diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 30, 2007

What's your favourite BBC Radio station?
Is it 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5?
Or one of the digital-only stations like 6 or 7?
Or one of the many BBC local radio stations?
Or some other BBC radio station, like the World Service?
Vote away...

What's your favourite BBC radio station?
Free polls from Pollhost.com
You only get the one vote, so choose carefully before you click "Vote".
And please note that this is a BBC-radio-only poll. Please ignore that commercial station you like, or that internet channel you listen to all the time, or WKQX Chicago, or whatever. If you don't have a favourite BBC radio station, please don't vote. Ta.
[poll now closed, thanks]

I've always been a Radio 1 devotee myself. At least since the age of 14, that is, when I finally caught up with The Nation's Favourite after a dalliance with speech radio. I tuned in to the big One to listen to a mix of new singles and golden oldies, delivered by a succession of big name DJs with egos the size of the hits they were playing. There was DLT on breakfast, then Simon Bates with the Golden Hour, then Paul Burnett and Andy Peebles in the afternoon before Kid Jensen at drivetime, and Mike Read and John Peel in the evening. They may all have moved on, but I'm still there several decades later.

I never advanced to Radio 2 because I prefer a bit of challenge, not cosy comfort. I never elevated to Radio 3 because my taste is definitely popular rather than classical. I never matured to Radio 4 because I need music and entertainment in the background, not intellectual stimulation. I never jumped ship to Radio 5 Live because I can't think of anything more tedious than opinionated callers and racing results. And I never switched to local commercial stations because they're shallow ad-infested drivel. So every radio in my house is still tuned to 247 275 98.5FM, and I can't imagine it any other way.

Obviously I don't listen to Radio 1's entire output, because some of the latest bunch of DJs are obnoxious vacant tossers, although wasn't it always that way? But there's still originality, humour and intelligent delivery if you know when to listen, coupled with a playlist that successfully drives music forward. I recognise that I'm now well outside the station's target age range, but I have no intention of growing old gracefully. You're welcome to your 2, 3, 4 or 5, but it's Radio 1 that still makes me smile.

 Saturday, September 29, 2007

Forty years ago today, Britain had only three legal radio stations. There was the Light Programme, full of jolly tunes for housewives. There was the Home Service, full of plummy announcers and erudite discussion. And there was the Third Programme, full of gramophone concertos and stuffy operas.

Forty years ago tomorrow, all that changed. Suddenly there were four radio stations, numbered One, Two, Three and Four, and groovy teens suddenly had something worth listening to. Broadcasting would never be the same again. So let's remember the threshold of modern radio, established 1967.

Radio 1
• The official Radio 1 40th anniversary website features a Jingle Simulator, a DJ Gallery and a "Name the DJ" Excel spreadsheet quiz (I got 34/40)
» The second record to be played on Radio 1, after Flowers In The Rain, was Massachusetts by The Bee Gees
• The finest Radio 1 nostalgia website is Radio Rewind. Where else will you find biographies of 94 Radio 1 DJs (from Simon Bates to Jimmy Young), and a timeline, and daily schedules, and the Roadshow, etc etc?
» The second DJ to appear on Radio 1, immediately following Tony Blackburn's first show, was Leslie Crowther (with Junior Choice)
• Anoraks will appreciate a full history of Radio 1's transmission frequencies, from 247, to 1053 and 1089, to FM
» Unlikely Radio 1 DJs with regular shows include Bob Holness, Philip Schofield, Paul McKenna and Dale Winton
• Who was the teatime DJ in 1976? How long was Gary Davies's Bit in the Middle? Flick back through 40 years of Radio 1 schedules (ah, the nostalgia)
» The station's longest serving DJ is Annie Nightingale (1969-2007) (and she's reprising her Sunday Night Request Show tomorrow, hurrah!)
• Listen again to some classic Radio 1 jingles (1 million watts of music power, anybody?)
» 11 different DJs have presented Radio 1's Sunday Top 40 chart show (thankfully JK and Joel bugger off this weekend)
• True Radio 1 devotees will adore Radio One More Time - a series of 40 blogposts reminiscing about various aspects of the Nation's Favourite (mmm, this index may get you salivating)

Radio 2
» The first record played on Radio 2 was The Sound of Music by Julie Andrews
• If you fear Radio 2's getting more Ross than Wogan, try joining the The Radio 2 Preservation Society (R20K)
» Radio 2's 40th birthday schedule, tomorrow, features a Kenny Everett Show from the archives, Pick of the Pops with Smashie and Nicey, and Sing Something Simple

Radio 3
• Watch the evolution of the Radio 3 logo (and Radios 1 & 2 too)
• Listeners might perchance consider joining the Friends of Radio 3

Radio 4
The Radio 4 theme - a dawn treat for everyone who's awake at 5:20am
Sailing By (by Ronald Binge) - a pre-Shipping Forecast treat for everyone who's awake at 12:45am
• Read about current highlights in the weekly Radio 4 newsletter
• The plot of The Archers has been summarised in a line a day (1996-2007)
I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue has a splendid unofficial website (alas, no photographs of Samantha)
• Want to listen again? Here's a dead simple list of all currently available BBC Radio streams (from Radio 4 to Five Live Sports Extra)

 Friday, September 28, 2007

So London has spoken, and Boris Johnson is to be the Conservative candidate for next year's London Mayoral election. Well there's a surprise. There was me thinking that Victoria would wing it, or maybe Warwick or Andrew would sneak ahead and pip everyone at the post. But no. Boris romped home with more than 75% of the vote, at least among the 19000 Tories and 1000 non-Tories who bothered to vote in the primary phase. He'll need a lot more support than that to win in May.

Boris's Mayoral campaign benefits from a not inconsiderable web presence. There's Boris the politcal thinker, battling against the Uzbek billionaire menace. There's Boris the MP, trolling around the village halls of rural Oxfordshire. And there's Boris the multimedia campaigner, inviting you to sign up for email updates and to add a Back Boris banner to your blog. There's not a lot of policy on Boris's Mayoral site at the moment, he's still at the "mission statement" stage. There's not even mention of his beloved bus policy - death to the bendies and Routemaster resurrection. The former policy is clearly a winner, but the latter is more of a smokescreen. There'll be no rear-platformed omnibuses reinstated on the streets of London if Boris is victorious, just a call to TfL's designers to build something a bit Routemaster-like (but with wheelchair access) for delivery on some unspecified date in the future. It's better than nothing, but it's not instant transport nirvana.

The stage is now set for a Ken v Boris election. OK, it'll actually be a Ken v Boris v Brian election (or even a Ken v Boris v Brian v Siân v Lindsey v Garry v Richard v several other nutters election), but all money will be on either red or blue. And hey, there's not long to go now until polling day itself. Only... 222 days. Sigh. It looks like Londoners will have to put up with an extended period of ranting, posturing and mud-slinging before they're allowed anywhere near a ballot box. There's a lot to be said for instant snap elections and not drawn out predictable contests. Assuming you've made your mind up already, as I have, it could be a desperately tedious 8 months.

 Boris's Bendy Bus Bingo
Create a magic square by eradicating all the bendy bus routes.
Every row, every column and every diagonal must add to 111.
Pick carefully, and don't pick bendy.

[Please don't stick the answer in the comments box, but do tell us how you get on]

 Thursday, September 27, 2007

Please spare a fiver for Crossrail

This is an appeal on behalf of the poor commuters of London.
The Central line is hell in the mornings, and nobody will build us a replacement.
We desperately need your help.
Please give generously.

Nearly 20 years ago, government transport planners came up with with the idea of a super-duper railway line straight through the middle of London. Crossrail would speed passengers across town in minutes flat. It would link places like Slough and Heathrow in the west to Romford and Canary Wharf in the east. It would be a futuristic railway with extra-long high capacity trains. It would help hundreds of thousands of people to go to work in the City or shopping in the West End. And it would cost a heck of a lot of money. So it was never built.

It's not easy to find fifteen billion quid for a railway. Governments aren't generally happy at stumping up that sort of money for a transport link which most of the electorate will never use. The total cost is even higher than the entire Olympic budget, and we all know how popular that's been. But you can't dig tunnels under central London without spending money, and without pledged cash this project is doomed to fail.

Things were a lot easier 100 years ago. The Central, Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly lines were all constructed within a single decade, using private finance, back in an era when there was far less infrastructure buried under the capital. Only two more tube lines have been built across London since, and Crossrail is doomed not to be the third. Which is why the government is going back to private finance, to the major corporations based in the City, and grovelling for cash. Pay up, or we won't build the railway you so desperately need in order to stay profitable. So far, no response.

Problems at Woolwich demonstrate the mess this project is in. The original plans for Crossrail included a proper big station at Woolwich, on the southeast Canary Wharf branch. Trouble was, this new subterranean station was going to be terribly expensive, so the planners dropped it. Sorry to the local population, all tens of thousands of them, but the new railway was destined to burrow straight underneath them without stopping. A wholly wasted opportunity, and all because the investment wasn't "affordable". But at the last moment a building company stepped in and offered to pay for the station so long as they were allowed to build lots and lots of new homes on top. Result. They'll get a stonking profit later on, and the good citizens of Woolwich are no longer sidelined.

But Crossrail as a whole is still stalled until somebody finds the remainder of the money to pay for it. Ken Livingstone reckons the project just needs "the last few hundred million pounds", but nobody seems to have them. Big business isn't interested, because they have their eyes on short term profit rather than long term gain. And the Treasury isn't interested, because spending money doesn't win votes. Some people have a very blinkered view of the future.

So it looks like we, the people, are going to have to find the last few hundred million pounds ourselves. If everybody in the UK contributed five pounds to the Crossrail project, we'd have the money in no time. A fiver's not much. It's one meal out, or half a round in the pub on a Friday night, all to be paid back (with interest) next time you want to get to Heathrow in a hurry. Or if everybody in London donated fifty quid, that'd reach the total too. It might mean forgoing a few DVDs, or a nice pair of shoes, but it's all for the common good. And we might just have ourselves a transport lifeline by 2015.

Please send your fiver to the following address:
Ruth Kelly
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and Minister for Women
Bressenden Place
London SW1E 5DU
and let's see if, between us, we can't kickstart this whole sorry process once and for all.

 Wednesday, September 26, 2007

How to get lots of comments

As we established earlier this month, one of the best things about blogging is getting comments. They're the icing on the cake, they're added depth, they're two-way conversation. But how do you get comments? I thought I'd carry out a scientific study to try to find out. I've looked back through five years of diamond geezer to see which of my posts got the most reaction. I've only counted single posts with a single comments box, and I've not counted any of my own comments within each total. And that leaves just ten posts which have gathered more than fifty comments. Here's my top ten most commented.

1) How deep is your screen? [115 comments] (9th November 2005)
I wondered how big my readers' computer screens were, so I posted a huge long list of London's old telephone codes and asked you to tell me how far down the list you could read. Well over 100 of you responded, and we discovered that the most popular screen resolution was 1024x768. (It still is, by the way, but 1280x1024 is catching up fast)
How to get comments, Rule 1: Run a survey, and make sure that the survey is extremely quick and easy to enter.

2) The Highway Code for Cyclists [73 comments] (31st October 2006)
I wrote a tongue-in-cheek list of instructions for the capital's cyclists, jumped-up bunch of selfish red-light jumpers that they are. The capital's cyclists leapt to the attack, while scores of pedestrians sprang to my defence. I wouldn't say much has changed since either.
How to get comments, Rule 2: Pick a subset of society, preferably a self-righteous subset, and insult them. And then sit back and watch.

3) My 40th birthday [70 comments] (9th March 2005)
Not only was it my 40th birthday but it was also my Mum's 70th. You lot couldn't resist chipping in and wishing us both a happy double celebration, which was very nice of you, thanks. But I suspect it helped that "Happy birthday" is a dead easy comment to write, with no thinking time required.
How to get comments, Rule 3: Tell everybody that it's your birthday. Special "round number" birthdays get the most comments.

4) Doughnuts - the aftermath [59 comments] (20th July 2005)
Ah, the legendary "doughnuts" experiment. You wrote lots of comments on a miserably short post about doughnuts, but then wrote even more the following day as we dissected the results. If nothing else, we discovered that the number of comments on a post often bears no relation to how interesting a post is. And that you like jam-filled stodge.
How to get comments, Rule 4: Writing about comments is an extremely good way to get comments.

5=) Starbucks comes to Whitechapel [57 comments] (26th March 2007)
I noticed a new Starbucks opening in Whitechapel (in Whitechapel!) and wrote about it. And then in my last paragraph I insulted people who feel the need to drink multinational corporate coffee. And that seemed to upset a lot of caffeine addicts. But not as much as the eradication of local enterprise upsets me.
How to get comments, Rule 2: Pick a subset of society, preferably a self-righteous subset, and insult them. And then sit back and watch.

5=) Ranking supermarkets [57 comments] (10th August 2005)
I gave you a list of 12 UK supermarkets and asked you to shuffle them into rank order with the most respectable first. You stuck Waitrose at the top of the list and Lidl at the bottom. It was a nice simple idea and easy to respond to, but people also chipped in with a lot of fascinating (and class-ridden) insights along the way.
How to get comments, Rule 1: Run a survey, and make sure that the survey is extremely quick and easy to enter.

7) London's burning [55 comments] (30th January 2007)
I ran an entirely fictional week, timeshifted into the future, in which I pretended I was blogging from a new mobile phone whilst escaping from a tube train beneath Armageddon-hit London. You wrote lots of comments, but you saved most of them for the moment when you believed I was dead. Well thanks for that.
How to get comments, Rule 5: People are really good at responding sympathetically to tragedy. Or imagined tragedy. (Or blog hiatus)

8) Thanksgiving [52 comments] (23rd November 2006)
We don't celebrate America's turkeyfest over here. I dared to query other alien American concepts and phrases, such as "Junior High" and "The Prom", and you lot suggested more. Various American readers then thought we were taking the piss and promptly demonstrated their legendary sense of humor. Too easy.
How to get comments, Rule 2: Pick a subset of society, preferably a self-righteous subset, and insult them. And then sit back and watch.

9=) Four letter words [51 comments] (13th December 2004)
You know those really rubbish stocking filler books that appear every Christmas, with a few words scattered across a handful of tiny pages? I asked you to help me write one by contributing four four-letter words each. If only I'd got my act together and sent the result to a publishing company, I could be a rich author by now.
How to get comments, Rule 1: Run a survey, and make sure that the survey is extremely quick and easy to enter.

9=) Saturday blogging [51 comments] (22nd September 2007)
It's true - the number of blog visitors really does take a tumble on a Saturday. So I was very surprised when a Saturday post ended up getting more than fifty comments. Serves me right for questioning the social capability of my weekend readership, I guess.
How to get comments, Rule 2: Pick a subset of society, preferably a self-righteous subset, and insult them. And then sit back and watch.

Conclusion: If you want a lot of comments, either ask your readership a very simple question which requires very little thought, or insult the bastards.

 Tuesday, September 25, 2007

There are two different types of job:
jobs where you time your work
jobs where you work your time

Some people time their work. They're given a task to do and told to get on with it, and they get paid as and when it's done. Their income relies solely on them getting the work complete, so they have an impetus to knuckle down and get on with it. They might work fifteen hours a day on some days, or just five hours a day on others, whichever is more appropriate to the job in hand. And when the work's done that's it, they head home, that's their choice. Living job-by-job like this makes long-term planning difficult, but some people appreciate the independence of timing their work.

Some people work their time. I'm one of them. I'm paid a salary for what I do, and my contract says I work a set number of hours a week. Sometimes I end up working longer than that because there are "things to be done", but on the whole my working day is a similar length each day. I have plenty to do to keep me occupied, and any manic periods are generally balanced out by lulls and pauses at other times. I can plan my life, even six months from now, because I have a pretty good idea how my work is arranged. I like a bit of stability, and working my time gives me that.

Most of us work our time. We have a start time and a finish time, at least roughly, and it's our job to be available and productive between those times. Or at least available. Sometimes being productive is more difficult. We've probably all had those days where we have to be in the office, or on call, or whatever, but there's absolutely nothing to do. That usually means staring out of the window, or trolling the internet, or tackling the sudoku, or making another cup of tea, or planning your next holiday, or rearranging your email folders, or anything else that makes you look busy when you're not. Thankfully these days are few in number, for most of us at least.

But for some who work their time, there's a lot more time than work. It's their job to be ready to work, should the situation require it, but most of the time there's nothing to do. Absolutely nothing, except to wait. These people come to work at a set time, and they go home at a set time, and they get paid even if nothing happens inbetween. They're the clock-watchers left to their own devices to keep themselves awake and alert. You know the sort of people I mean...
... Firemen (who, unlike their other 999 counterparts, play a lot of volleyball)
... Shopkeepers (notably those in specialist boutiques which nobody ever seems to visit)
... Security guards (who spend almost every shift waiting for absolutely nothing to happen)
... Office temps (has anyone got any photocopying for the office temp to do? no? sorry)
... Village postmistresses (I wonder if anyone will come in and buy a stamp today)
... Art gallery staff (who do nothing but look at people looking at art, in case one tries to nick it)
... Waiters in not-very-popular restaurants (yes sir, we have several free tables)
... Understudies (oh damn, is the leading actress still fit and well? ah never mind)
... IT shift workers (because someone might ring with a technical query at 3am, you never know)
... (you must be able to think of some more)

It sounds great, getting paid to do absolutely nothing most of the time, but I bet it isn't. I couldn't do it, not week in, week out. Even for easy money. I'd be bored out of my skull if my job didn't engage my brain, leaving me to twiddle my thumbs for most of the "working" day. I'd hate having to sit around for hours, waiting for a real task to come along, until hometime finally came around. I suspect you may be the same. Because an unengaging job is an unsatisfying job, and sometimes avoiding tedium is more important than gaining salary.

As we shift further and further into a service economy, increasing numbers of people are going to find themselves forever poised to offer support that nobody requires, waiting around all day, in case they're ever needed. Because some people do time, rather than doing work. I salute you - sooner you than me.

 Monday, September 24, 2007

London 2012  Olympic update
  Demolish, dig, destroy

demolish, dig, designIt's been two months since the Olympic Park was sealed off and its occupants ejected. Two months since an impenetrable big blue wall was erected all around the perimeter, and a bored-stupid security guard posted at every entrance gate. Two months may not sound long, but it represents more than 3% of all the available construction time. So what's been going on here since July? Is the site still a ghost town of crumbling warehouses, or have the Olympic Delivery Authority and their big yellow bulldozers been busy? It's a bit of both, actually.

It's still possible to gain public access to the heart of the Olympic Site by following the Greenway. This sewer-top footpath has recently been resurfaced and upgraded in an attempt to make it more attractive to the local community, and newly installed lighting now makes this a slightly more enticing place to walk and cycle after dusk. Somebody's been a bit over-enthusiastic with the signage, though. Several pristine white signposts have been erected along this stretch of the Greenway, informing travellers that Hackney Wick and Bow are one way and Stratford and West Ham are the other. And then the same thing again 100 metres later. And then again, and then again, at similar 100 metres intervals, just in case you have the memory span of a goldfish. The southernmost signpost even manages to point the wrong way, directing cyclists straight ahead into a fence alongside the Great Eastern railway, rather than down the gentle slope underneath the nearby bridge and up the other side. Full marks for design, zero marks for practicality.

Olympic branded wallThe security fence alongside this particular slope has been specially selected as home to 2012's first "branded hoardings". Alice, the ODA's Marketing Manager, is extremely excited by all this. Rather than leave passers-by staring at blue-painted plywood, her department have covered 100 metres of wall with shiny photographic panels and important brand messages. There are some appropriately uplifting images of athletes, and that technicolour 2012 logo we all love so much. There are big yellow warnings signs urging children not to play on site, plus some artists' impressions of what the finished development will look like. There's a list of the four groups funding construction of the Olympic Park, although no sign of the names of the 40 million taxpayers and lottery players whose money is really making things happen. And finally, as a sign of things to come, there's a gleaming list of official Olympic worldwide partner organisations and their corporate logos, just for added visibility. Coca Cola, McDonalds and Samsung have never taken a blind bit of interest in this industrial wasteland before, but the TV cameras are coming in five years' time and it pays to get here early.

Marshgate Lane, September 2007Up on the bridge above Marshgate Lane, I had my camera at the ready. I've decided to try taking a photograph from exactly the same spot on the parapet every two months or so until 2012, in an attempt to document all the changes taking place down below. At this stage, with just two photographs, the resulting slideshow plays like an Olympic Spot The Difference puzzle. There are huge changes already, but only on the left-hand side of the road. The large brick warehouse with the wedged-vent roof (built by the University of London Faculty of Engineering, and until recently a waste disposal depot) has been completely demolished. All the beautiful willow trees overshadowing the Pudding Mill River have been uprooted and chopped down. Vegetation on the banks of the river has been stripped away. Workmen with a big orange digger were busy dumping rocks and gravel to block off the concrete channel. A further army of diggers could be seen crawling all over the surrounding scrubland, where teenage motor-scooter petrolheads used to go scrambling, levelling the land ready for the Park's perimeter service road to be built on top. Meanwhile, on the right-hand side of the road, almost all of the factories, offices and big metal sheds still stand... but for how much longer? Be in no doubt, the Olympic Stadium will be ready bang on schedule, and nigh nothing visible in my latest photograph will remain.

Half a mile further north, yesterday was also closing-down day for the Manor Garden allotments. With the final harvest now safely gathered in, the last few allotment holders were forced to pack away their tools and have been escorted from the Park for the very last time. Their futile attempt to withstand the invasion of the Olympic planning process has come to nought, and an enforced five-year-plus relocation to Leyton is now underway. A big march and rally were held yesterday afternoon, as a last hurrah, with participants tying bouquets to the iron security gates at the top of Waterden Road in protest. It won't do any good - the 2012 meteorite obliterates everything that lies beneath its destructive path, and no human force can stop it. The demolition of the Lower Lea Valley is already underway. Rebirth suddenly seems a very long way off.

 Sunday, September 23, 2007

Autumn Equinox (10:51 BST)

Well known autumnal fact 1: There are four seasons in a year
Officially, astronomically, the seasons all start and finish at either a solstice or an equinox. And today is the autumnal equinox, which makes today the start of autumn. It's all because the earth is tilted on its axis, which means that different parts of the planet get more direct sunlight at different times of the year. Yes, obviously. Now tell us something we don't know...

Little-known autumnal fact 1: Autumn is shorter than summer
It's true. There may be four seasons in a year, but they're not all of equal length. It's 94 days from the summer solstice to the autumn equinox, making summer the longest of all the seasons. But it's only 90 days from the autumn equinox to the winter solstice, making autumn four days shorter. Winter's even shorter still, just 89 days, the shortest season of all. We may be entering the cooler, darker half of the year (between now and next March), but it's also the shorter half of the year. Here are the precise figures.

21 Mar 07
21 Jun 07
23 Sep 07
22 Dec 07
21 Jun 07
23 Sep 07
22 Dec 07
20 Mar 08
Duration93 days94 days90 days89 days

So why aren't the four seasons equal? It's because the earth's orbit around the sun isn't circular, it's an ellipse, and so some bits of the earth's orbit are nearer to the sun than others. Kepler's Second Law says that planets travel a bit faster when they're closest to the sun, and a bit slower when they're further away. The earth happens to be closest to the sun in early January, which is when it travels fastest, so autumn and winter are relatively short. And the earth is furthest from the sun in early July, which is when it travels slowest, so spring and summer are relatively long. It's not by much, but it's enough to make a difference. Autumn isn't a quarter of a year long, it's really 1½ days shorter than that. Make the most of it.

Well known autumnal fact 2: Today the sun is directly overhead at the equator
Sorry to those of you with Seasonal Affective Disorder, but nine minutes to eleven this morning is the official moment when the overhead sun switches from the northern to the southern hemisphere. It's about to be spring in the latter, but it's about to be autumn in the former. Damn. Or, if you're Antipodean, hurrah.

Little-known autumnal fact 2: Today is not the day that day and night are of equal length
It's true. Sunrise in London this morning was at 6:47am, while sunset tonight is at 6:58pm. So that makes the day 22 minutes longer than the night. Equality comes in three days time, around September 26th. Just look how rapidly the gap between daylight and darkness is changing this week. It's always fast-changing like this around the equinoxes.

DateSep 21Sep 22Sep 23Sep 24Sep 25Sep 26Sep 27
by 36min
by 28min
by 22min
by 12min
by 2min
by 12min

So why aren't day and night equal today? It's because the sun isn't a point of light as seen from the earth, it's a disc. At sunrise the top of the sun peeps above the horizon about a minute before the centre. And at sunset the top of the sun dips below the horizon about a minute after the centre. Atmospheric refraction means that we can still see the sun even when it's really below the horizon, adding a few more minutes to both of those times. And it's that pair of extra minutes that make all the difference. Daylight today is therefore still 22 minutes longer than darkness. But the illusion won't last long. In just ten days time darkness will already be as much as a whole hour longer than daylight, and then it's downhill all the way to Christmas. Let joy be unconfined.

 Saturday, September 22, 2007

I don't know why I'm bothering to write this. Nobody reads blogs on Saturdays. Nobody except you, obviously, dear reader. But then you don't have a life, obviously. If you had a life you'd be off doing something else, wouldn't you, and not wasting your weekend reading this.

Saturday's the one day of the week that most people are really busy, with stuff they actually want to do. They're not stuck at work bored out of their skulls, like on a weekday, desperately surfing the internet for something to read. They're not lounging around the house, like on a Sunday, catching up on online stuff because there's nothing else to do. No, today is the odd day out. There's no time for blogging, and no time for reading blogs, not on a Saturday.

If you had a life you'd still be in bed, asleep, recovering from the excesses of last night. Or you'd be up and getting dressed and heading out of the house, ready to fill your day with social and retail extravagance. It's Saturday and the shops are beckoning, so shouldn't you be off out spending your money and sipping cappucinos? Or climbing into the car to go and visit friends, maybe for a whole weekend away somewhere. Or going to watch a football match, or pumping iron down the gym, or taking a picnic to some stately home, or buying up all the tiles in B&Q and then stripping the bathroom for a weekend of grouting action. Do you not have a wedding to go to, you sad friendless individual? You shouldn't have the time to even sit down, let alone turn on your home computer and read this. Not on a Saturday. Loser.

Nobody blogs on a Saturday, either. Well, not many people anyway. Less than half of the blogs in my sidebar bothered to post anything last Saturday, they were all far too busy experiencing life instead. Blogs that churn out posts every other day of the week go silent on Saturdays because there are better things to be doing. And because nobody's reading. Visitor numbers to blogs tumble on Saturdays, as readers vote with their mouse and stay away. Blogs don't get anywhere near as many readers on a Saturday, and they don't get as many comments on a Saturday either. So there's really no point in blogging on a Saturday, no point at all. Because nobody's listening.

Apart from you, obviously. You're here, even if nobody else is. Thanks for bothering to find time in your busy Saturday schedule to come and see what I've written. Maybe you're only fitting in a quick five minutes online before you go out and do something interesting and offline for the day. Maybe you're stuck at work, or maybe the weather's really crap where you are, or maybe the boyfriend dumped you last night and all your plans for a carefully crafted sociable weekend just died. Whatever.

So maybe it is still worth blogging on a Saturday, but only for an exclusive audience of sad, friendless geeks with no life. Hello. And everyone else will be no doubt be back tomorrow evening, and they'll never realise what they missed.

 Friday, September 21, 2007

Last days at the New Piccadilly

the New PiccadillyTo my mind, the finest dining establishments in London aren't in the Michelin Guide. They don't serve up organic medaillions in mango jus, neither do you need to book a table three weeks in advance. No, the finest dining establishments in London are listed in a book called Classic Cafes. They serve up fried stuff with chips, and anyone can slouch down in a formica booth without an appointment. These very special eateries are survivors of a pre-Starbucks age, back when muffins were toasted rather than shrink-wrapped, and when a great cup of coffee came with sugarcubes, not cinnamon sprinklings. But later this month one of the capital's most famous Fifties cafes is closing down, snuffed out by rising rents and creeping redevelopment. It's a damned shame (even if most Londoners never even realised it existed). So, last Friday, BestMate and I sneaked along for one last supper.

The New Piccadilly cafe/restaurant can be found at number 8 Denman Street, just round the back of Piccadilly Circus. It has a bright and colourful frontage, especially if the red neon sign is switched on and the word EATS is illuminated in large friendly letters for all to see. In the right-hand window those "eats" are fully catalogued on a faded orange menu, for your delectation and delight. Apart from the effects of decimalisation and inflation the list of trademark Anglo-Italian dishes has barely changed since the 50s (bar a few replacement platters such as CHICKEN CURRY AND RICE handwritten on white stickers). There are certain meals listed here that you'll not find anywhere else - for example ESCALOPE PICCADILLY GARNI - as well as strange but marvellous concoctions such as STEAK, CHIPS AND SPAGHETTI. Step inside and you can sample the lot.

New Piccadilly tableBestMate and I arrived at half past five expecting queues, but there were none. We headed for a booth halfway down the restaurant, opposite the "ching ching" cash register, beneath a deep red lampshade and a "happy retirement" greetings card. Our vintage beverages arrived promptly, his a sparkling Coke in a dimpled tumbler, mine a cup of perfect orange-brown tea. For my main course I selected one of the house specialities, DAN'S COW PIE AND TWO VEGETABLES, although this divine gravy-soaked pastry concoction has had to be restickered STEAK PIE to fit in with the Trade Descriptions Act. As for the two veg, there's none of your poncey courgettes and broccoli florets here, oh no, we're talking yellowy boiled potatoes and a pile of proper green peas. BestMate's plate was half CHIPS, which is never a hardship, along with a dollop of fried EGG and a thin slice of STEAK. Nothing even approximating haute cuisine, but perfect comfort food all the same.

LorenzoLorenzo, the cafe's owner, was holding court behind the counter. Every now and then he broke off from his conversation to pull another coffee from the vintage pink espresso machine, then returned to the till to survey his fast fading empire. Two white-jacketed waiters dashed around between the tables, increasingly busy as the evening wore on and further diners arrived. It was easy to tell who were genuine regular customers and who were one-off new-media opportunists. The latter all had cameras with them and were busily snapping souvenir photographs of the cafe's finer interior features. I was one of the latter group, alas, but I tried to keep my image retention to an unobtrusive minimum. "OK, I've taken a photo of the wall of postcards and the pile of plastic lemons and the security notice about gentlemen's hats. Hang on, let me just try one more shot of the big horseshoe menu at the rear of the restaurant, this one might not come out blurred."

After clearing our plates, the dessert selection proved irresistable. But which of the six sponge puddings pictured on the back of the menu to choose? Chocolate maybe, or ginger and lemon? In the end BestMate plumped for the TREACLE SPONGE and I chose a very traditional SPOTTED DICK, both liberally flooded in a two-inch deep ocean of skin-topped custard. It's hard to imagine a less healthy pudding, but man cannot live by probiotic yoghurt alone.

New Piccadilly horseshoe menuBefore we left I took the opportunity to visit the prehistoric toilet out the back (which won't be missed when the place closes), and then returned to pay Lorenzo the bill, plus discretionary tip, plus compliments. I'll not be coming back. The cafe closes for good tomorrow evening (or, if the conversation BestMate overheard while I was in the loo is true, on the following Sunday, September 30th). And then in October the place will be gutted (as will its clientele) and Lorenzo will head off for a well-deserved retirement. I hate to think what nasty irrelevant development will replace the New Piccadilly, but if they don't serve cow pie and spotted dick I'm not interested.

Classic Cafe: The New Piccadilly
onionbagblogger says farewell
Urban75 drop in and take photos
Russell Davies stops by for a cuppa (and for eggsbaconchipsandbeans)
The Girl In The Cafe

 Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel

the Royal London Hospital, photographed on its 250th birthdayExactly 250 years ago today, on 20th September 1757, the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel opened its doors to the public. This doesn't make it the oldest hospital in the country, but a quarter of a millennium is still a very long time to have been serving the medical needs of some of the poorest communities in the country, and well worth celebrating. If you live in East London this'll be a hospital you'll know well. It's huge, for a start, and the hospital's benefactors also had the sense to build right next to a busy main road. None of this modern greenfield miles-from-anywhere rubbish, where every hospital visit means hopping in your car or catching two buses. The Royal London is where the capital's Air Ambulance service is based, so you've probably seen their big red helicopters either in real life or on a TV documentary. And later this year the BBC will be bringing you Casualty 1907, a historical drama series based on genuine Royal London medical records of the era. Alas infamous hospital resident Joseph Merrick (the "Elephant Man") won't be appearing in any of the stories because he died two decades earlier.

As part of my continued commitment to report back to readers on important London events, I paid a special 250th anniversary visit to the Royal London back in May. It's ever so easy to gain free admittance - just dial 999 from any home in the neighbourhood and a kindly chauffeur will arrive at your front door within minutes to whisk you off to the main entrance. I arrived at half past six in the morning, when admission queues were at their quietest, and was given exclusive access to the A&E department's resuscitation room. This is a long off-white gallery with three separate trauma bays, each with various screens, scanners and gadgets hanging from the walls and ceiling. Most visitors only ever get to see the ceiling. As I waited on my trolley for the day shift to arrive it was sobering to reflect that more people have probably died here, four feet off the ground in this windowless room, than in any other location in the whole of Tower Hamlets. Mine, thankfully, was always going to be a two-way visit.

My grand tour next took me to one of the nearby wards, in a desirable location overlooking the snooker club and McDonalds in Whitechapel High Street. I was one of eight special guests taking advantage of the 24 hour full board experience, although not everyone was enjoying the experience (or even conscious of it). Here the courteous staff attended to my every need with a smile, perhaps because I wasn't the moaning one-legged bitch in the corner repeatedly demanding that the nurses remove his catheter, lift him out of the bed and wheel him to the toilet. There was a genuine tropical atmosphere in the ward, due in no small part to the air conditioning having irrevocably broken down some weeks earlier, and those of us tethered to our beds were forced to endure permanent sweaty steam-room conditions.

Brief respite came when I was offered a wheeled excursion of the hospital's lower levels. Naturally I leapt at the opportunity to explore more of this fascinating building. My tour guide pushed me straight through the main entrance hall, past the little shop that sells flowers, chocolates and souvenir model helicopters. On along the main ground floor corridor, its dour architecture somewhat reminiscent of a crumbling Victorian asylum. Then down a level in the spacious silver lift, avoiding the spiralling institutional staircase with its shiny stone steps and curly iron banister. And finally along a grim basement corridor, deftly avoiding oncoming electric vehicles transporting their cargoes of pristine bedlinen, stained gowns and discarded swabs. As I rose from my chair to wait for my two o'clock appointment, I stared out of the back entrance towards the vast building site at the rear of the hospital. 250 years on, the Royal London is being almost completely reborn. A twin-towered 17-storey glass block is being erected immediately behind the existing main building, and within a few years it'll completely dominate this part of East London. My local hospital will be the biggest, most cutting edge, gleaming-est hospital in the whole wide NHS, so they promise. Let's hope they fix the air conditioning as well.

I enjoyed my anniversary visit so much that I've booked to go back again at regular three monthly intervals. It's lucky I'm not sick or anything.

A history of the Royal London Hospital
The Royal London Museum (open weekdays 10-4:30) [hmm, I must go]
Attend the Royal London's annual Open Day [damn, sorry, that was yesterday]
Proposals, siteplan and images of the new Royal London redevelopment

 Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Two minutes walk from my front door

1907 The door to Morlock's bakery is wedged open and welcoming, wafting the smell of fresh-baked bread out into the high street. A flat-capped East End husband waits patiently outside while his wife buys buns and scones for afternoon tea. The flower seller beneath the gaslit lamppost is pinning a buttonhole to the lapel of a gentleman's jacket. Yes, she has change for a sixpence, thank you kind sir. Across the street it's opening time at the Rose and Crown. Above the doorway hangs a shiny glass lantern bearing the name and logo of the local brewery. Jack and his mates from the docks will be propping up the bar and downing the landlady's finest ales until she throws them out at the end of the evening. Jack hopes he'll make enough money down by the wharf tomorrow to be able to get the wife's engagement ring back from the pawnbroker. Business is quiet at the undertakers, and Selby's fine-trimmed horses pass the time by depositing steaming manure onto the cobblestones. Two petticoated servant girls arrive at Mrs Edwards' steam laundry to collect the household's fresh-pressed bedlinen. One of them catches sight of her sweetheart leaning against the drinking fountain on the village green, and giggles and blushes. Business is brisk at a dozen market stalls along the roadside. Candles are four a penny, firewood is plentiful and cheap, and the greengrocer even has oranges in stock. Grubby children in Board School uniform run rings around the horse trough, shrieking and laughing before their parents summon them home for bed. Miss Mary Anne Read rushes from the schoolroom to the butchers to buy herself a brown paper bagful of braised liver as a special suppertime treat. At number 12 Mr Samuels the fishmonger scrubs his green and white tiles clean of scales and slime, before raising the awning and closing up shop for another day. A queue of orphans, invalids and chancers has built up outside the Good Shepherd Mission Hall, hoping for overnight shelter and charity. Perhaps they'll be fortunate tonight. Poverty has aways been visible here on the streets of Bromley. Nothing changes.    2007 The shutters at the newsagent have come down early. A pot-bellied East End bloke pops into the chemists nextdoor for three months supply of tubular bandages. He banters semi-incoherently with the headscarfed lady behind the counter as she drops his boxes into a plastic bag. With a grin he exits, turns left and pauses for breath outside the boarded-up pub. Three centuries of drinking came to an end last year, the last remaining slice of history in this Blitz-ravaged high street. All the windows at the Rose and Crown have been nailed shut, and the paint across the lintel has started to peel. Above the doorway hangs a grimy glass lantern bearing the name and logo of a former local brewery. Several of the pub's regulars have shifted allegiance to the neighbouring betting shop and are stood, or slumped, outside the open doorway clutching cans of value lager. Their faces are glum and grizzled, and only a winning raceslip can brighten their narrow-focused world. The local barber shop has moved away to a brighter location on the main road. Three hooded youths are intently inspecting the graffiti on its whitewashed wall. "Kombat E3" woz ere. "We set the levels". They appear to approve of what they see. A single midweek market stall has been erected on the concrete piazza, just outside the Bangladeshi greengrocers. A white-bearded man sits patiently while two fully-cloaked women haggle over the price of south Asian vegetables, then shuffle off home with this evening's meal in a blue and white striped plastic bag. In the chippie the smiling Polish fish fryer waits while a family of five select unbranded fizzy drinks from the chiller cabinet. A plump old lady in a pink fleece sits alone at the front formica table dining on Pukka pie and chips - best meal of the day. She watches through the window as two young kids cycle round and round in vicious circles before zooming off towards the dry cleaners at great speed. Regeneration has passed this corner of East London by. Nothing changes.

 Tuesday, September 18, 2007

10pm, Central line: The carriage is a complete mess. A carpet of at least 20 free newspapers lies scattered all across the floor - two left over from the from the morning and the rest a fairly even split between Lites and Papers. There are a couple more on the ledge beneath the window, wedged inbetween empty lager cans and rotting apple cores. And I'm forced to pick up yet another off the seat as I sit down. Damn, it's a London Lite, but I guess it'll pass the time between here and Mile End. Two girls enter the carriage at the next station. "Oh hell, what a mess!" says one to the other, before reaching down to the floor and picking up a copy to read herself. Most of the other seated passengers are doing the same. It's late - well after the last freesheet distributor has left their post and gone home - so everybody's reading a recycled paper. Don't even think about where your copy's been since it was thrust into an eager hand several hours ago. Later, as passengers get off, they dump their paper back where they found it ready for somebody else to flick through. And yes, I'm leaving mine back on the seat too, because there's nowhere nearby to dispose of it properly. Somebody'll thank me for it, but probably not the litter collector with their big plastic bag at the far end of the line. Assuming they haven't gone home too.

Multiply this scene by a few hundred and you start to get some idea of the environmental drama playing out every weekday night in every train carriage in London. Things were bad enough when we just had a free morning paper, but the evening freesheet battle raises the stakes to ridiculous new heights.

And whose fault is littered London? Is it the evil press barons merrily flogging advertising space in content-lite gossip rags? Well partly. Is it the in-yer-face distributors standing outside stations yelling "Lite! Lite!" like demented automatons whilst thrusting newsprint into the face of every passer-by? Well sort of. But I lay most of the blame at the feet of those whose job it is to run our stations and our streets. Because there are never any bloody litter bins around when you want to use one!

You're getting off your train in the evening, free paper in hand. Where do you chuck it? Not on the platform, because there are no bins on the platform. They'd only get in the way and slow down passenger movement, apparently. Not in the ticket hall, because there are no bins in the ticket hall. Typical, stations can find always room for a rack of fresh Metros in the morning, but there's never any space for a bin in which to discard your London Paper later in the day. Not on the street outside the station either. You might find one of those special newspaper recycling bins on the pavement in Zone 1 when you're going to work in the morning, if you're lucky, but in the evening there aren't anywhere near as many of them in the suburbs as there ought to be (and if there are they've usually already been filled to overflowing with other non-paper-based litter anyway). So what do you do? You leave your paper on the train instead, that's what. If there's only a very small chance of having somewhere to chuck your freesheet after you've got off, the obvious alternative is to dump it in the carriage.

If clearing up after discarded freesheets costs so much, why doesn't somebody invest in a series of recycling bins outside every London rail and underground station? No matter what our homeward journey, we'd know there'd always be a receptacle at our destination station in which to dispose of our tabloid leftovers. OK, so not everyone would use them, but surely if you gave the public a guaranteed opportunity to dispose of their rubbish properly outside every station, a significant proportion of the litter problem could be cleared up. Hell, why not go the whole hog and introduce litter bins inside stations too. Sorry, I don't buy the "but they might be used by terrorists to hide bombs inside" excuse. It doesn't happen, does it? Just ensure that these new bins have a newspaper-sized slot in the front to make them rucksack- and gelignite-proof, and there'd be no problem anyway. And then we could all use these bins to recycle our disposable reading material, and not just end up dumping them all over our trains, stations and streets. Come on TfL, come on Ken, come on London boroughs. If you'd like us to act responsibly, at least give us the opportunity.

 Monday, September 17, 2007

Stratford International

Stratford InternationalIn the middle of a vast featureless wilderness north of Stratford town centre there's a long glass box and a deep hole. The deep hole houses several parallel railway tracks, and is linked by tunnel to St Pancras at one end and Europe at the other. And the glass box is Stratford International station, from which it'll one day be possible to take a train to Paris or Brussels, One day. But not yet. For the time being this continental gateway stands structurally complete but entirely empty, awaiting fitting out and its first passengers. It's going to be a long wait.

As part of London Open House, a few select interested parties and transport geeks were afforded access to Stratford International station for a rare look around the site. We were probably the only scheduled visitors this site will have for the next couple of years, and we didn't even get anywhere near the platforms. When Eurostar services commence on the High Speed Rail Link on 14 November, they'll speed straight through Stratford at umpteen miles per hour without stopping. Nobody wants to slow down for a miserable East End commuter halt just seven minutes out of St Pancras, not when they could be halfway to the Thames crossing instead.

Stratford InternationalThe station's other main drawback is that there's currently no sensible way of accessing it by road. We got there in a rickety minibus via a lengthy detour round Clays Lane and along several dusty meandering tracks. The main dual carriageway passing the front of the station ends slap bang in the middle of the fenced-off Olympic Zone, so there's no admittance for taxis, cars or buses via this route. You can't walk to the station from anywhere either, not until they build a new footbridge over the platforms at the other Stratford station. There's absolutely nothing on the surrounding site for half a mile in any direction, apart from barren bulldozed scrubland, and it'll stay that way until the Stratford City development starts to cover the area with shops, offices and unaffordable housing. Even the DLR doesn't get this far until 2010. Come back then and Eurostar might have bothered to add Stratford International to their timetables. But don't hold your breath.

Our tour group was ushered inside the empty entrance hall to view the grand spaces in which international travel will eventually commence. It's very long, with one complete wall of glass, and you'll be glad to know that the clocks and toilets are already fully functional. We swept easily through the non-existent ticket barriers and passport control before emerging into another long gallery, this time for arrivals and departures. One day this space will be full of Starbucks and Tie Racks, but for now it's just as vacant as the rest of the building. Messages flash up on the departure board ("Welcome to Stratford International") ("No further services planned") for nobody to read. In one corner is the entrance to the "CIP Lounge" (there'll be no VIPs here, just Commercially Important Persons). And, at either end of the concourse, several long blocked-off staircases and escalators lead down to the platforms below.

Stratford InternationalThere are an awful lot of different railway tracks passing through Stratford - seven in total. The outermost tracks are for stopping Eurostar trains (and there won't be many of them). Next come the fast lines for non-stop international travel, followed by a pair of domestic platforms. Suburban services from London to Kent will (eventually) pass through this way, splitting at the new Ebbsfleet station to head for either Ashford or Canterbury. And finally, running down the centre of Stratford Box, there's a single track for trains bound for the new Eurostar depot at Temple Mills. Trains will be stopping in the local area, oh yes, but only so that the drivers and staff can get on and off. You won't be coming here any time soon, that's for sure.

My photos of the station (start here, or click in the text above)
Better photographs of the Stratford International visit (from IanVisits)
The official "Eurostar moves to St Pancras" blog (hello to one of my readers who's writing it)
Domestic Southeastern services from Kent (due December 2009)
Stratford International DLR (due mid-2010)
Stratford City (due Easter 2011)

www.flickr.com: London Open House 2007
(a full 40 photos to explore)

 Sunday, September 16, 2007

London Open House (day 2): I've been on fewer visits today, but they've been rather more varied and spread out than yesterday. I'll save one of them for tomorrow, but here's everything you need to know about the rest.

Also visited:
St Mary's Church, Bow: It's not the church whose Bow Bells [photo] define the limit of Cockneydom, but it is a 14th century relic sandwiched between the carriageways of a major trunk road. The vicar was delighted to see a very local resident, and I was fascinated to discover even more local history than ever I knew before. I won't bore you with it, not yet anyway... [photo].
posted 18:00

2 Marsham Streetthe Home Office: There used to be three hideous hulking office blocks in Marsham Street, inhabited by the Department of the Environment and wrecking views of Westminster Abbey and Parliament. No longer. These 60s eyesores have been demolished and replaced by three less intrusive buildings, just six storeys high, now home to the newly reorganised Home Office. For Open House they threw open their security doors (to a mere handful of punters who happened to spot the late-entrant tour hidden away on the website) and let us see inside Jack Straw's Empire of Justice. Hello to both of my readers who work there (or thereabouts), nice offices you've got. But the main focus of the tour was to view the public art around the outside of the three buildings - a series initiated when the new occupiers realised they ought to engage more with the surrounding environment. The rooftop is edged with coloured glass panels which cast mid-afternoon down light into the street [photo]. A mysterious 4-part stencilled motif hangs above the main entrance [photo] (three segments are identical, but rotated, while one is different). The motif is repeated in miniature on various other walls, allegedly hiding a secret message known only to a handful of civil servants. Two lockable walkways cut through the Home Office site, each with another special artwork. A chain of fluorescent tubes lights the way beneath one connecting bridge, while tiled "carpets" pave the northern passage [photo]. Alas the tiles here have proved rather slippery in wet weather and so the walkway currently has to be sealed off when it rains, for health and safety reasons. It would, presumably, be rather awkward for the department to have to sue itself.
posted 14:22

Shri Swaminarayan MandirShri Swaminarayan Mandir: The largest Hindu temple outside India can, of course, be found in Neasden. It's a mile long walk from the tube station, along the smelly North Circular and past IKEA. And then suddenly, at the end of a very normal suburban street (just behind a mini roundabout), the mandir's marble pinnacles rise abruptly skyward [photo]. This is no urban Disney castle, this is an important place of daily worship and devoted pilgrimage. Entrance through the ceremonial front gate and up the grand staircase is for special occasions only [photo]. Daily visitors enter via a slightly less impressive route - via the bag/camera deposit kiosk in the car park, then on through a metal detector and security check into the main building. Shoes off (men to the left, ladies to the right) and spiritual inspiration awaits. Directly ahead is a huge pillar-less prayer hall, not especially ornate but capable of accommodating thousands of contemplative worshippers. The main temple is to be found along a trophy-lined corridor, which could very easily be in a golf club or sports centre, and up a slippery marble flight of stairs (choose your socks with care). Several signs politely request absolute silence. The level of intricate detail in the carved walls, roof and pillars is astonishing. Every surface has been loving sculpted to create miniature deities and floral relief. It's hard to believe that the 26000 constituent parts were shipped across from India to be assembled here like a vast divine jigsaw, but it's easy to see why the temple inspires both awe and peace. And yet somehow it's not as big on the inside as it appeared on the outside - a sort of reverse Tardis, I thought. As locals circuited the perimeter muttering prayers and offering up donations to the gods, we Open House visitors felt honoured to be invited into the heart of a thriving spiritual community.
posted 12:37

the Roof GardensThe Roof Gardens: Unseen above Kensington High Street, on top of what used to be the Derry & Toms department store, is a sixth floor green oasis. Its existence explains the appearance this morning in a sidestreet, next to Gap and M&S, of an ever-lengthening queue full of grey-flecked horticulturalist thrill-seekers. If you weren't in line by twenty to nine you faced a very long wait for the lifts. There are three gardens altogether, each as unexpected as the next, as you wander round the rooftop plateau. First a herbaceous Spanish Garden, very Moor-ish, with blooming flowerbeds, watery trench and grape-twined balcony [photo]. The illusion is nigh perfect, bar the church spire nextdoor, and it's easy to forget that this is central Kensington [photo]. Built in 1938, trees and shrubs have had plenty of time to establish themselves, and the soil is deeper than it looks. The Roof Gardens are now part of the Richard Branson empire, and a Virgin flag flutters above the mini-bar and hospitality tent. Don't worry, he's not ruined it. Next to visit, down a long walkway, is the Tudor Courtyard. With white tables and chairs littered everywhere it looks more like a cobbled pub backyard, to be honest, but with much nicer ivy-clad walls. And finally a long thin Woodland Garden, complete with artificial stream, ducks and flamingos. Yes, honest, they've got those up here too - this is proper geographically incorrect decadence. From one corner there's a fine view out across West London [photo] (I've seen better, but still glorious on a bright blue morning such as this). The vista is rather better from the restaurant terrace above, now with trees and shrubs in the foreground, and the London Eye and Gherkin lined up behind the dome of the Royal Albert Hall. Don't tell the even-longer-now queue down below, but the Roof Gardens are always open to the public (so long as no private event has nabbed them first), so there's hope for everyone who still wants to view this elevated horticultural secret.

 Saturday, September 15, 2007

London Open House (day 1): What a glorious sunny day for a trek around central London. I managed to tick off 11 of this year's Open House venues along the way, and without either my camera or mobile phone's batteries quite running out. Around every corner, so it seemed, there was another green banner, another willing grinning volunteer and another lost-looking middle aged couple with an A-Z. There's no other weekend quite like it. Same again tomorrow?

Also visited:
Shoreditch Town Hall: Vast labyrinthine civic warren, abandoned to local government reorganisation in 1965 but currently being restored. Elton John held his 60th birthday party in the main assembly hall [photo].
Hoxton Hall: Another old music hall, this time a thriving local performance space, complete with wooden upper balcony and saucy crimson drapes.
The Johnson Building: Bright new office development in Hatton Garden built around a central six-storey atrium (which is apparently lovely in the sunshine, but the roof doesn't half make a racket when it rains).
Haberdashers' Hall: Modern Smithfield HQ of City livery company (who made their fortune out of hats), set around a peaceful cloistered courtyard [photo].
Wax Chandlers Hall: Rather more compact home of a smaller City livery company (who made their fortune out of beeswax and candles), where I squeezed into the back of a tour when several pre-booked people failed to turn up. A most entertaining half hour tour & talk.
St Mary-le-Bow Church: High church in Cheapside, within the range of whose bells all true Londoners are (allegedly) born. The interior looked rather more modern than I was expecting, especially the stained glass, but the crypt apparently dates back to 1080.
posted 18:00

20 Fleet StreetTo the City, for free entry to two very different corporate entrance lobbies. 20 Fleet Street is the former home of Express Newspapers [photo], and the foyer is an Art Deco masterpiece [photo]. The floor is an elegant ripple of black and blue marble. A central clock (very 30s) hides a tight elliptical spiral staircase. To either side are two large metal murals etched in silver and gold [photo]. And the ceiling looks like an upturned silver lemon squeezer, with several ridges radiating from a central drum. The foyer is abuzz with photographers, snapping with creative fury at every surface and every angle. You can't go wrong with a shot of this building in your portfolio.

It's a different story at 100 Victoria Embankment, the newly renovated HQ of Unilever plc. The curved facade may be the Edwardian original, but builders have scooped out the centre of the old building and replaced it with seven floors of modern offices arranged round a gleaming airy atrium [photo][photo]. There's too long to wait for one of the guided tours, but the company are doling out free tea and ice cream in the lower mezzanine cafe. Free Magnum and cuppa, a perfect mid afternoon treat (also available tomorrow).
posted 15:04

four tube carriages above Great Eastern StreetVillage Underground: A rather less middle aged queue here than at many other Open House venues. That's because this is Shoreditch, and the attraction is four tube carriages hoisted up onto the old Broad Street viaduct [photo] to be used as artists' studios. Entrance is up a narrow iron spiral staircase, with the first two Jubilee stock vehicles resting at the top. Up again, on top of two glass containers [photo], to the higher pair of studios [photo]. Inside we find not straphanging commuters but graphic artists' workspaces. A laptop here, a banana tree there, and laminate worktops everywhere. There are fine views down over the rooftops and building sites of Shoreditch [photo] and, best of all, no unexpected delays due to broken down trains or engineering works.
posted 13:37

Wilton's Music HallWilton's Music Hall: The world's oldest surviving Music Hall lurks up a side alley behind a terrace of houses off Cable Street, E1. It's somehow survived wartime bombing, slum clearance and woodworm, and owes a debt of thanks to Sir John Betjeman for keeping the bulldozers at bay. As you step into the dimly lit auditorium you can easily imagine East End Victorian singing stars stepping out onto the stage to rouse the audience with a chorus of Daisy Daisy or Down At The Old Bull And Bush. Arched alcoves around the crumbling walls have been lit with delicate fairy lights, and there are three recently uncovered golden murals on the rear wall of the upper balcony. Ornate floral relief arches span the ceiling, and the spotlight shining on the central rose quivers every time someone steps on a supporting floorboard below [photo]. It's an astonishingly atmospheric relic of a bygone age and, cor blimey guvnor, it's still open for the occasional performance (Mozart's next). Restoration continues, and another £3½million is needed if the building is to be saved for future generations. I've just spotted the office geek wandering outside - I hope he didn't spot me and think the same thing...
posted 12:50

Kings PlaceKings Place: A brand new mixed-use development just north of King's Cross, beside a backwater basin on the Regent's Canal. It's a building site at the moment (due to open 2008), so I've just had to get togged up in hardhat and fluorescent jacket for the tour. Also joining us were the world's smelliest man and half a party of German tourists. The first floor and above will be the Guardian's new offices, while down below a new public cultural zone is taking shape. We got to stand on a temporary platform 18m above the new chamber music concert hall, and in the canalside rotunda that's planned to become a cafe/bistro. The outer facade is already complete - a unique design of wavy curved glass. Elsewhere there were blokes working, carrying pipes and drinking tea, even on a Saturday. They'll have to get cracking to get the rest of the building ready, and perfect, on time.

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jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

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