a grandstand view of the amazing multi-million pound transformation which has been wrought across the Lower Lea Valley. Ahead will be a short jog through the new Olympic Park past crowds of waving spectators, and maybe everlasting glory. But the view looks nothing like this yet.

Try to follow the final mile of the 2012 marathon today and you may be less than impressed. Stratford High Street is not yet a gleaming cosmopolitan boulevard. Its southern flank is lined by a motley collection of rundown industrial units and half-forgotten shops. Opposite, on the Olympic side of the street, the boarded-up factories are being slowly replaced by new riverside apartment blocks where incomers can 'Live the Lock Lifestyle'. A glut of 'For Sale' boards and a Porsche showroom hint that the area has already started heading upmarket, albeit painfully slowly.

The marathon route veers off from the main road atop the Northern Outfall Sewer. This Victorian engineering marvel supports a long-distance footpath called the Greenway (although, given the stream of slurry running beneath, 'Brownway' would perhaps be more appropriate). In 2012 this spot will mark the southern entrance to the Olympic Park, thronged with spectators lining up to be securely frisked. For now, however, it's just a smelly sewer-top path beneath two pylons, frequented by dogwalkers and the occasional underage moped rider.

Brambles and buddleia encroach upon the path as it slips through overgrown wasteland between the braided Bow Back Rivers. Soon the tracks of the Great Eastern block the way, barring access to a thin strip of railway sidings beyond. Until a new land bridge can be built across the railway (due 2011), the only way to trace the future marathon northward is to retrace your steps and follow an even quieter lower footpath beside the City Mill River.

Here, in reed-filled pools of vibrant green, moorhens glide and dip in search of abundant food. Here, in dark shadows beneath the railway arches, clouds of dragonflies dart across silent waters. Here, in thick undergrowth adjoining the riverside path, a community of small mammals live out their lives unseen beneath the rustling foliage. And here, in just a few months time, Olympic bulldozers will arrive on site to erase the lot.

Across the water, a large area of existing light industry also faces imminent demolition. Future marathon runners will cross the river through the middle of what is currently a long wooden warehouse guarded by a lone yappy dog. They'll enter the stadium to the cheers of tens of thousands of spectators sitting on top of a dismantled fish-filleting factory. They'll run the last few hundred yards round the track through the site of a former waste management facility. And they'll cross the finishing line beside the ex-forecourt of a Mercedes-Benz service centre. It's hardly the Mall, but it'll have to do.

Time is running out if you want to follow the last mile of the marathon for yourself. In July a big security fence will be erected around the perimeter of the future Olympic site and all public access will be closed off. Do try to visit this wild and unique landscape before then, if you possibly can, before the whole area is cleansed and sanitised in readiness for a billion-strong global TV audience. The Lower Lea Valley will look mighty impressive on your plasma screen in 2012, that's for sure, but some might argue it looks far lovelier today.

Originally featured in Time Out Magazine London [13 December 2006]

 Saturday, April 21, 2007

Last summer I noted a musical disturbing phenomenon in the US Billboard Hot 100, namely the emerging dominance of double-headed artiste amalgamations. Gruff rappers and pouting R&B divas were joining together to grunt and wail in unlikely one-off pairs. Doubling-up was clogging up the charts. Well, it hasn't taken long for this grim phenomenon to cross the Atlantic. Take a look at this week's UK Top 10 singles, and quiver:

1) Timbaland featuring Nelly Furtado & Justin Timberlake
2) Mark Ronson featuring Daniel Merriweather
3) Avril Lavigne
4) Proclaimers featuring Brian Potter & Andy Pipkin
5) Beyonce & Shakira
6) Gwen Stefani featuring Akon
7) Fray
8) Fergie featuring Ludacris
9) Alex Gaudino featuring Crystal Waters
10) Kaiser Chiefs

Look, that's 70% of our top-selling songs recorded by two or more musical superstars (of varying importance) and just three singles by single artistes. Admittedly one of those seven is a Comic Relief special (where the 80s backing track is the real thing), but the rest are just shameless promotional pairings. So why might dubious duplication suddenly be so prevalent? Here are a few suggestions:

• pairing up artists sells more singles to both sets of fans
• pairing up artists sells more ringtones to both sets of fans
• pairing up artists encourages the fans of one to buy the latest album of the other
• double the celebrity, double the publicity
• today's artists don't have sufficient talent to make a record by themselves
• today's youth will buy any old rubbish won't they? <shakes head in despair>

This isn't an entirely new phenomenon. Even 25 years ago the charts were being bothered by pairings such as Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder and Bananarama with Funboy Three. But those weren't part of a cynical marketing onslaught, not like today's increasing record industry reliance on "X featuring Y" to shift uninspiring unoriginal product. Still, I guess I shouldn't complain. At least our current Top 10 is entirely X-Factor-free, so we can't have reached the nadir of musical achievement yet. Yet.

It's now 2 days since Blogger dumped an ugly

across the top of my blog, seemingly renaming it uiamonu yeezei.

And it's 2 days since I wrote to Blogger Support asking them to give me back the option of removing the

No reply yet.

In the meantime I've shrunk my blog title so that you can read it again. Sort of.

Yes, I know that there are template tweaks which could remove the

straight away, but I'm polite and I'm going to wait for a reply. I suspect that this could take some time.

 Friday, April 20, 2007

I'm here to take the minutes. I've got my spiral-bound notebook, a big one from the office store cupboard, and I've got my corporate issue blue biro. I'm sat here ready for the meeting to start, a fresh page opened up in front of me, waiting to write down anything you might say. Because I'm taking the minutes.

I'm fresh out of college, I am, but I'm hoping you won't notice. I'm trying to look important, like I know what I'm doing, even though I don't really. I'm wearing my designer glasses, the chunky plastic ones that make me look both stylish and intelligent. I bought them from my first pay packet, although I'm saving up the rest for a deposit on that flatshare in Zone 4. I'm really looking forward to having half a place of my own. Sorry, I should be paying attention, shouldn't I? Because I'm taking the minutes.

I'll kick off by trying to jot down the names of everyone round the table, even though I've never seen half of you before. Never mind, I can ask Kelly who you all are after the meeting. She'll know everyone because she's been with the company for nearly six months now, so she's an expert. Me and Kelly, we spend all our coffee breaks sat in the breakout area by the drinks machine, and she's telling me all the gossip. I wish I was out there now, discussing who's really fit, and who's shagging who. But I'm supposed to be taking the minutes.

I'm not entirely sure what you're all talking about. It's something 100% technical, and it's going right over my head. I'm trying to keep up with the conversation by scribbling down the odd phrase that people are saying, but I don't expect it'll make any sense later. My degree's in business studies, you see, which means I know everything about generic project management but nothing whatsoever about the specialist stuff you lot are discussing. This job's just a first foot on the career ladder while I search for something more relevant. And that's why I'm only taking the minutes.

Oh dear, now you want me to jot stuff down on the flipchart to "summarise the key points of the discussion". Now I'm going to have to expose my inexperience in public. Now you'll spot that I don't actually have a clue about what I'm writing down. Hopefully I can try getting away without writing very much. I'll just stand here, dumb and mute like a game show assistant, and hope that nobody notices. I'd much rather be sitting down pretending to take the minutes.

How much longer has this meeting got to go? I'm just doodling on my notepad now. I hope you're not watching me shading in this geometric pattern, or adding the finishing touches to a cartoon of the woman sat opposite. In fact I'm no longer listening to the rest of you waffling on any more, because you're all talking gibberish. I stopped writing things down about half an hour ago. I've given up all pretence of taking the minutes.

I know my place. I'm only in the room because somebody at this meeting has to write the minutes, and all the rest of you think you're too important to waste your time on such a demeaning task. But that's OK. Because I'm not actually intending to copy up these notes afterwards anyway. You don't care what they say, and you won't miss them in three weeks time when I've failed to circulate them. I may be new here, but I've learnt one important lesson already. Nobody ever reads the bloody minutes.

 Thursday, April 19, 2007

I have just been forcibly migrated across to the 'new' Blogger.

I am not happy.

I now have a

I never used to have a

I paid good money back in 2002 not to have any Blogger-y extras such as a

But now, without any warning whatsoever, a great big

has appeared across the top of my blog, and the

is obscuring the top half of my blog name, which looks bloody awful.

There's nothing in my template which allows me to edit or remove the

even though I used to have an "Off" button.

Instead there's some unstoppable process at Blogger HQ which adds the

at some point during the publishing process.

Even worse, they've given me a blue

whereas, for aesthetic reasons, I should at least have been saddled with a colour-matching grey version.

But no, I'm seemingly now lumbered with a big ugly obstructive irremovable

across the top of my blog, and for no good reason except that some Google/Blogger marketing/programming twat thinks we should all have one.

I hate new Blogger.

That is all.

 Wednesday, April 18, 2007

This week's Time Out is a London Underground special. This means it's exactly the same as a normal copy of Time Out, but with 16 pages of tube-related articles before the main listings start. And hey, one of the articles on one of those pages is by me, investigating London's shortest tube journey. I've waffled on (in some depth) about whether it's quicker to take the tube from Leicester Square to Covent Garden or to walk. Londoners will know the answer already, even if tourists never do. Read all about it in the magazine today...
5pm update: ...or read it now on the Time Out website!

Random tripping: It's now three years since I started visiting London boroughs at random. Thirteen boroughs down and twenty to go. OK, so it's a bit of a sad and geeky thing to do, and it's an awful lot of effort once every three months, but it's quite fun all the same. Except that, well, there's something about my random visiting which doesn't quite look random, isn't there? As you can see on this map. Look at that bunching effect in central London - the eastern half of which I've now covered in its entirety. Surely this shouldn't have happened. Look at that arc across south London, and those gaping voids to the east and west of the capital. Surely these shouldn't have happened. And if you treat London like a Blockbusters game board, see how close I've already come to linking top to bottom with a dark grey chain. Surely this shouldn't have happened either. Something a bit unusual is going on.

In particular what I've noticed is how many of the 'extremely interesting' boroughs have emerged from my random jamjar. Tower Hamlets, for example, is an utterly fascinating borough (which must be why I've just devoted a full 3000 words to it). And Lambeth was fascinating too, as was the City of London, and Kensington and Chelsea, and... well, most of the boroughs I've selected so far. Dead easy to write about, in depth. Meanwhile I've barely touched London's more suburban outer rim, out where there's not quite so much of interest to visit. I've ended up in the boroughs that take ages to write up instead. Surely this shouldn't have happened.

Maybe it's a good thing, though. Over the next five years only two more mega-write-up mega-interesting boroughs remain (that's Westminster and Camden). And the more difficult-to-research boroughs (such as Havering and Redbridge) will no doubt turn out to be all the more fascinating for their unfamiliarity. Most importantly I have to remember that random selection always throws up something that looks like a pattern, even though it isn't really. These 33 boroughs could end up being picked in any of 8683317618811886495518194401280000000 different orders, each of which has the same chance as any other. It's just as likely to be Westminster next as Redbridge - and both will be equally challenging in their own way.

Florida resident Sam Minter does random travel properly. He selects random global coordinates and then goes there on holiday (so long as the chosen spot is on land and flights there cost no more than $500). Which would explain how five years ago he ended up getting very muddy in a field just outside Aylesbury. Even I haven't stooped to such levels, yet. But it's an idea.

 Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Random borough (13): Tower Hamlets (part 3)

www.flickr.com: Tower Hamlets gallery
(now contains the full set of 36 photos)

Discover Tower Hamlets (with flash maps)
Exploring East London (architecture, street art and history)
East London History (100s of local history articles from the council's free paper)
Tower Hamlets History Online (old photos and historic articles)
Sublime Photography (great views of the East End)

Somewhere retail: Brick Lane
I was spoilt for choice trying to select "somewhere retail" in Tower Hamlets, because this East End borough is famed for its street markets. Except on Saturdays, that is. Spitalfields market is open every day except Saturdays. Columbia Road flower market and Petticoat Lane market are only open on Sundays. Whitechapel market, Roman Road market and Chrisp Street market are full of cheap tat whatever the day of the week. And Brick Lane market, that's another Sundays-only experience. So I ignored the street markets and went to Brick Lane anyway.

As it turned out, I'd timed my visit well. A brightly-bedecked parade of children and adults were making their way up the street in celebration of the Bangladeshi New Year - Pahela Baishach. They wore white tunics and pinky-red saris, some sporting paper hats, others floral garlands. Several waved colourful placards depicting animals, birds and other festive symbols [photo]. The snaking crowd burst into song, bringing the shopowners and curryhouse proprietors of Brick Lane out into their doorways to smile and take photographs. The procession paused briefly outside the Jamme Masjid - the plain brick hall which, during its 250 year history, has always reflected the dominant immigrant group of the times [photo]. It's been a Huguenot church, a Methodist chapel and a Jewish synagogue, and is now a thriving mosque capable of accommodating 4000 worshippers. But never a Hindu temple. The parade headed off down a narrow sidestreet, and business in Bengali Brick Lane returned to normal.

Further north, the retail function of Brick Lane changes somewhat. There are fewer spicy restaurants and more cafe bars; fewer shops selling cheap Bangla staples and more boutiques pandering to tourist taste. A side alley through the Old Truman Brewery caters to an almost exclusively non-Asian clientele, dispensing designer clothing, unnecessary art and shiny scooters. Here the trendy 20-somethings gather to chatter excitedly and gobble down piles of noodly falafel goodness while sat at long collective tables [photo]. I'm more a fan of the pie stall in the courtyard of the Vibe Bar nextdoor, where the Mr Porky pie (with minty peas, mash and gravy) is to die for. But not on this occasion.

I headed on, past the road works, past the abandoned tube station, and past the pavement where every Sunday shameless bike thieves recycle their ill-gotten gains back to gullible members of the public. Right to the the top of Brick Lane where there's a unique fast food takeaway adored by generations of East Londoners. We're talking beigels, and more particularly we're talking hot salt beef bagels - the meat hacked on a chopping board by the window while you wait. On Saturday afternoon the queue was the shortest I've ever seen, and I managed to buy my beigel (and stodgy chocolate fudge cuboid) in one minute flat. Normally the queue stretches all the way down the counter, past shelves stacked with cakes, rolls and loaves, bends round in front of the open bakery at the rear, heads back up the opposite wall and spills out onto the street. Even at three in the morning (in fact, especially at three in the morning) there's usually a motley crowd of eager beigel connoisseurs lined up here in eager anticipation of an inexpensive hole-some treat. But be warned - there are two beigel shops here in very close proximity. Both are equally well-established, but one serves adequate fare while the other sells perfection. Brick Lane's like that, I guess, across a surprisingly wide range of international cuisine. Oh yes, there's so much more here than just curry.
by tube: Aldgate East by bus: 8, 388

Somewhere random: Lou and Andy's house
When Matt Lucas and David Walliams were filming the first series of Little Britain, they brought Andy Pipkin and his wheelchair to Tower Hamlets. Because most Tower Hamlets residents don't live in shiny skyscrapers or refurbished wharves. They live in council blocks, ordinary terraces and social housing. All of which made Globe Town, halfway between Bethnal Green and Bow, the perfect spot to place the imaginary community of Herby. It's here, amongst the tower blocks on the Cranbrook Estate, that all of Lou and Andy's domestic scenes were filmed.
"Tower blocks were introduced in Britain in the 1960s and were an instant success. People loved the sense of social alienation, entrapment, and the stench of urine in the lifts." (Tom Baker, 2003)
There are six tower blocks clustered on the Cranbrook estate, surrounded by lower flats and terraces in a sort of figure-of-8 shape around the perimeter. Some council architect, in an attempt to give the estate some "character", has nailed identical green rectangles all over the buildings in a starkly geometrical fashion. This may not be high class design, but it gives the estate a peculiarly collective style.

I didn't manage to find and photograph Lou and Andy's fictional residence whilst wandering around the Cranbrook estate at the weekend. I did track down a few likely candidates, but was frightened off on each occasion by the appearance of the man of the house in the front garden. One bloke was busy emptying his flat into the back of a truck, another taking his ferocious runty hound for a walk. A third was visible only from his bull-neck upwards, crouched on the concrete tinkering with the remains of a motorbike. Elsewhere three kids kicked a football across the threadbare grass, while a bored child threw bread out of St Gilles House in an over-successful attempt to attract pigeons to his windowsill. I passed a couple pushing a premature pushchair towards Victoria Park - he broad of belly, she wide of hip. But of a lank-haired carer pushing an ungrateful liar in an unnecessary wheelchair there was no sign. What a kerfuffle.
by tube: Bethnal Green  by bus: 8, D6

 Monday, April 16, 2007

Random borough (13): Tower Hamlets (part 2)

Somewhere famous: Canary Wharf
The centre of Docklands is pretty quiet on a Saturday. The offices in the skyscrapers are empty, the financial folk are elsewhere and it's even possible to get a seat on the Jubilee line. But it's not completely quiet, not like the City of London gets at weekends. The shops beneath One Canada Square are a great draw for the richer elements of the surrounding community, and the wharfside walkways and bridges make ideal jogging circuits for panting fitness freaks. The weekend brings out the tourists too, here to marvel at the alien glass and steel landscape, like a chunk of transplanted Manhattan. Few places in Britain have been transformed quite so radically as these few acres of former marshland.

25 years ago it was really quiet here, even on weekdays. The West India Docks had just closed, made obsolete by containerisation, and the entire Isle of Dogs looked likely to become a forgotten post-industrial backwater. And then in April 1982 the newly created London Docklands Development Corporation formally designated the area an Enterprise Zone, and set about convincing big businesses that the location had something to offer. A 50-storey central tower was erected (still Britain's tallest habitable building, and still wrecking my TV reception) and the Docklands Light Railway was built to tackle the area's poor accessibility. A property crash in the early 90s forced the Canadian developers into bankruptcy, but a new consortium finally made the place profitable, helped out by the arrival of the Jubilee line extension in 1999. Today they can't build new skyscrapers fast enough. City banks, insurance groups, big media players - they're all out here forming London's new financial nucleus.
full Canary Wharf history

I took the opportunity to wander round some of the newer bits of Docklands in search of public art and good camera angles. There are a lot of modern sculptures littered around the various walkways and plazas (this map shows you where to look), some of them vaguely humanoid, some of them more abstract. Many are by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj including a bandaged head outside the tube station and splendid centaur in Churchill Place [photo]. But my favourite remains Pierre Vivant's Traffic Light Tree - a mass of blinking red, amber and green lights sprouting between two plane trees [photo]. The artwork has been placed slap bang in the centre of a roundabout, but local traffic is wise enough to ignore it.

Down on the quayside at West India Quay I visited an old boat given a new lease of life as a "visual literacy centre" (if that's not a contradiction in terms). This is the SS Robin [photo], the world's last remaining steamcoaster. She was built in 1890 in Bow Creek, but spent most of her working life chugging coal around northern Spain. Now retired and restored, she houses an exhibition space below decks, complete with mini bookshop, comfy sofa and under-frequented bar. I was welcomed aboard and got to look around the latest exhibition of 24 photographs, each depicting a different hour of New Year's Day. And I was thanked on my exit a few minutes later, even though I hadn't spent long interacting with the facilities. Worth a visit more to see the boat itself than its contents, I thought.
by tube or DLR: Canary Wharf

Somewhere sporty: Bow Industrial Park
The 2012 Olympic Park straddles the corner of four London boroughs. The lion's share of the stadia, including the Aquatic Centre and the main Olympic Stadium, will be in Newham. Hackney gets the hockey and the handball. Waltham Forest gets a few specialist Paralympic facilities. And Tower Hamlets? We get the basketball. We're 'aving 'oops.

Only a tiny sliver of Tower Hamlets falls within the boundaries of the Olympic Park. The borough only has to sacrifice a thin strip of land, sandwiched inbetween two branches of the River Lea and the Silverlink railway (with the old C4 Big Breakfast house surviving unscathed at the southern tip [photos]). The majority of the land needed for 2012 is covered by the Bow Industrial Park - a very ordinary row of metal warehouse sheds like those you might find on the outskirts of any major town. I'd not dared to venture here before but, spurred on by my random-picked borough duties, I strolled brazenly past the security barrier and was promptly ignored by the guard. There wasn't much to see down the back of the warehouses - just a corrugated metal wall with tiny rear access doors, into which the occasional weekend employee disappeared. Across the road, behind another fence, lay the distribution centre for a nationwide wrought iron supplier. And round the front 30 major industrial units, each doomed to no more than three months of continued business. I spotted newspaper printers, timber merchants, glass manufacturers along with various other unidentifiable companies. Plus one quite surprising upmarket inhabitant - the Royal Opera House. A long pink lorry trailer was parked up outside unit 18, and on its side the Opera House's official gold logo [photo]. Presumably this is where the company's ballet costumes are stored, or where their operatic scenery is constructed and assembled. I hope they have somewhere else to go. Olympic shutdown begins in July, then five years of remediation and rebuilding before a brand new basketball stadium opens its doors on this site. Thirty industries relocated for the sake of a sport you probably won't even be watching come 2012. But hey, it's enough to make Tower Hamlets an Olympic borough. Slamdunk.
by train: Hackney Wick by bus: 276

 Sunday, April 15, 2007

Random borough (13): Tower Hamlets (part 1)

It had to happen sooner or later. I spent Saturday trawling around my own backyard, in the historic borough of Tower Hamlets. This is the traditional East End of London, stretching from the City to the River Lea and from the Regent's Canal down to the Thames. It's been the slum end of town for several centuries - where the poor have always lived and where immigrants have always settled. Much of this multicultural borough remains locked in relative poverty, although there are also several pockets of great wealth, especially in the modern financial powerhouse of Docklands. Tower Hamlets may no longer be full of Cockneys, Pearly Queens and people who go round saying "cor blimey guv'nor" all the time, but at least there's still room for a diamond geezer. Ahh, there's no place like home.

Somewhere historic: The Tower of London
Despite what you may have thought, the Tower of London isn't in the City of London, it's in Tower Hamlets. How else did you think the borough got its name? William the Conqueror built his great White Tower just outside the walls of the City, in a defensive position beside the Thames. This was London's first highrise building, standing nearly 30 metres tall, and dominating the medieval skyline. Over subsequent centuries the scale of the castle was enlarged, first with one high surrounding wall and then another, until eventually the structure contained a full 20 towers encircled by a deep protective moat [photo]. In Tudor times the Tower became less of a fortress and royal residence and more of a prison and armoury. But only seven prisoners were ever executed here - two of them wives of Henry VIII, and another the unfortunate nine-day queen Lady Jane Grey. Other, less high-profile, prisoners were executed in full public view up on the grassy hump of Tower Hill. And yes, that's (just) in Tower Hamlets too.

Visiting the Tower used to be a one-way ticket - shipped in at high tide through Traitors Gate and locked away in a dingy castle turret to await your fate. Now they let you out again afterwards, but you have to pay £16 for the privilege. Unless you're a Tower Hamlets resident, that is. We're allowed in for a quid, but only during the winter months and only on production of a library or leisure centre card. I didn't have time to go in yesterday, but I did pay up and venture inside 18 months ago if you're interested, and I enjoyed my visit far more than I was expecting. [top tip: arrive early and go straight to the Crown Jewels display - you won't have to queue]

For the cheapskates amongst us, the only way to see the Tower is from the outside. Start on the new sloping concrete plaza leading down to the entrance, where you can watch a genial Beefeater conducting bag searches and rifling through French schoolkids' rucksacks. The souvenir shop is probably best avoided, unless you have a burning desire to own a Beefeater Toby Jug or a Crown Jewels tea towel. You can walk along the riverside cobbles right beside the Tower, peering up at the paying customers on the ramparts inside, although you do at least get to see Traitors Gate for nothing [photo]. Nip up onto Tower Bridge but don't expect a decent view from the centre, not once the riverside avenue of trees is in full leaf. Instead head away from the river and join the hordes of tourists taking photographs from the raised pavement, across the moat to the castellated rooftops beyond. And don't forget to look down into the moat itself, where you should see the Tower seesaw, the Tower roundabout, the Tower climbing frame and the Tower swings [photo]. There's even a neglected Tower tennis court down there, presumably used by the Beefeaters and their families when they think nobody's looking [photo]. Those who've paid £16 don't get to see these gems, oh no, they just get eight ravens with clipped wings, some armour and a few big diamonds.

Plan in advance and it's even possible to visit the Tower for free. There's a catch - you have to arrive at 9:30pm and you can only stay for 35 minutes. But you do get to see the famous Ceremony of the Keys, performed nightly every single day for the last 700 years, before gruff Yeoman Warders eject you from the premises. One day I really must send in my name (and a stamped addressed envelope) and see if they'll allow me to attend. After all, I am local.
by train: Tower Hill by bus: 15

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acorn antiques
digital watches
outer hebrides
olympics 2012
school dinners
pet shop boys
west wycombe
bletchley park
george orwell
big breakfast
clapton pond
san francisco
children's tv
east enders
trunk roads
little britain
credit cards
jury service
big brother
jubilee line
number 1s
titan arum
doctor who
blue peter
peter pan
feng shui
leap year
bbc three
vision on
ID cards