diamond geezer

 Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Count 2009

During February 2003 on diamond geezer I kept myself busy by counting things. Ten different counts, to be precise, in a none-too thrilling daily feature called 'The Count'. My 28-day tally chart may have been deathly dull to the rest of you, but I've continued to count those categories again, every February since, just to keep tabs on how my life is changing. This year's figures are also available in graphical form, via Daytum. Below are the remainder of my counts for February 2009, accompanied by the previous statistics and some deep, meaningful pondering.

Count 5 (Nights out): Well, seven doesn't look too bad. I may never regain the lofty social heights of 2003 but at least I've managed to maintain last year's score. Alas, most of these seven nights out are a bit of a sham, and not desperately sociable at all. One was a cinema trip where I spoke only to buy a ticket. One was an Olympic consultation event where I was the sole representative of the local population. Two were public gatherings with speakers, where they spoke to me but I spoke to nobody. One was a swift drink down the pub after work, but brief enough that I was home before six. And one was eating fish and chips on BestMate's sofa. Which leaves a last minute last-day-of-the-month bar excursion as my singular sociable February night out. I am, officially, a hopeless hedonist and a happy hermit.
The number of nights in February 2009 I went out and was vaguely sociable: 7
(2003: 21) (2004: 7) (2005: 2) (2006: 2) (2007: 3) (2008: 7)

Count 6 (Alcohol intake): I thought 2008 was too good to be true. My Becks intake has collapsed since last year, from an average of one bottle a day to an average of one bottle a week. In fact my four bottles were both consumed at the extreme ends of February - two in the first hour after January, and two in the last hour before March. The rest of my February has, alas, been disappointingly teetotal.
Total number of bottles of Becks I drank in February 2009: 4
(2003: 58) (2004: 17) (2005: 0) (2006: 7) (2007: 1) (2008: 28)

Count 7 (Tea intake): Apart from one dodgy year when workplace kettle usage was banned, my tea consumption remains wonderfully consistent. I am, it seems, a four-and-a-half cups a day man. Milk, no sugar, thanks.
Total number of cups of tea I drank in February 2009: 129
(2003: 135) (2004: 135) (2005: 81) (2006: 128) (2007: 137) (2008:134)

Count 8 (Trains used): My train usage remains almost as consistent as my tea consumption. With ridership figures at these levels, you can tell I live in London, can't you?
Total number of trains I travelled on in February 2009: 103
(2003: 103) (2004: 109) (2005: 117) (2006: 107) (2007:100) (2008: 117)

Count 9 (Exercise taken): Unlike the majority of wimpish London travellers, I still attempt to walk up every escalator I ascend. I really don't know how some of you stand there on the right when there's a perfectly good means of exercise to be gained by striding up the left. Indeed, having lost a stone and a half since last February, my escalator climbing is now more powerful and less breathless than this time last year. Alas, recent changes in the nature of my daily commute mean that I no longer get my escalator workout every morning. Somehow the occasional flight of steps just isn't the same. I hope I don't end up putting that stone and a half back on.
Total number of escalators I walked up in February 2009: 28
(2003: 73) (2004: 72) (2005:38) (2006: 35) (2007: 31) (2008: 33)

Count 10 (Mystery count): Sorry to disappoint you all, yet again, but the legendary diamond geezer Mystery Count continues to be zero. It shouldn't have been zero this month, indeed there were several occasions when I thought it was going to be rather higher. But, in the end, not. As I repeatedly discovered, with a mixture of relief and disappointment, this February has thrown up another big fat mystery zero. Ah well, maybe next year...
Total number of times that the mystery event happened in February 2009: 0
(2003: 0) (2004: 0) (2005: 0) (2006: 0) (2007: 0) (2008: 0)

 Friday, February 27, 2009

Every February on diamond geezer I keep myself busy by counting things. Ten different counts, to be precise, in a stats-tastic 28-day feature called The Count. On the off-chance that you haven't been following my daily graphical updates on Daytum, it's now time to reveal some of the results of my month-long survey. A few today, the rest tomorrow. I know this is a bit premature because the final results won't be confirmed until midnight tomorrow, so for now the figures are best estimates. But I'll come back and update them later once the final data is known.

Count 1 (Blog visitors): Down 6000 visitors on last year? Looks rather poor, doesn't it? I appear to have tumbling visitor numbers and there's been a real comedown since 2006. But I've learned not to read too much into my visitor numbers these days because RSS feeds are making the data increasingly unrepresentative. In February's case the figures have been all over the place thanks to external linkage, knocking several years' visitor numbers completely out of kilter. But February's data is still cheery enough, and well up on 2003/4/5, so thanks!
Total number of visits to this webpage in February 2009: 26048
(2003: 2141) (2004: 6917) (2005: 9636) (2006: 42277) (2007: 23082) (2008: 32006)

Count 2 (Blog comments): See, I thought so. Blog commenting has peaked. People used to comment more, and now they comment less. Either I'm more dull than I used to be, or my readers aren't as willing (or as able) to respond. My wagging finger points at RSS feeds, because an increasing percentage of my readership can't even see my comments let alone add to them. And why should they? There's chatter everywhere on the internet these days, and it no longer needs to be here.
Total number of comments on this webpage in February 2009: 472
(2003: 166) (2004: 332) (2005: 463) (2006: 648) (2007: 566) (2008: 504)

Count 3 (Blog content): I'm always convinced every year that I'm writing far more than I was last year. This year, for the first time in ages, it turns out I was right. This is my most prolific February yet, having churned out 15% more words than last year. I used to be astonishingly consistent, generating about 600 words a day, but now I'm averaging more than 700. It may sound small, but that difference really adds up when you write a daily blog. More words, more research, more waffle, more time. And is this extra effort worth it? I suspect not. You probably like that fact that I write 700 words a day, but I bet you'd still come back even if I still wrote 600. Maybe I need to cut back a bit.
Total number of words in diamond geezer in February 2009: 20602
(2003: 14392) (2004: 16214) (2005: 16016) (2006: 15817) (2007: 17102) (2008: 17606)

Work/life balance, February 2009Count 4 (Work/life balance): This is a new category, comparing work rest and play, so I can't compare 2009's figures to anything previous. But I can stare at the figures and go "blimey, do I really spend that much of my time doing that?" Even better, Daytum can visualise my February as a lovely purplish pie chart, reproduced here. Really, I'd never pictured my life quite like this before, and it's fascinating. Let me run you through the details.
• Top left, that's sleep. I sleep about a quarter of the time. That's, erm, quite low isn't it? It's an average of only six hours a day, and quite frequently a bit less than that. Is this normal? I'm sure most people need far more than six hours or they keel over. Me, I don't even need a cup of coffee in the morning to perk me up. Just as well, because if I went to bed at ten every night I'd never get this blog written. But it's not normal, it can't be normal.
• Top right, that's work. I work about a quarter of the time. That may not sound much, but it's still more than I'm contracted to do. It's an average of just under six hours a day, including weekends, because I don't work weekends. And there was me thinking I spend too much of my life at work, and it turns out it's less than 25%. Good job, eh?
• Right hand side, that's travel. I spend only 6% of my time on the move, getting from one place to another. Most of this is getting to and from work, so it's just as well my commute's not too long. Leaves plenty of time for...
• Big chunk at the bottom, that's play. By which I mean it's everything that isn't sleep, work or travel. It's all the hours I have at my disposal to do with what I want. It's eating, blogging, socialising, visiting, tellying, slobbing, that sort of thing. It's me time. And blimey, it's almost half my life. Even better, it's well over half of my waking hours. Oh the joys of being footloose and offspring-less. Oh the sense of freedom, opportunity and possibility that the single life brings. But what do I do with all this spare time, these 300 hours a month? Not enough, to be honest. I keep myself occupied, I'm extremely good at that, and I'm never bored. But I'm also extremely good at dragging things out to fill the time available, and I'm rarely as productive as I could be. Perhaps I need to switch the computer off and get out and have a bit more of a life...
Total number of hours spent doing stuff in February 2009: 672 (=24×28, obviously)
(work: 156) (rest: 173) (play: 300) (travel: 43)

Count 5 (Nights out): Hang on, I still have two more nights to try to boost this one...

 Thursday, February 26, 2009

I'm friends with Stephen Fry I am
I tell him everything I do
I know he reads my every tweet
We're very special chums, we two

        I'm friends with Britney Spears I am
        We're close as online mates can get
        We often share a brief exchange
        I'm sure she'd know me if we met

I'm friends with Johnny Ross I am
He listens to me every day
He grins at all my little jokes
We're similar in every way

        I'm friends with Gordon Brown I am
        He tells me all the Government's news
        I tweet back what I really think
        I know he always notes my views

I'm friends with Phillip Schofe I am
I follow him, he follows me
Of all his eighty thousand fans
He likes me most, I guarantee

        I'm friends with Demi Moore I am
        It's great to chat and to be heard
        I love to comment on her life
        No doubt she heeds my every word

I'm friends with Alan Carr I am
I read his Twitter stream with glee
Then chip in with a merry quip
I bet he laughs as much as me

        I'm friends with Lily Allen too
        Our chat's the highlight of her day
        She knows my every waking move
        (I stalk her too, but that's OK)

I'm friends with Russell Brand I am
He hangs upon my every tweet
I share my thoughts and he shares his
Our close friendship is hard to beat

        I have so many celeb friends
        With whom I regularly speak
        Thanks to Twitter I'm no more
        A sad deluded lonely geek

 Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Dennis Severs' House

Location: 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, E1 6BX [map]
Open: Sunday afternoons; Monday evenings (by candlelight); certain Monday lunchtimes (noon-2pm)
Admission: £12, £8 or £5 (depending on timing)
brief summary: still life drama
Website: www.dennissevershouse.co.uk
Time to set aside: an hour

Dennis Severs' House, in its Christmas fineryJust north of Spitalfields market, in a street that's still half eighteenth century, you'll find an old silk weaver's house with red shutters. Look for the lantern above the front door and, if it's lit, pull on the bell to the right. After a short wait (and upon payment of the requisite fee) you'll be welcomed politely inside. Pay attention to the pep talk, then sssh, not a sound! The building's dead owner would be most disappointed if you uttered even a single word during your visit to his abode. For this is Dennis Severs' house - a unique historical re-enactment where the characters are all in your head. Look past the motley collection of objects, soak in the atmosphere, and step back.

When Dennis moved to Folgate Street 30 years ago, this was no desirable gentrified neighbourhood. But he saw potential in a derelict silk weaver's house at number 18, snapped it up and then set about restoring it in a most unusual way. Different rooms would showcase different periods in the timeline of the house, from the early 18th to the early 20th century. He created an imaginary family, the Jervises, then littered each room with furniture and artefacts to reflect how they might have lived. And then, most brilliantly eccentric of all, Dennis moved in. No electric lights, no central heating, just one man living in the higgledy-piggledy past.

Ten years after Dennis's premature death, his house remains a fascinating and idiosyncratic museum. Visitors wander round from cellar to attic, ten rooms in total, and immerse themselves in what can perhaps best be described as a living experience. Each room is laid out as if the Jervis family have just walked out, and might return at any minute. Flickering candles, washing hanging over the stairs, half eaten snacks - all are hints of a life just departed. And sssh! Your silence is a crucial part of the all-enveloping ambience. Floorboards may creak and distant music may play, but modern voices should play no part whatsoever in your interpretation of events. As written notes from Dennis posted around the house declare, those who feel the need to chatter just "don't get it".

It is, unfortunately, impossible to conduct the tour in complete silence. The house's guardians need to direct you from one floor to the next ("in here first", "now down to the cellar", "upstairs please") and can also be heard whispering to one another about organisational matters when they think you're not listening. Try to block out their occasional mutterings and instead embrace alternative sensory overload. Authentic smells abound, particularly of food and spices in the dining room or kitchen. There are ornaments and ephemera aplenty to keep your eyes enthused, and the trick is to imagine not what they are but why they're there. Another regular printed message from Dennis provides the house's rationale - "You either see it or you don't".

Some of the rooms have a woman's touch - the fictional Mrs Jervis is a strong character throughout. Other rooms are more masculine - the Smoking Room, for example, allows you to step into the drunken aftermath of a scene from a Hogarth painting. The attic rooms are quite bleak, and (I'm seeing it, I'm seeing it) the old four poster's mattress must have been damned cold and uncomfortable to sleep on. Watch out for two modern residents - a parrot that lives in a cage in the front parlour window, and Whitechapel the cat. But it's the former owner we have to thank for the genuine depth of detail throughout Dennis Severs' House. Eccentric, enchanting, illuminating and, yes, unique. The house is the performer here, and you are cordially invited to spend a rare hour as its audience.
by tube: Liverpool Street

D is also for...
» Danson House, Bexley
» Design Museum (I've been)
» Dr Johnson's House (I've been)
» Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (I've been) (small but perfectly formed)
» Dorich House Museum, Kingston
» Dulwich Picture Gallery (I've been)

 Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wig Spotting - an exciting hobby to keep you awake during meetings

When to play: Any time you're bored and there are several middle-aged men in the room.
Equipment required: Functioning eyesight, and a mischievous sense of curiosity.
Number of players: Usually one, but team play is possible if you're able to pass notes under the table or can gesture surreptitiously with a wink.

How to play: Stare at the head of a middle-aged man who appears to have a full head of hair. Allow an element of doubt to creep into your thoughts. Could that hair possibly be in some way artificial? Are those tresses potentially man-made? Has this man slapped on a toupee and is hoping desperately that nobody will notice? Don't let familiarity cloud your thoughts. Even if you've seen this man every day of your working life, start to question his luxurious hirsuteness. Is that hair for real, or is there a secret bald patch underneath? Answer "yes", "no", or "ooh, maybe".

Scoring: Score 25 points if you spot tentative evidence of wig-wearing. Score 50 points if you spot genuine signals of shame-headedness. Score 100 points if you spot conclusive proof of toupee-topping.

Hints and tips: There are many tell-tale signs to watch for. Combine two or more for a convincing diagnosis of artificiality.
» Do the sideburns float a few millimetres above the skin?
» Is the hair thicker than it should be above the nape of the neck, as if there are two layers here?
» Is there a genuine bald patch around the crown, however slight, or is the hair here unnaturally perfect?
» Does this person ever turn up on a Monday morning having had a haircut, or does their style never ever grow?
» Can you see a single hair growing out of the skin, anywhere, or does it all emerge from some unseen foundation?
» Does the hair not so much hang as perch?
» Is there a fringe at the front, and at the side, and at the back?
» Can you see a distinct layered dividing line (for example round the rear of the head from one temple to the other) where the colour or texture of the hair changes?
» Is the lower part of the hair speckled with grey, while the top is suspiciously youthful.
» During the winter months, have you ever seen this person wearing a close-fitting woolly hat? Or do they never dare?
» Does the hair dribble limply over the top of the ear, as if propped up by it, in a way that no natural fibre ever would?
» Stare across the room at a proudly balding man. You know the sort. Thinning on top, the occasional hair erupting from rosy scalp, a waterfall of lank tresses around the crown. Now look back at the man you suspect of wearing a wig. See how unnatural his 'hair' looks compared to reality. QED.
Ending the game: It's unlikely that you'll be able to conclude this game during a single meeting. It may require several opportunities to give a suspicious head the due scrutiny required, and even then the prospective wig may remain little more than a very strong hunch. What you need, for a slamdunk finish, is sudden definitive proof. Perhaps the accidental slippage of the entire toupee following a particularly unwise scratch of the head. Perhaps a two inch backward shift due to excess perspiration underneath on a very hot day. Perhaps a flapping sideburn during a sudden gust from the air conditioning unit. If you're really lucky then your suspect might even turn up to work one day bald and proud, having seen the error of their delusional ways and cast their fake hairpiece aside. Or you could just ask. Go on, I dare you.

 Monday, February 23, 2009

Did I miss this particular press release somewhere?
Britons are to be encouraged to spit in the street, under new legislation launched today. Health Minister Nigel Gobbet announced the move at the launch of a £4m community campaign. The cohesive benefits of spitting are well-proven, he said. We must celebrate diversity, and practitioners of the noble art must no longer be stigmatised.
OK, probably not. But there was a heck of a lot of spitting going on during my weekend.

» A waddling boy in a McKenzie hoodie outside Tesco in Bromley-by-Bow. Ambling along, looking as innocent as the day is long, then casually "kersplat" against the wall.
» The pavement beside the busy market in the Whitechapel Road. The entire stretch thronging with people, but also dappled with pools of bubbling spittle.
» Three teenagers sitting in a Stepney bus shelter. Jabbering away ten to the dozen and then, at approximately sixty second intervals, firing bullets of phlegm into the passing traffic.

And all this as though spitting were the most innocent act on the planet. Gathering up a mouthful of saliva, swirling it around with the tongue and then ejecting it forcibly into public areas. It's not normal, is it? Please tell me this animal behaviour is not yet acceptable.

Why does this spittle ever reach the pavement? What's wrong with covering your mouth? What's wrong with spitting into a handkerchief? Why must these bodily fluids end up on public surfaces which the rest of us have to step on?

More to the point, why the need to spit so regularly in the first place. I manage to go about my daily business without ever feeling the need to evacuate my mouth into mid-air. Why can't others practise similar restraint?

I understand that certain people might be spitting for cultural reasons, or because they do it elsewhere. And I suspect that certain younger folk are spitting for effect, or to mimic the behaviour of certain thoughtless role models. But none of this makes spitting any more pleasant to watch, or to experience.

We shouldn't have to live in fear of mid-air missiles, nor of wiping sputum off our clothes if we accidentally intersect their trajectory. The amount of dog mess on London's pavements is quite enough thanks, without worrying that we might end up treading in human secretion too.

I don't want to rattle on about manners or to demand that spitting in the street be made illegal, because that'd make me sound like a grumpy Mail reader. But I do want to express grave discomfort that such patently unhealthy behaviour appears to be increasingly commonplace and acceptable in modern society.

There's a lot of spit about. Please, mind your gob.

 Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fishy word search: This word search may be small but it contains the names of 34 different fish. How many can you find? Look horizontally, vertically and diagonally.


(All answers now appear in the comments box)

geezer goes out... - for a comedy experience
Richard Herring - The Headmaster's Son
Schooldays are not necessarily the best days of your life, not if the bloke in charge of the school is also your Dad. That's the premise of Richard Herring's latest one-man show (well, one-boy show really), based on his not quite ordinary education at the Kings of Wessex School in Cheddar. Richard was a swotty well-behaved kid in a blazer, who thankfully kept all his teenage ephemera filed away in boxes and wrote down his daily adolescent musings in a diary. Perfectly normal behaviour (matches my life experience, anyway), and perfect material for a 75 minute stand-up monologue. I was won over when Richard described going to school carrying a briefcase and a musical instrument as a "Buckaroo of bullying". He also spent rather a lot of time dwelling on the obsessions of a trying to go out with girls, and then trying (with increasing frustration) to do things with girls once you were going out with them. A fair proportion of the show grubbed along at a rather crude level, which was only appropriate given what teenage boys tend to think about. The audience, most of whom had been of schoolgoing age in the early 80s, nodded sagely when Richard expressed carnal desires for Janet Ellis off Jigsaw. This had proved slightly embarrassing earlier in the week when Ms Ellis was sat in the audience, but last night's show slid by with no such misfortunes. A fine performance all round, from a comedian still coming to terms with no longer being as famous as he once was. He's at the Leicester Square Theatre for one more week (and well chuffed at selling the place out last night), then off on a tour in non-huge venues all around the country. Don't take your Dad, especially if he's a retired headmaster.
[review] [review] [review] [review] [review] [review]
[Rich's review of last night] [my review from 5 years ago]
[Richard's daily blog, 2002-2009]

 Saturday, February 21, 2009

George Lansbury (born 21 February 1859)

George Lansbury Memorial plaque, 39 Bow RoadThere are no prizes for being the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. You don't get to run anything, you're not really important, and nobody remembers you except as the answer to a pub quiz question. Which is why you lot probably aren't particularly well informed about George Lansbury, who was Leader of the Opposition for four years in the early 1930s. George was born exactly 150 years ago, which makes today a bit of a special anniversary. And he was also an East End bloke from Bow, and spent much of his life down my street, so this is an anniversary I feel is well worth celebrating.

Let me tell you ten things about 'Good old George' that you probably didn't know.

i) George was born in Halesworth, Suffolk - a market town so unexciting that George Lansbury is still its most famous resident.

ii) In his mid 20s, George and his young family emigrated briefly to Brisbane, Australia. George took various jobs to try to keep the family fed, including stone-breaking, slaughterhouse work and test match cricket ground maintenence. His antipodean experience of inequality and unemployment helped to shape his political beliefs.

iii) George's first political role was as General Secretary of the Bow & Bromley Liberal Association. From here he moved steadily leftward into radical trade unionism and Marxism, before joining the brand new Labour Party and becoming MP for Bow and Bromley in 1910. Two years later he resigned his seat to force a by-election over the issue of women's suffrage, and lost.

iv) Also in 1912, George was one of the founder members of the Daily Herald - a militant socialist daily newspaper. He steered the paper for the next ten years before handing over control to the TUC and Labour Party. The Daily Herald eventually metamorphosed into The Sun, whose post-Murdoch political slant would no doubt appal the left-wing radical who founded it.

v) In 1921, as Mayor of London's most poverty-stricken borough, George led the Poplar Rates Revolt. He was angry that richer boroughs weren't paying their share of relief to the poor, and so refused to pay £270,000 of local taxes to the London County Council. Thirty councillors were sent to prison for defying the courts, and Poplar Council business had to be conducted from inside Brixton prison.

vi) In 1927, back as Labour MP for Bow and Bromley, George joined the Cabinet as First Commissioner of Works. His many responsibilities included the Royal Parks, and it was he who created the mixed bathing 'Lansbury Lido' on the Serpentine.

vii) The 1931 General Election was the Labour Party's biggest ever landslide defeat. Only one member of the Cabinet kept his seat, and that was George, and so he became Leader of the 46-strong Opposition by default. Even in this lofty position he always travelled from Bow to Westminster by tube - part of a common touch that ensured he remained widely admired, even across party lines.

viii) George was a committed lifelong pacifist, and campaigned to disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. In any decade other than the 1930s he might have got away with it, but German militarisation left him increasingly out of step with reality. He was forced to resign as Labour leader, and took to campaigning for peace across Europe until his death in 1940.

39 Bow Roadix) Four years after George's death, his house at 39 Bow Road was destroyed by a German flying bomb. A block of council housing (and a plaque or two) now mark the site. George's name also lives on in Poplar's sprawling post-war Lansbury Estate, which featured as a Live Architecture exhibit during the Festival of Britain.

x) George has two very famous grandchildren - actress Angela Lansbury and animator Oliver Postgate.

Four special events are being held over the forthcoming week to celebrate George's life and work. The first is this afternoon...
» Saturday 21: Radical Bow - a history walk around Bow & Bromley led by the local vicar and George's biographer – meet at Bow Road station (2pm)
» Sunday 22: Memorial Service - conducted by the local vicar, with guest preacher Rev Dr Kenneth Leech and Monsignor Bruce Kent - at St Mary's Church, Bow Road (4pm)
» Wednesday 25: Panel discussion in Committee Room 4A at the House of Lords - featuring Roy Hattersley and Shirley Williams (arrive by 6.30pm to clear security)
» Friday 27: Panel discussion at Bromley Hall, Bow Road - featuring Tony Benn and Sylvia Pankhurst's biographer (7.30pm)

 Friday, February 20, 2009

I am the King of Holborn station, I am. I've been commuting there every morning for years, and I have the place licked. It can be a real nightmare pushing through the rush-hour crowds in the labyrinthine tunnels. But I know precisely where to go and where to stand in order to beat the crowds. When my Central line train pulls into the westbound platform, I am usually the very first passenger into the exit passageway, leaving hundreds of other less talented commuters trailing in my wake. Trust me, this takes skill and judgement, not brute force and light jogging, and I'm always amazed how easily my fellow commuters allow me to win. So today I thought I'd offload everything I've learnt about my daily tube journey in case any other Bow-to-Holborn commuter should one day find it useful.

London Commuter Handbook: no 6904: Bow Road to Holborn

1) Enter Bow Road station without pausing to pick up a free Metro (because you won't be able to read it during the ensuing crush). Weave through the leftmost ticket barrier, avoiding any comatose ditherers blocking the passage, and head left down to the westbound platform.

2) Pass left along the platform. There's no need to check the 'next train' indicator because you can catch any service going westbound, not just a District line train. Walk approximately halfway along the platform, stopping at its widest point where a trapezium of daylight pours in from the street above. Wait patiently between the two pillars, just to the east of Camera 35.

3) Enter the first train that arrives. Hold back and allow all the other passengers to board first, so that you end up standing immediately inside the closing door. Remember, the last person on at Bow Road will be the first person off at the next station.

4) When the train arrives at Mile End station, disembark. Cross the platform, which should take all of five seconds - this is the world's easiest interchange. At the platform edge move one step to the left to stand directly in front of pillar 16. This positioning is crucial because it allows you to be waiting immediately beside the doors of an incoming train, not immediately in front.

5) Wait for the next Central line train. It's just about possible to read the last few characters on the 'next train' indicator if you poke your head out over the yellow line and peer to the left. If the last letter is an 's', the next train is at least "2 mins" away. If the last letter isn't an 's', the next train is only "1 min" away.

6) When the next Central Line train arrives, you should find yourself standing beside the third set of doors in the third carriage. Be polite and allow all the disembarking passengers out of the train first. Then nip into the carriage sharpish and find a space before the invading hordes nick them all. It may be very hard to squeeze into the jam-packed carriage, but you should have the advantage of a premier position.

7) If possible try to force yourself directly across the carriage to stand beside the doors on the opposite side of the train. These doors won't open until the train reaches Holborn, so squeezing into this spot is of prime importance. Do not 'move right on down the carriage' into the narrow gap between the seats. Hold onto something. Breathe in.

8) Prepare for even more people to attempt to cram into the carriage, especially at Bethnal Green and Bank where the third carriage halts adjacent to the platform entrance. Several people will also attempt to exit the carriage, especially at Bank, St Paul's and Chancery Lane where commuters head to work in the City above. Use all of these station stops to try to edge even closer to the centre of the doors on the left hand side of the train.

9) When the train pulls into Holborn station, you should be in pole position in front of the doors. Smile victoriously at your fellow Holborn disembarkers, who've only now realised that you're standing precisely where they want to be. When the doors open, shoot out onto the platform and stride confidently into the tunnel opposite marked Way Out and Piccadilly Line. Grin smugly, because a huge scrum is about to develop behind you as commuters who weren't in the third carriage queue to reach this particular exit.

10) Turn left, then ascend the short flight of stairs ahead of you. In ten seconds' time this will be a tortoise-speed bottleneck as crowds jam into the narrow passageway to try to exit the platform behind, but right now you're the one at the head of the queue. Turn right at the top of the stairs and almost immediately you'll find yourself at the bottom of the main escalators. First. Congratulations, you are the King of Holborn station you are.

I'm having a great week, because so far I've been the first person off the Central line platform for four days running. If I can win victory again today then this'll be my most successful week ever on the Bow Road → Holborn run. Alas, it'll also be just in time to never ever have to do this journey again. Next week my place of work is relocating, and I'll have to learn a completely different route to optimised success. Where to stand, where to go, where to wait - I'll have to deduce it all again from scratch. I'm sure I'll manage. In the meantime, the role of King of Holborn station is up for grabs. Follow my advice, and it's all yours.

 Thursday, February 19, 2009

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Crystal Palace Museum

Location: Anerley Hill, Crystal Palace SE19 2BA [map]
Open: Saturdays, Sundays & Bank Holidays (11am-4:30pm)
Admission: free
Guided tours: first Sunday of the month (noon, £3.50)
Brief summary: remembering Victorian spectacle
Website: www.crystalpalacemuseum.org.uk
Time to set aside: half an hour

Crystal Palace MuseumIt took me three attempts to visit the Crystal Palace Museum. I turned up on a Sunday in January and it was shut, no explanation. I turned up a couple of Saturdays ago and there was a sign on the locked door apologising for closure due to staff shortage. But I trooped out to the suburbs again last weekend and was finally rewarded by a "Museum Open" sign on the front doorstep. Thankfully my persistence was worth the repeated effort.

You're unlikely to stumble upon the Crystal Palace Museum by mistake. It's visible from the main road but not accessible, and it's accessible from the main park but only if you happen to wander into a muddy corner beside a miserable-looking brick ruin. The museum is housed in an 1880s classroom, which doesn't look like anything special but is in fact the only surviving building from the Palace's glory days. And this is very definitely an old-school exhibition.

You'll not find any buttons to press, artefacts to handle or videos to watch. Instead this is an exhibition presented within a series of glass cases... which is quite appropriate given that the original Crystal Palace was much the same only on a much larger scale. There are an awful lot of photographs on display, most of them lovingly prittsticked with an informative caption underneath. There's heritage ephemera such as tickets, programmes and chunks of roasted floor tile. There's an entire wall given over to a painted scene of what the Great Exhibition might have looked like, assuming it was frequented by cardboard cutouts in Victorian dress. And there's a big scale model of the Palace inside yet another glass case in the centre of the room. The whole place feels very much like a 1960s exhibition about the 1860s.

Crystal Palace (site)Don't knock the presentation. The photographic displays are both evocative and informative, and I learnt a heck of a lot about how important this place used to be. When the great Crystal Palace moved out from Hyde Park to Penge, a whole cross-section of Londoners followed. The main hall was the hub of popular classical music in the late 19th century, and greats such as Liszt and Sullivan performed here beneath the world's largest organ. Twenty consecutive FA Cup Finals were played in the park, and the Girl Guide movement kicked off on the site too. Brock's Fireworks used to put on spectacular themed displays, and a motor-racing circuit ran through the grounds. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury and Queen Victoria were known to pop down every now and then, and high society poured in through a long-closed station adjacent to the palace gates. Until one night in November 1936, that is, when a Great Fire destroyed the entire iron and glass cathedral in hours.

Where the museum succeeded, much to my surprise, was in changing how I viewed the park after I walked back outside. Where previously I'd seen empty terraces and and a big half-empty park, now I could picture the enormity of what had been here before. My Crystal Palace will no longer be a sports ground surrounded by dog walkers, but a living breathing Victorian theme park packed with fountains, funfair and Fairy Archipelago. And that miserable-looking brick ruin beside the museum car park turned out to be the base of a 275-foot water tower designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This South Tower was later used by broadcasting pioneer John Logie Baird as both experimental TV studios and a giant VHF aerial. It's proper historic, that is. And I'd never have guessed if the Museum had been closed.
by train: Crystal Palace

C is also for...
» Carlyle's House (I've been)
» Cartoon Museum
» Charles Dickens Museum (I've been)
» Church Farmhouse Museum, Hendon (I'm waiting for a jamjar moment)
» Churchill Museum (I've been, it's great)
» Clink Prison Museum
» Clockmakers' Museum (I've been)
» Courtauld Institute (I've been)
» Crofton Roman Villa
» Croydon Museum (I've been, they kicked me out)
» Cuming Museum (I've been, it's tiny)

 Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Every Tuesday, on my way home from work, I stop off at the newspaper kiosk outside my nearest tube station. I only ever stop by on Tuesdays, because that's the only day there's something I want to buy. But I always make a point of stopping here, and nowhere else, because I believe in supporting a proper retail independent. And because I always leave with two magazines and a smile.

I used to stop off at the local supermarket. They may have sold only a limited range of magazines, but they sold the two I wanted. Trouble was there was always a long queue, even if I didn't really want to buy much, and I'd always get stuck behind some moron buying a bottle of water with a credit card. And then I discovered that the newspaper kiosk outside the station always had one of my magazines a day earlier than the supermarket, because it had the benefit of mid-afternoon distribution. So I switched my allegiance from the supermarket, and I haven't looked back since.

Initially I had to announce which two magazines I required. But it was always the same cheery bloke behind the counter, the one with a bushy tache and the relaxed grin, and he soon got to know which two magazines I wanted without me asking. This one, this one. I was very impressed by his memory because I'm only a once-a-week visitor, but that's damned good customer service for you.

And now every encounter's much the same. I walk up to the kiosk late on Tuesday afternoon and smile, and I don't have to say a word. Friendly bloke smiles back, leans over on his seat and reaches behind him for a Radio Times. Then he moves his hand a few covers along the shelf for a Time Out and grasps it slowly, no rush. And finally he places the two magazines together, beams, and holds them out to me.

Initially he had to tell me how much my two magazines cost. But I'm a fast learner too, and I started to help him as much as he was helping me. Soon I was arriving at the kiosk every Tuesday with the right money, just to speed things up, and because I'm nice like that. I brought £3.45 for a long time, I remember. Then we had brief spells at £3.48 and £3.50 when the Radio Times cover price started playing silly buggers, and a big leap to £3.80 when Time Out suddenly hiked its cost by 12%.

A new price rise was always a good excuse for a conversation. I don't know, what are they playing at, yes another rise, £4.04 now is it, let me find some more change, ridiculous eh? Or we'd discuss the weather, or the local road works, or something else of irrelevant relevance. It was just enough to make a connection, to build a bond, and to make sure I always came back the following week. Which I always did.

We'll not be meeting again, because time moves on and circumstances dictate. Yesterday evening I turned up at the kiosk with my £4.09, preparing to say a last farewell. I had what I was going to say sketched out, nothing fancy, but a definite vote of thanks for several years of service. Only he wasn't there! Another bloke was in his seat, and this occasional sidekick didn't remember me at all. I had to ask for my two magazines by name, and me having the exact change just looked sad rather than endearing.

So now I'll never get the chance to say goodbye. I'll just vanish from the kiosk's repertoire of customers, and there'll be two more magazines unsold each week. I wonder if smiley bloke will remember me next Tuesday when our routine is broken. I suspect he will, because he's always remembered everything so far. I'd really liked to have paid my dues. I hope he doesn't think I'm ungrateful.

So next week I'm going to have to look elsewhere for my weekly magazine fix. I hope I don't end up having to take a long detour on the way home or, even worse, standing back in that sluggish supermarket queue. I'd really like to give my £4.09 to someone who genuinely deserves it, not a faceless national outlet with only a handful of popular titles by the checkout. I hope I still get the choice.

It seems that Londoners don't want to buy magazines and papers from kiosks in the street any more, not when they can read free tabloid fluff poked into their hands by jabbering pavement-blockers. If this trend continues then we may end up unable to read what we want, only what we're given. They're a dying breed, diamond geezer newsagents. Sorry mate, and thanks.

 Tuesday, February 17, 2009

From: Karen Pyssop [mailto:humanresources@chocolateteapot.com]
Sent: 17 February 2009 07:00
To: AllDepartments; ManagingDirector; SeniorManagement; Accounts; Finance; Admin; Payroll; IT; EveryoneInCatering; TheCleaners; AccountsAgain; MyFriendMary; AFewRandomPeople; NigelIMetOnHoliday; Mum; spam@viagra.spam
<no attachments>

Hello everyone!

Good news! For this year's works outing I'm organising a beer-tasting session in a brewery! What could go wrong? Just follow these simple instructions and I'm sure we'll all have a great time.
The date: Monday 30th February 2009. Put it in your diary now!
The time: 13:00am sharp! Don't be late!
The pick-up point: see attached map
In case I didn't copy you into my previous email, the one that's stuck in your spam filter, I've posted the invite on Facebook. Everyone's on Facebook, aren't they, so you'll be able to all read the details there. Pay careful attention to Rule 7, it's very important.

I've organised some coaches to take us to the brewery. I'm labouring under the mistaken impression that I've ordered 53-seaters, but the company are going to send minibuses instead. Be there early or you won't get aboard, and we wouldn't want you to miss out.

You need to be 18 or over to enter the brewery. We'll be asking to see ID at the door. Make sure you have one of the three recognised forms of ID with you. Only forms of ID on the official list will be permitted. Fail to bring one and we won't let you in. I couldn't be clearer about that.

The brewery boss is going to greet us at reception and tell us a bit about the history of the place. He's actually away at a conference in Galashiels, but he's agreed to ring in and teleconference us for ten minutes between seminars. Don't worry, I know how to turn up the volume on a speakerphone, and I won't accidentally cut him off midway through the opening anecdote.

Health and safety concerns require that all drinks parties in breweries are issued with an official risk evaluation certificate by the council's Envronmental Officer. I've completely overlooked this requirement because risk analysis is for losers. Really, it won't matter, and nobody will stop us on the way in.

I've selected some excellent beers for you to sample! Heindammer's Pure and Old Greengage, for starters, plus BierJerker, Lammerbrau and Big Pig. You have brought the bottle opener, haven't you? I thought you had it. You said you were going to bring it. No, I didn't bring one because you said you were going to. We could always try biting the bottles open with our teeth.

During the afternoon I've organised some party games for us all to to play. They're collaborative brainstoming games based on corporate objectives, and they'll help us to facilitate brand-facing behaviours to develop cross-team synergies. I'm sure this won't put a damper on the afternoon, because it would be really boring if all we did was drink for five hours flat, wouldn't it?

Then we'll round off the day with some frothing real ale fresh from the barrel. I know there'll be some plastic cups around somewhere, so I'll not be taking any with me. It'll be the perfect end to a perfect work's outing.

I expect we shall all be very drunk by this point! I'd like to remind you that work begins at 7am sharp on Tuesday, and that anyone calling in sick or arriving late will be sacked. We want you to have a good time, but there's a recession on and the boss is looking for any excuse to shed personnel.

Please RSVP by Friday 13th February. Have fun everyone! Really, what could go wrong?

Karen Pyssop
Trainee Events Organiser (probation extended)

 Monday, February 16, 2009

 the capital fanzine
 online edition 4 - February 2009

Welcome to London's essential online newsletter! londonerama is the number 1 internet mag for Europe's number 1 city. We have all the news, all the goss and all the up-front info. Well, some of it anyway. Read on...

We're now in the middle of the London Development Agency's latest consultation phase for 2012 legacy planning. What goes where once the Games are over? How will new communities develop in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium? They'd like you to tell them. Hopefully a few more people will bother this week. I went along to a community session last week and turned out to be the sole representative of the community in attendance. I was able have some interesting discussions with the staff, but I'd say the event was more about them telling me stuff than them taking my feedback. Which sort of suggests that the LDA are going to go ahead and enact their plans anyway, and then claim that their chat with a handful of citizens ticked the community consultation box. A bit worrying perhaps, given that the published plans run to several hundred pages of detailed pdfs. The content of these documents looked convincingly positive to me, on a brief skim, and definitely forward-looking enough so long as we yank the country out of recession at some point in the next 30 years. If you think differently, please go and tell them so. There's a plate of uneaten biscuits in it for you.
Legacy plans here, roadshow dates here.

Olympic Stadium Feb 2009I was up on the Greenway last week, snapping my monthly photo of the upcoming Olympic Stadium, when a man in a suit crept up behind me. See that dangly white thing?" he said (or words to that effect). "That's the second roof truss, and if you stay for an hour you'll see a big crane lift it up into place on the roof". I couldn't stay for an hour because I have a life, but I thanked him all the same and watched him wander off to do another day's work with Team Stadium. And, what do you know, he was right.
My pre-truss pic here. Darren's post-truss pic here.
Grim's DykeMore general council hopelessness, this time from Marilyn Ashton, Harrow's Head of Planning. She wants to encourage London families to spend a long weekend (or 'staycation') in the northwest London borough, saving both money and the environment. With her best PR hat on she bleats...
"As well as offering 'unlimited legroom' in our expansive green belt and many parks and excellent restaurants, we also want to promote our heritage attractions such as the RAF Museum at Bentley Priory."
I do wonder what planet she's on. Why seek overnight accommodation in Harrow when the Metropolitan line could whisk you home for peanuts? Why go yomping across Harrow's green belt when Richmond's, Croydon's and Bromley's are so much nicer? Why make a special effort to go to a Harrow park or Harrow restaurant when there are perfectly good parks and restaurants where you live? And as for the heritage, well, sorry, it's a bit limited. No really. Harrow's one of the 20 boroughs I've pulled out of my jamjar, and I only just managed to keep myself amused there for a single day. Most of the interesting places require advance booking, or are only open occasionally or, in the case of RAF Bentley Priory, aren't yet open at all. So far in my random quest round London, only Sutton rates as more tedious. Sorry Harrow, but I think your ambition exceeds your attraction.
Visit the Visit Harrow website here.

The Last RoutemasterRemember Boris's competition to design a replacement Routemaster. Remember the designs that won? Well, now you can see an exhibition of these, and the runners up, in the basement at the London Transport Museum. Lots of the designs are by kids, so they're great but impractical. Most of the rest are by designers, so they're great but expensive. Expect to see a handful of features from a couple of designs in a prototype bus by the end of 2011, maybe. In the meantime, dream on.
Exhibition details here.

London-y album released today
It's called London Conversations, and it's a best-of compilation by Croydon stalwarts St Etienne. Worth considering, maybe, in case you haven't bought something similarly repackaged before.
dg 2009)

 Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine's at Valentines

Suppose that you're a London council with a park called Valentines Park. And suppose that, within that park, there's a mansion called Valentines Mansion. And suppose too that this mansion has been closed for major renovation for the last two years. Well, on what date in February would you choose to reopen the place to the public? Yeah, obviously.

plaque at Valentines MansionValentines Mansion has a long history. Not a thrilling one, it has to be said, but impressive enough for somewhere just outside Ilford. The house was built in 1696 by the Archbishop of Canterbury's son-in-law (I'm sorry, but that's as nationally important as the place ever gets). In the early 18th century the place was expanded, and the gardens prettified to include an ornamental canal, the odd grotto and a big vine. The Valentines Vine is long dead, but a cutting made in 1769 was sent to Hampton Court and still thrives today (yes, indeed, that vine). Various residents came and went over the succeeding decades, until Ilford Council acquired the building in 1912 and used it as (amongst other things) a hospital, a public health centre, and a housing department. And then it fell empty, and then English Heritage got worried about it, and then the Lottery chipped in with some money, and then it reopened yesterday.

The queue of would-be visitors stretching from the front door was half an hour long. I suspect the Redbridge council officials on site were jubilantly embarrassed by that. I passed the time chatting to the slightly deaf old lady in front of me, who remembered the times when she used to bring her children here to play in the gardens, and they didn't run on the lawns like this modern lot. Most of the visitors were of a similar age, although some of "this modern lot" and their parents were queueing too.

stained glass over staircaseOnce inside, the splendour of the renovation job was evident in every room. Nothing ostentatiously ornate, just smart wooden floors and period wallpaper and a rather swish stained glass window above the staircase. A film in the main gallery showed how builders and gardeners and artists had been involved in the restoration work, and even managed to make the process sound interesting. Various actors patrolled the house in character, one in a top hat, one in a lace bonnet, and one showing off his fine calves to all and sundry. In the Bird Room all the display cabinets were full of colourful origami animals, because that's art, while the Drawing Room contained a makeshift cafe doling out hot and cold beverages in non-heritage cups, because that's profit.

The good people of Redbridge crowded the rooms and passageways, taking a first opportunity to explore every nook and cranny. They swarmed round the single interactive history terminal so that nobody else could use it. They crammed into the tiny shop on the first floor, inspecting its stock of plastic rulers, honey and notelets. They allowed their uncontrollable offspring to bounce on the four poster in the bedchamber, much to the annoyance of the lady on duty. They trooped up to the attic to look round six brand new artist's studios, part of the drive to make the reopened mansion lived-in and sustainable. And I think they trooped down to the restored kitchen in the cellar, except I never found that particular room and only read about it in a leaflet on the way home.

Valentine's Mansion dovecote and gardensThe park gardens look like they'll be rather lovely too, as well they should given the millions English Heritage have ploughed into their recreation. The walled Old English Garden is closest to completion, and already smells herby and pleasant. A formal Victorian rose garden (come back in June) leads down to the Long Water, a lengthy pristine pool with ornamental shell-encrusted grottoes at each end. Meanwhile an octagonal dovecote doubles as a rather posh gardeners' shed, and there are plans for a monthly farmers market on the site.

It's hard to believe that ten years ago the council wanted to turn the mansion over to Brewer's Fayre to become an anonymous steak-and-chips outpost on the Cranbrook Road. Thankfully public opinion (and £5m) changed their mind, and the result is a community heritage facility to be proud of. It's not worth travelling miles out of your way to visit, but East Londoners ought to pop in some Tuesday, Wednesday or Sunday for a free look round. And it's Opening Open Day part 2 today, if you fancy a post-Valentine's Valentines visit.

Location: Emerson Road, Ilford IG2 [map]
Website: valentinesmansion.com
by tube: Gants Hill

 Saturday, February 14, 2009

(especially for all those of us for whom Valentine's Day means nothing, here's a post about trains)

Overground (phase 2)

Good news this week that Boris, the Government and TfL have finally got their act together and agreed funding for Phase Two of the new East London Line. It didn't need much, just £75m to link Surrey Quays to the existing South London Line. If all goes to plan London will have a complete (but very slow) orbital railway in time for the Olympics. That's also just in time for the next mayoral election, so this is a quick win for Boris (and leaves sod all for his successor to open). Imagine the joy in south London when Clapham citizens suddenly realise they can get to Dalston without changing trains, or when Peckham residents start surging up to Canada Water to try to squeeze onto the rush hour Jubilee line. It's all means a bright new future for south London and no mistake. Unless you live in Battersea, Brixton or South Bermondsey, in which case the new railway line will whizz past without stopping, just like the old one did, no change there. So it's not all great. Here's a bit more of a guide to where the new trains will, and won't, be stopping. [map] [courtesy London Reconnections]

Clapham Junction: Change here for numerous services to Surrey and Sussex, plus tediously infrequent Overground trains to Willesden.
nearly two miles (not stopping in Battersea, sorry Battersea)
Wandsworth Road: Change here for services to Victoria (although that route might well be cancelled once the East London line takes over so you'll only be able to get to Clapham instead).
less than half a mile (it's barely worth stopping innit?)
Clapham High Street: Which isn't quite on Clapham High Street, not quite, so it's a short walk to the Northern line at Clapham North (which is on Clapham High Street).
two miles (straight through Brixton without stopping, sorry Brixtonites, and no interchange with the Victoria line either, and no changing to trains to Orpington, which is a bit rubbish) (and straight past Loughborough Junction without stopping, so no changing to trains to Wimbledon or St Albans, which is also a bit rubbish) (this whole stretch is a bit rubbish to be honest, because nobody's agreed to fund any improvements to what's here already)
Denmark Hill: Change here for services to Victoria, Blackfriars, Dartford and Sevenoaks (so that's a win)
just under a mile
Peckham Rye: Change here for trains to all over the place (which is great, a proper rail hub)
about three quarters of a mile
Queens Road Peckham: Change here for trains to London Bridge, West Croydon and Beckenham Junction.
nearly a mile
Surrey Canal Road: Except nobody's agreed to fund this station yet, so it might not get built, so the local population may only be able to watch trains zoom by without stopping.
three quarters of a mile (unless they don't build the previous station, in which case this'll be a rather longer gap) (this bit's brand new track, along much the same alignment as some old track last used 100 years ago ) →
Surrey Quays: Change here for London Overground services to Dalston, New Cross and Croydon. Because that's how exciting this new railway will be. Can't wait.

 Friday, February 13, 2009

Darwin 200

A broad variety of homo sapiens visited the Natural History Museum yesterday. There were schoolchildren with rucksacks and clipboards, streaming around the corridors in regulated crocodiles. There were several retired folk, filling another day of leisure with a snatch of highbrow scientific culture. And there was me, popping along because you can't keep me away from a good anniversary. And Charles Darwin's 200th birthday was a damned good anniversary.

Charles Darwin statueI bumped into Mr Darwin halfway up the main staircase. He wasn't saying much, in fact he looked white as a sheet, but he had a fine view looking down across the main hall past Dippy the diplodocus. I bumped into him again down the corridor outside the dinosaur room. He was looking a little more animated this time, dressed in a Victorian morning coat and fielding questions from inquisitive youngsters. I wanted to bump into him again at the Museum's official 200th birthday party, hosted in the austere surroundings of the Marine Invertebrates Gallery, but they wouldn't allow me entry. An operative explained that the event was full, at least by health and safety standards, so none of us waiting outside would be getting any free birthday cake sorry goodbye.

So I did the next best thing and visited the museum's official Big Idea exhibition. It was quite expensive to get in, nine quid for a slow walk round a big room, but felt like decent value for money by the end. The exhibition kicked off with a couple of dead birds on a purple cushion - a first public appearance for Darwin's initial inspiration that something mighty strange might be up with inter-species dissimilarity. And then, ooh, Charlie the green iguana. He was very real, although all he did was sleep on a big branch in a glass case, so he wasn't much more exciting than the stuffed specimens on show further round. A giant tortoise, obviously, and a couple of armadillos and a rhea and a flightless cormorant. It took a genius of Darwin's calibre to realise that all these creatures (and indeed all the rest) were in some way related.

I learnt plenty about Darwin's voyage aboard the Beagle (he nearly didn't go until Josiah Wedgwood chipped in, and he happened to be in Chile at the same time as a major earthquake, and his childhood sweetheart married while he was out of the country for five years). I enjoyed the section about his life at Down House (including a full-sized model of his study, which'll probably save any west Londoners from having to get the bus down to Bromley to see the real thing). I also noted a distinct American tinge to the final, more scientific, section of the exhibition (which peaked when an interactive classification quiz repeatedly told me "Good job!" for correctly identifying a clutch of electronic vertebrates).

This is a fact-dense exhibition, although accessibly so. The accompanying information is beautifully presented, be it for one of the great man's notebooks or his collection of beetles or an explanation of how the whole blessed evolution thing actually works. No sign of God anywhere, though, so best not to come if you believe that the Earth was created in six days flat or else you'll spend all your time muttering at the blatant scientific propaganda. And there is, of course, a shop at the end, should you be unable to venture home without a cuddly Darwin or an iguana pillbox or a seventy quid bronze spyglass. You have until the 19th of April to get down here yourself. It may no longer be the great man's birthday, but at least the exhibition shouldn't be quite so crowded.

 Thursday, February 12, 2009

Today would have been Charles Darwin's 200th birthday (if only human beings had evolved a longevity gene). To celebrate, here's a look around his old house on the rural fringes of Bromley. It's been closed for a major upgrade since October but reopens to the public from tomorrow, and is well worth a look around. I went for a visit in 2006, and this is my (updated) report...

Down House
Location: Luxted Road, Downe BR6 7JT [map]
Open: 11am - 5pm (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Admission: £6.90 £8.80
Website: English Heritage

One of the most important, or most dangerous, houses in the world is located in Downe - a small village on the southeast fringe of London. It was here, five years after his voyage round the world aboard the Beagle, that Charles Darwin set up home. And it was here that he stayed for 40 years until his death, carrying out experiments which would shape our future. I just wish he'd lived somewhere slightly more accessible.

Getting to Down House by car is easy - it's not far from Biggin Hill off the M25. Buses are rather more infrequent, however, and if you miss one then it's at least an hour until the next. You can get to Downe village from Bromley, but I took the to-the-front-door option which involved travelling to Orpington station and then boarding one of TfL's rare but rather splendid minibuses. What fun it was careering through leafy Kent-ish lanes, although there wasn't an obvious bus stop outside the house and the driver overshot somewhat.

Entrance to the house is via the car park, through the big front door into the hallway and then into the obligatory giftshop. I handed over a small rectangular portrait of Charles Darwin in payment, then entered the ground floor to see where the great man lived and worked. An audio guide narrated by David Attenborough provides full background information, both of Darwin's scientific discoveries and of his everyday life here at Down House. All the fixtures and fittings have been restored just as they would have looked in the late 19th century, and very successfully too. The atmosphere is that of a comfortable but happy Victorian family home in which something extraordinary was being thought through.

The highlight of the tour must be the opportunity to stand inside Darwin's wallpapered study. Here he examined thousands of specimens brought back from around the world, using that microscope on the table, and here he mulled over the importance of his many findings, sat in that chair beside the desk. There's the board on which he wrote up his notes, and that's the pen he used for answering his correspondence. Right here is where On The Origin of Species was written, the very spot where men suddenly turned into apes. In this very room evolution was intelligently designed. Even 150 years later Darwin's central argument, created here, still reverberates on.

The other restored rooms downstairs help to give insight into Darwin's family life. In the dining room there's a fine dinner service inherited from his mother, one of the Wedgwoods. In the drawing room his wife Emma would sit and read out loud the latest letters of research to have arrived in the post. And in the games room he was partial to the odd game of billiards with his butler (although backgammon was more his style). Upstairs the focus shifts more towards museum exhibits, with a revamped bicentenary exhibition filling several rooms. Darwin's Beagle journey is explored in depth, as is global reaction to his evolutionary theories, as well as more intimate family portraits showing life at Down House.

Charles was a creature of habit and took a walk round his extensive grounds three times each day. He laid out a long tree-lined 'sandwalk' between two meadows to give himself time and space to think, surrounded by the nature he sought to understand. It's still possible to follow in his gravelly footsteps, round in a big loop between the trees, although you're unlikely to have quite such perceptive thoughts on the way around.

Charles used his garden as a laboratory, it being the perfect spot for cultivating earthworms or growing different strains of apple. In his wooden greenhouse he experimented with carnivorous plants and the cross pollination of orchids, experiments which have been recreated for today's visitors. The grounds of Down House are still both immaculate and productive, and fresh produce is sold off (in season) from a wheelbarrow at the side of the house. This may be a very ordinary corner of rural London, but from this house (and its rich chalkland grounds) one man changed our view of the world forever.
by train (& bus): Bromley (then 146) or Orpington (then R8)

Darwin 200
Darwin at Downe
Darwin 2009 comemmorations
Darwin @ Natural History Museum

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jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

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my special London features
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ten of my favourite posts
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chemical attraction
quality & risk
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single life
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ten sets of lovely photos
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war of the worlds
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