diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Count 2010

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 2010, accompanied by the previous statistics and some deep, meaningful pondering.

Count 5 (Nights out): Four. That's a bit pathetic, isn't it? An average of only once a week, and a reverse of the slight upturn in sociability I've managed for the last couple of years. One of my nights out was a trip to see a comedian in town (went in, laughed, came home). Two of my nights out were meals round at BestMate's place (went over, munched, watched TV, came home). And only one was a 'proper' night out (featuring friends, bars, beer, stumbling home at three in the morning, that sort of thing). I used to do that far more often, but now I look back at the heady days of 2003 and wonder if I was living in some crazy different world. I am, officially, a hopeless hedonist and a happy hermit.
The number of nights in February 2010 I went out and was vaguely sociable: 4
(2003: 21) (2004: 7) (2005: 2) (2006: 2) (2007: 3) (2008: 7) (2009: 7)

Count 6 (Alcohol intake): Maybe I'm going to the wrong pubs, but I swear it's harder or get hold of a bottle of Becks these days. All too often I hear "Ooh no, we don't do that" and have to choose some other lager I like less from the selection available. Or I hear "We've only got that on tap" and have to buy a pint, which fills me with gas quicker and leaves me hiccuping like a crazyman by the end of the evening. Or I hear "We've only got the non-alcoholic version", which is usually accompanied by an apologetic shrug from the bartender as if to say "yes, I know, who'd drink that?". If it hadn't been for that last excuse, my February Becks total would have been six. But instead it's three. I'm really not trying hard enough.
Total number of bottles of Becks I drank in February 2010: 3
(2003: 58) (2004: 17) (2005: 0) (2006: 7) (2007: 1) (2008: 28) (2009: 4)

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 2010: 136
(2003: 135) (2004: 135) (2005: 81) (2006: 128) (2007: 137) (2008:134) (2009: 129)

Count 8 (Trains used): My train ridership used to be as consistent as my tea consumption, but not any more. Since last February I've downgraded from a two-train commute to a one-train commute, and that's knocked my monthly total well below 100 for the first time. If it wasn't for an excess of weekend engineering work requiring me to take far more trains than usual, the figures would no doubt be even lower.
Total number of trains I travelled on in February 2010: 83
(2003: 103) (2004: 109) (2005: 117) (2006: 107) (2007:100) (2008: 117) (2009: 103)

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. Trouble is, I'm not meeting so many escalators in my life at the moment. Changes in the nature of my daily commute mean that I only face the occasional flight of steps every morning, which isn't anywhere near as energetic. But fear not, I've not put any weight on over the last twelve months as a result.
Total number of escalators I walked up in February 2010: 13
(2003: 73) (2004: 72) (2005:38) (2006: 35) (2007: 31) (2008: 33) (2009: 28)

Count 10 (Mystery count): Sorry to disappoint you all, yet again, but the legendary diamond geezer Mystery Count continues to be zero. I had 672 hours to make a difference but, no, a positive count never looked a terribly likely option. Just like all those previous Februaries, it seems, 2010 has thrown up yet another big fat mystery zero. Ah well, maybe next year...
Total number of times that the mystery event happened in February 2010: 0
(2003: 0) (2004: 0) (2005: 0) (2006: 0) (2007: 0) (2008: 0) (2009: 0)

 Saturday, February 27, 2010

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): Up 4000 visitors on last year? Excellent. And I don't fully understand why. I keep a careful eye on my visitor numbers and they're usually pretty static, apart from an unexpected step change about six months ago, since when totals have shifted up a bit. Formerly less than 1000 readers a day, now normally just over. And that's without taking RSS feeds into account, because they make all this readership data increasingly unrepresentative anyway. Ditto external linkage, which is why February's figures for several years past have often been completely out of kilter. But 2010's looking good, and I have you to thank for that.
Total number of visits to this webpage in February 2010: 30264
(2003: 2141) (2004: 6917) (2005: 9636) (2006: 42277) (2007: 23082) (2008: 32006) (2009: 26048)

Count 2 (Blog comments): See, I knew it. Blog commenting has peaked, it peaked a while back, and now we're on the long slippery slope back to inactivity. 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 keen to respond. I hope it's not the former. I think not. My blogging output's been fairly consistent over the past few years, and I don't think I'm being any more boring (or less provocative) than I used to be. Instead I can only point a finger at the online competition, be that Twitter, Facebook or whatever community you lot spent all your time in these days. Writing comments on blogs is old school, like sending a letter to the local paper, noticed by increasingly few as each year goes by. Go on, just look at the figures at the bottom of this paragraph, they sum up the rise and fall of blogging more succinctly than anything I can write.
Total number of comments on this webpage in February 2010: 396
(2003: 166) (2004: 332) (2005: 463) (2006: 648) (2007: 566) (2008: 504) (2009: 472)

Count 3 (Blog content): I'm always convinced every year that I'm writing far more on my blog than I was twelve months ago. And I'm usually right. This turns out to be my most prolific February yet, and that's on top of a leap in output last year too. I'm now averaging more than 750 words a day, at which rate it only takes a few months to add up to the length of a short novel. I don't know when to stop, that's my problem. I always mean to keep it succinct, but then there's something extra I want to add and before I know where I am I've written another daily essay. More words, more research, more waffle, more time. You'd still read this blog if I wrote a bit less, but something inherently anti-social keeps driving me to write a bit more. Maybe I need to cut back a little bit.
Total number of words in diamond geezer in February 2010: 21595
(2003: 14392) (2004: 16214) (2005: 16016) (2006: 15817) (2007: 17102) (2008: 17606) (2009: 20602)

Work/life balance, February 2010Count 4 (Work/life balance): I introduced this category for the first time last year, comparing work, rest and play. So not only can I can stare at the latest figures and go "blimey, do I really spend that much of my time doing that?", I can also check to see if anything's changed. Daytum provides a fascinating way to visualise my February as a lovely purplish pie chart, reproduced here, and 2010's graph has turned out to be really quite similar to 2009. And, I suspect, very different to how your pie chart would look.
• Top left, that's work. I work about a quarter of the time. That may not sound much - it's an average of just over six hours a day - but it's still more than I'm contracted to do. I may have worked 12 hours solid yesterday, but that's the exception, and all those extra hours are easily cancelled out by me not working weekends. I'm working harder than last year, so it seems, but work still only devours about 25% of my life. Good job, eh?
• Top right, that's sleep. I sleep about a quarter of the time. That's, erm, quite low isn't it? It's an average of just under six hours a day - and that's down by about a quarter of an hour since last year. 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.
• Right hand side, that's travel. I spend only 7% of my time on the move, getting from one place to another. Most of this is getting to and from work, and the rest comes from careering around town (and country) at the weekend. 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 oh yes, it's almost half my life. A little less than last year, but still 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 280 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. Yes, I know, I need to switch off my computer and get out and have a bit more of a life...
Total number of hours spent doing stuff in February 2010: 672 (=24×28, obviously)
2010 - (work: 177) (rest: 163) (play: 280) (travel: 52)
2009 - (work: 156) (rest: 173) (play: 300) (travel: 43)

Count 5 (Nights out): Hang on, I still have two more nights to try to switch off my computer and get out and have a bit more of a life......

 Friday, February 26, 2010

The Falcon Brook (part 2)
Balham → Battersea Reach

Strengthened by merged headwaters, the Falcon Brook once flowed north from Balham to the Thames. It used to run through the gap between Wandsworth and Clapham Commons, but the intervening meadows have long since been carpeted over by housing. Very desirable housing, in many cases. I was particularly taken by Montholme Road - an unblemished street of 100+ white-faced bay-windowed Victorian terraces. With Arcadian plasterwork around each door, and maroon and gold tilework in every porch, the local estate agents must rub their hands together every time a property lands on the market. I'd advise buying on the eastern side of the road, though, to avoid a subterranean river bubbling up through the cellar during particularly heavy rain.

Northcote RoadThe next street directly on the Falcon's track is Northcote Road. If you've never been before (and I hadn't), this is a half-mile shopping street with a difference. Of the numerous independent shops strung out along its entire length, a surprisingly high proportion are targeted squarely at Mummys, Daddies and their middle class broods. There's Trotters for children's clothes, Sally's for children's hairdressing, and even two separate branches of Jojo Maman Bébé to cater for maternitywear demand. There's even an "artisan" food market outside the Peppermint pushchair emporium, where I unexpectedly succumbed to a filled croissant from the pop-up Bread Stall. Throw in a homeopathic chemist, a bijou toy shop and London's only honey-specific retail outlet (complete with front-of-house hive), and it's no wonder you can't move for happy families buzzing around at the weekend. They flow down into the Falcon valley from the surrounding inclined sidestreets, forming a human river where once was only trickling water. May Northcote Road's independent character never be diluted.

The Falcon, BatterseaBetween Battersea Rise and Lavender Hill, on the western side of St John's Road, there used to be three large rectangular ponds fed by the river. Long since departed, these are now completely covered over by a meander of mainstream shops. The most imposing department store hereabouts is Debenhams, formerly Allders, formerly Clapham's legendary Arding & Hobbs [photo]. A South London staple for over a century, the sweeping frontage is now somewhat diminished by the presence of a sublet TK Maxx halfway along. On the opposite side of the St John's crossroads stands the most obvious nod to the lost brook's memory - a pub called The Falcon [photo]. With a surviving Victorian interior, and real ales on tap, and reputedly the longest continuous bar in Britain, this isn't your usual town centre binge joint.

After the Falcon pub comes Falcon Road. The river once flowed this way, obviously, underneath Clapham Junction's umpteen tracks and onward into flat territory on the other side. Almost everything over here seems to be named after the Falcon - a furniture shop, the doctor's surgery, a housing estate, even Wandsworth's bleakest park. I'd hope never to have to return to the latter - a crescent of grass hemmed in between railway viaducts, ideal only for five-a-side and rampaging hounds. But that was nothing compared to the Winstanley Estate, an ugly cluster of concrete blocks where Wandsworth Council houses its poorer citizens. The grim shopping parade at the end of Ingrave Road, with its shuttered off-licence and padlocked pharmacy, is so far removed from affluent Northcote Road as to be almost on a different planet. [photo]

Falcon's EndNearly at the Thames now. There's York Gardens to cross, a patch of park whose least attractive feature is also the most relevant - Thames Water's Falconbrook Pumping Station. Stormwater doesn't simply disappear when there's no channel to carry it away, so this building helps to keep Battersea flood-free. The brook used to flow under York Road at York Bridge - approximately where the candle warehouse stands today. This humpback span is echoed in the name of Bridges Court, one of the mega-glass towers to line the Wandsworth riverside [photo]. Face the wrong way and your apartment stares into a car park, or suffers from sporadic rotor noise from the Heliport nextdoor. But pay a little extra and you can revel in the Thamesside panorama, high above the spot where Streatham's stream once emptied, and very definitely no longer does. [photo] [photo]

An approximate map of the Falcon Brook's course
Hatmandu's Falcon Brook walk
The previous 'lost river' in this series - The Westbourne

 Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Falcon Brook (part 1)
Streatham → Balham

Some of London's lost rivers are proper lost. Not just on the surface, but to public memory. Ask anyone outside a small corner of SW London about the Falcon Brook and they'll probably draw a blank, or guess perhaps that it runs through the Scottish Highlands. But this was once a dead ordinary stream down Wandsworth way, which had the grave misfortune to be located precisely where hundreds of thousands of future homeowners would want to live. Today not a drop remains. Indeed there's little rock-solid documented evidence of this river's former path, especially in its upper reaches, so much of what I'm about to write may be a little woolly. But a walk from source to mouth reveals more than a trace, both in name and in the lay of the land, so the Falcon's not lost forever.

It's wiggly tuning fork-shaped, this former river, with a couple of prongs pointing inland and uphill towards SW16. One branch started in Streatham, on the Leigham Court Estate, which is a most elegant late Victorian social housing project (nicknamed the ABCD estate after the initial letters of its four parallel avenues). It's also the only place this year where I've been accosted and asked what I was up to whilst using my camera. "Are you doing a land survey?" the two ladies asked. I told them I was, sort of, and showed them a map pinpointing the very spot we were standing as the start of the river [photo]. They got quite interested at this news, not least the potential impact on their property, and hung around chatting for a few minutes. "Ah that explains," they said, "why the shops at the bottom of the hill sometimes get flooded out". Streatham Hill, that is, where a shallow dip in the High Road between Caesar's nightclub and the Bingo Hall is a lasting reminder of the brook's former passing.

Caesar's, StreathamThere was a lot of Streatham Hill to descend, westward via Criffel and Telford Avenues, until the ground levelled off somewhat just to the north of Tooting Bec Common. This suburban swathe of middle class niceness is perfectly summed up by the name of its local newsagent - The Cosy Corner [photo]. The brook then flowed northwest-ish across Weir Road (possibly relevant, that) and onward into deepest Balham. Again it's the dips in the land that are the biggest giveaway to the former streamlet's path. One such gentle switchback can be found where Balham Hill metamorphoses into Balham High Road, with a Total Garage marking the lowpoint. Neighbouring Oldridge Road follows the valley almost precisely, criss-crossed repeatedly by terraced streets that fall and rise. Who needs a map, when there are contours to follow?

Tooting Bec Common pondTime to backtrack to Falcon source number two, which is to be found further to the south. Some say it's up on Streatham Hill, again, on the council estate above Kwik Fit on the High Road. The evidence looked convincing to me, with more dips in the land and - along Woodbourne Avenue - a residential slope to tumble down. But the accepted map has the Falcon kicking off beyond the Tooting Bec Road, just round the back of the council athletics track. Here it was known as the York Ditch and formed the dividing line between Tooting Graveney Common and Tooting Bec Common (now the line of Doctor Johnson Avenue). Nearby ponds aren't river-related, they're filled-in gravel pits, but are ideal for fishing, duck-feeding or jogging round [photo]. And no, the Lido's not fed by natural waters either, although the brook would undoubtedly have passed close by.

Falcon Brook MansionsI disagreed with the published Falcon map from this point on, because there's no way that any stream can flow uphill. Instead I followed the line of the York Ditch down to the Balham High Road, where I found a Brook Close tucked inbetween Argos and a Tesco Express. More tangible evidence was provided by a modern block of flats above a row of shops, with the name Falcon Brook Mansions written in curly silver lettering over the entrance. Over-fussy from the outside, and seemingly very ordinary boxy apartments on the inside, these "mansions" looked as insignificant as the rivulet they commemorate.

Beyond the railway, at a crossroads on Calbourne Road, the Falcon's two separate headwaters once combined. Again the clues are in the contours - three streets slope up, one slopes down, go figure. And then the main stream headed north, almost in a straight line, all the way down to the Thames. I'll come back and tell you about this very different stretch tomorrow.

 Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Look, sorry, but I need to mention another press release about trains at Bank. Or, more precisely, the DLR. Time to get very excited indeed...
Fifty per cent capacity boost as DLR rolls out three-carriage trains
Hurrah, yesterday it finally happened, after umpteen years of upgrades. From two carriages to three, this is indeed a 50% increase in capacity, and East London's DLR travellers should all be feeling jolly chuffed. Except it's not quite as good as the headline suggests.
An extra carriage is being added to trains on the railway's busiest route, Bank - Lewisham, to provide 50 per cent more space for passengers, which will allow Docklands Light Railway to meet increasing demand.
Yes, this is only an improvement on one of the DLR's routes. The rest are all stuck with two carriages "until demand requires" (i.e. for the foreseeable future). This may be a 50% increase on part of the network, but it's rather less than 50% overall.
Passengers on the Docklands Light Railway are set for a significant expansion in service as the first of a fleet of new three-carriage trains went into public service today.
Yes, there's only one three-carriage train at the moment. There'll be more soon, but not yet. Lucky you if you manage to find it, that's a 50% increase for your journey. And bad luck if you don't. The DLR owns enough carriages to run about 50 trains, so if one of these gains one extra carriage then I calculate this to be a 2% increase. There'll be a far greater boost in capacity eventually, obviously, as more and more three-carriage trains are introduced, but for now the actual increase is rather tiddly. More like...
Two per cent capacity boost as DLR rolls out three-carriage train
Lucky me, I managed to find the big one. It pulled in beside me at Poplar station last night, (which surprised me, not being on the Bank to Lewisham route) and proudly filled the complete length of the extended platform. Alas the guard then promptly kicked everybody off so that the train could roll back into the depot, so I didn't get to go for a ride.

But you might be more fortunate. You might stumble upon this magic extra 2% while it's properly operational, and smile at actually finding a seat for a change. But hurry if you're intending to ride it to Bank, because Bank station seizes up for escalator work next week, remember, and YOU MUST AVOID BANK STATION AT ALL COSTS (OR ELSE). All that extra capacity, and nowhere to go.

 Tuesday, February 23, 2010

With London Fashion Week now well underway, our capital once again reveals itself as the nucleus of European haute couture. Every citizen a trend-setter, every pavement a catwalk. Londoners wear their clothes with verve and style, and what kicks off here reverberates around the world. Who couldn't fail to be impressed?

Toppermost trend of the season is the "overcoat". Everybody's wearing one, either buttoned or zipped, as this fashion statement sweeps the streets. Key colours include khaki, dark blue and grey, with the general consensus veering very much towards black. Padded fabric brings glamour, and added warmth, while wool blend and waterproof polyester continue to be popular. Pockets are usually external at rib height, but occasionally located top-chest or mid-sleeve. The word is out - expect to see an overcoat across shoulders near you soon.

London's cognoscenti mix and match their outerwear with a variety of modish accoutrements. Woollen strips looped and knotted are the order of the day, in a bold elemental statement they call a "scarf". Another favoured neckpiece is the "hood", always rear-aligned, usually loosely dangling. This may look like a needless extra, vulnerable to filling up during rain showers, but each hood doubles as waterproof protection if rotated upwards over the top of the head. Innovation combined with practicality - that's London à la mode.

Trousers are long this season, extending below the knee then further below the ankle. Denim is the fabric of choice - usually well-worn, distressed or stained, rarely pristine. These indigo strides clothe the legs of all and sundry, part of an unspoken movement, a shared legwear consensus. Meanwhile, nestling cosily beneath hem level, London has fondly embraced the "boot". Ideal protection from wintry splashes, this high-sided footwear adds a show-stopping boldness to any outfit. And for those with more heart than sole, there's always the "trainer". Bright young things think nothing of sporting pumps in electric colours like beige or navy, and this understated classic never dates.

When Londonfolk step out on fashion parade, eclectic headgear is de rigeur. Rising star this semester is the "bobble hat", worn with or without pompom, pulled down over the hair to create an insulating layer. While some prefer knitted stripes, others plump for plain (with the logo of their favourite sporting brand an optional extra). Alternative millinery comes in the shape of the "flat cap" - a headstrong vintage worn without irony by today's great-grandkids. Watch out too for the ubiquitous "trapper hat" - a faux-fur confection ideal for protecting chilled lobes. Whatever sartorial option is chosen, those with flair always aspire to combine individuality and comfort.

Finally we celebrate those unique accessories which elevate any outfit above the everyday. An "umbrella", obviously, at the moment, and maybe a pair of thin white cables trailing limply from the ears. No Londoner dares venture far without a bag, occasionally low-slung and canvas, but more often of synthetic origin. A plastic carrier encircling the wrist like a bracelet, or a "rucksack" sourced from the exclusive Argos collection - these are our capital's transports of delight.

Ride any train, walk any street, and you'll see the London Look everywhere. So natural it appears to have been thrown together with no forethought whatsoever, so effortless it appears to have been assembled on no budget at all. Real fashion's more Primark than Prada, whatever the glossies might tell you, and the true model citizens are you and me.

 Monday, February 22, 2010

Vote2010: Bethnal Green and Bow

For the next few weeks, my MP remains George Galloway. But at the next General Election George will be moving on, presumably to do bugger all somewhere else, which is is good news for representative democracy in East London. Who'll replace him? It's not as straight-forward a question as you might think. In any normal year, Bethnal Green and Bow is about as safe a Labour stronghold as you can get. But 2005 proved that upsets can happen, and 2010 isn't exactly shaping up to be Labour's year.

Four of the major candidates for the forthcoming election are known (and I'll come back and write a post about them after Gordon names the day). But one of the major parties has yet to make up its mind. They're leaving it a bit late.
• Labour: Rushanara Ali [website]
• Green: Farid Bakht [website]
• Liberal Democrat: Ajmal Masroor [website]
• Respect: Abjol Miah [website]
• Conservative: to be confirmed
The Bethnal Green and Bow Conservative Association attempted to select a candidate this time last year, and failed. They held an open primary in a Stepney church hall and invited the public to come along and vote for a winner. Anyone could attend, not just local Conservative party members, so long as they were on the electoral roll and had pre-registered. Those present listened to speeches from a shortlist of three, and engaged in a Q&A from the floor, then voted for their preferred candidate. Except that their preferred candidate wasn't endorsed by local party members - they've never quite admitted why - so the entire process was rendered null and void. Bethnal Green and Bow's been Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate-less ever since.

On Sunday week they're trying again. Another open primary, same rules, but this time with six wannabe MPs on the slate. One of the previous trio is back to fight again, one has already been selected elsewhere in London, and the other gentleman is conspicuous by his absence. So, who is there to select from this time?
» Graeme Archer (nearly-local statistician, and prolific Tory blogger) [website] [facebook]
» Kemal Butt (councillor for, er, Moor Park, SW Herts) [profile]
» Maria Ioannou (publisher)
» Zafir Khan (community affairs officer)
» Claire Palmer (barrister, Chair of Bow Conservatives, having another go) [website]
» Ali Stow (strategic planner) [profile]
One of these folk will be picked by public vote on March 7th to become the East End's newly-anointed true blue nominee. I can only hope that the local Conservative Association has faith in each and every person on the shortlist, because it would be terribly embarrassing if yet another selection process ended in embarrassing rejection. If you're a Conservative voter living in the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency then check out how to pre-register, and your vote could significantly influence the democratic process. Alternatively, if you live locally but support any other party, there's nothing stopping you heading down to St Hilda's Community Centre, listening to all the speeches and then voting for the candidate you think is the biggest electoral liability. Your choice.

The whole "Open Primary" process, although technically transparent and representative, sounds terribly risky to me. It's like X Factor politics - a headline grabbing initiative that doesn't necessarily kickstart long-term careers. It's supposed to ensure "a mandate from the whole electorate", but it guarantees nothing of the sort. The candidate who buses in the most supporters can outgun the candidate who'd make the best MP. Opposition political parties can have their say and bias the outcome of the final vote. And, in this case, there's even a risk that Gordon could call the election early before anyone's even been selected. Whoever takes the blue riband on Sunday week, they'll certainly have a lot of catching up to do.

Sunday 7th March update: And the winner is Zafir Khan. A report in the comments here suggests that the audience comprised mostly Bangladeshi voters, and this photo of the selection meeting seems to confirm that. A Muslim MP for BG&B now looks a dead cert, whichever party wins.

 Sunday, February 21, 2010

03:00 Do excuse me. I went out last night (hic) and have only just stumbled in from the cold. I'm pleased to report that my February Becks count, which a few hours ago stood at zero, now rates a boozy bottled-up three. And would have been six, if only the second bar had actually sold the stuff, damn them. I think a long sleep beckons. And then I need to get up and get moving, because tonight I'm doing something I've not done for years. I'm having an overnight visitor. So much to do, so little time.

10:27 After a decent night's sleep I'm woken by unforecast rain beating against my windows. Good, that'll encourage me to stay indoors rather than waste my day gallivanting off somewhere. There are always 'things to do' before a visitor arrives, and I really need to knuckle down and get them done. A bit of tidying up, a lot of clearing away, then making sure there's food in the fridge and generally readying the place for two-person occupation. When you live by yourself, without an audience, it's easy to slip into certain ways that others might find sub-optimal. I'm looking around right now and deciding where to start. Probably with breakfast, and then I think I'll take it from there.

12:16 Ok, that's the bathroom sorted. It was the corner behind the door which needed the biggest seeing-to. I never normally need to close the bathroom door, there's no need, which is a little unnerving when a visitor comes round and exposes the dusty micro-environment lurking beyond. Shouldn't be a problem this time. I'll never have one of those bathrooms that gleams and sparkles like a TV advert, but I've been scrubbing so hard that mine currently smells like a lemon explosion in a pine forest.

13:52 I've remembered to stick a post-it note to the fridge door handle. This broke a while back, a hairline fracture you'd not necessarily notice before grabbing hold, and one more accidental tug would surely snap the plastic outright. Superglue's proved ineffective, and my letting agents have thus far failed to track down a replacement part, so I've had to teach myself over several months to open the door via alternative means. Not a problem, not while there's only me in the house, but one single visitor instinctively delving for some milk could cause irreversible damage. Hence the post-it note. I bet it falls off overnight.

15:38 I suffer dreadfully from piles. Piles of paperwork and other stuff around the house, that is, which doesn't normally correlate with an inability to sit down. These piles include semi-important papers I need to deal with and other things I might want to refer to later, and by leaving these on view I ensure I they don't get don't overlooked. Then when guests are expected I endeavour to tidy these piles away, lest perhaps my visitors imagine I always live my life like this. Sometimes I stash the contents elsewhere, sometimes I combine smaller heaps to make one larger megapile, and sometimes I realise the paperwork wasn't worth keeping after all and chuck it out. I've done well today, filing lots away and exposing gleaming surfaces to daylight. But I know I'll set about recluttering once my visitor's left, else I'll surely forget where I've stashed everything, and that would never do.

17:03 When I lived nearer to Norfolk, my family used to come visiting a lot more often that they do now. I'd always rush round with the duster and hoover before they arrived, for that final homely touch, trying to make sure I'd covered every location they might possibly look. I'd always fail. The sun would inevitably come out just after they'd arrived, illuminating one dusty corner or imperfect surface I'd not previously thought to notice, and my omission would be duly noted. Tonight's family visitation occurs after dark, and the chief inquisitor won't be present, so this time I'm hopeful that my forgotten crevices will go unnoticed.

18:33 I had it all planned out. Still plenty of time for a final whisk round, and to iron my shirt for work, and to sort out the sleeping bag, even to finish off writing a post for the blog tomorrow. That and setting the video, because visitors never want to watch the same thing you do, and having a shave, because I don't normally have to on a Sunday and I forgot earlier. But my visitor's just rung to say he caught a rather earlier train than expected, so I'm about ninety minutes short in my calculated preparation time. Best laid plans, and all that. Not to worry, I'm sure I can tweak those last few finishing touches in the brief time that remains.

19:06 That's the doorbell, heralding an unfamiliar experience, and time to welcome an overnight guest to my humble abode. Fingers crossed my brother won't notice how much rushing around I've done to get the place ready (at least, not until he gets back home tomorrow and reads this).

 Saturday, February 20, 2010

London 2012  Olympic update
  North Greenwich Arena

Some press releases make me smile.
Planning permission has been granted for London 2012's plans to use the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich and North Greenwich Arena during the London 2012 Games.
That won't have made everyone smile. Lots of people, especially men with big guns, are very cross that the 2012 shooting gallery will be in Woolwich. They're cross because the Woolwich facilities will be fleeting and temporary, so these Olympic millions will leave no permanent sporting legacy. In particular there's already a perfectly good firing ground at Bisley, they argue, which could have been used ever so cheaply instead. But Surrey's not close enough to the Olympic Village, no can do. It's more important to be local than to save money, so we're told.

Meanwhile this planning permission confirms that various gymnastic events are indeed to be held at the North Greenwich Arena. But not the rhythmic gymnastics, nor the badminton, both of which were originally going to be held in a separate venue constructed nearby. Boris has persuaded all the necessary authorities that these two events should be held at Wembley Arena instead, because not building a temporary arena in Greenwich will save Londoners £5 each. Wembley may be a lot further away from the Olympic Village but that doesn't matter, not in this case. It's more important to save money than to be local, so we're told.
Sebastian Coe, Chairman of LOCOG, said: 'This is very good news and a vital step forward in our preparations for the Games. These venues are an important part of the cluster of sports being staged in Greenwich. North Greenwich Arena is without doubt an outstanding venue and will be a spectacular sporting stage in 2012.'
But Seb's announcement isn't why I'm smiling. I'm smiling because I know what the North Greenwich Arena currently is. A footnote at the bottom of the press release explains all.
The North Greenwich Arena is known to the public as the 02. At Games-time and for all Games-related matters, it will be referred to as the North Greenwich Arena. This is to accommodate the International Olympic Committee’s clean venues policy and LOCOG’s partnership agreement with BT.
Peninsula SquareIt used to be called the Millennium Dome, and then it got renamed after a publicity-seeking mobile phone company who'd paid millions for the rights. But not in 2012. For a few glorious weeks, when the eyes of a global TV audience are fixed upon London, all of the sponsored nameplates are going to have to come down. Pity poor 02, a company intimately associated with the most successful concert venue in Europe, who when the world comes knocking will be forced to fall silent. No, really, you don't know how much this makes me smile.

Because the name - North Greenwich Arena - it's utterly dreadful, isn't it? It's the sort of name a committee of faceless bureaucrats would think up, and probably did, with no memorable charisma whatsoever. It's the complete opposite of "02", which sounds like it was dreamt up by a couple of wacky PR folk during a brainstorming session in a Slough hotel one Monday afternoon, and who were then extremely surprised when big bosses snapped up the name and imprinted it on everything they produced. From 02 to North Greenwich Arena, this really is the ultimate marketing comedown.

And especially unfortunate because 02 was originally formed out of the demerger of BT's former mobile phone operations. Now it's BT in the hotseat as an official 2012 partner, so absolutely no mention of any same-sector competitor must pass Olympic lips. Oh how delicious. A company who relaunched the Dome in 2007 with "Trademark & Copyright Team" enforcement agents patrolling outside the main entrance are now to be silenced by the same petty blinkered rules they usually try to impress on others.

OK, so the 02's eclipse won't last very long, but enforced erasure will occur at the precise moment when potential publicity is at its maximum. In its place we'll get a less strident gymnastic venue, a temple not to profit but to athletic endeavour, with absolutely no mention of oxygen molecules on pain of litigation. And we'll get the most tedious venue name ever - the North Greenwich Arena, more a bland than a brand. Permit me a broad grin, just this once.

 Friday, February 19, 2010

On EastEnders' 25th anniversary, where else to visit but Albert Square? Walford may not exist, and E20 may be but a figment of the scriptwriters' imagination, but surely London boasts an Albert Square somewhere? As it turns out, it boasts two.

Albert Square, E15
Albert Square, E15It's not quite proper East End, but near enough. This Albert Square's in Maryland, on the non-Olympic side of Stratford, in a part of town no tourist would ever go near. And it's not a square. This Albert Square's an elongated "L" shape, more like half of a very long rectangle, indeed more like an ordinary terraced street than a centrally-focused hub. The Square's Victorian in origin - it would have to be with a name like Albert - and a couple of the older rows of houses bear datemarks from 1875 and 1877. There's a wide range of dwellings along its length, the majority being tight-packed bay-windowed terraces. A huddle of chimneypots on the roof, a mesh of net curtains across the windows, a flank of peeling walls that have all seen better days. Some residents treat their homes like little castles, but in this Albert Square the houseproud are outnumbered by the weatherbeaten. There are wheelie bins everywhere, at least one in every tiny front garden, their lids wedged open by pizza cartons, bags of newspapers and empty detergent bottles. If you ever need proof that EastEnders on the telly isn't real, the lack of overflowing wheelie bins should be the dead giveaway.

There are no Cockney knees-ups on these pavements, but there's life enough. Two excitable kids wait at the garden gate for their mother to emerge and take them to the park. A pair of young women totter back from the shops carrying non-designer carrier bags. A blue-van man climbs into his driving seat and stares at passers-by suspiciously before eventually daring to drive away. They take Neighbourhood Watch very seriously around here. Since my last visit, five years ago, a couple of plots have undergone a radical transformation. The patch of wasteland at the Square's dogleg has been built upon, big time, taken over by a timbered block of over-bold yet homely flats. They've had to number them 61A-61F, as a hint to current householders of how little space each actually owns. Meanwhile at the other end of the Square, overlooking the main railway, there used to be a pub called the Albert House. Later there was even a "Queen Vic" pub sign outside, but that's gone now, and so's the pub. In its place is a particularly characterless newbuild called Basle House, no doubt comfy enough inside, but it doesn't serve pints or host darts matches or boast a brassy blonde barmaid. This Albert Square's genuine enough, but it's no integrated community.

Albert Square, SW8
Albert Square, SW8On the other side of town, off the northern end of the Clapham Road in sunny Stockwell, there's a very different Albert Square. The surrounding area's characterised by a hotchpotch of diverse residential styles, jammed randomly together as though some Lambeth town planner filled each block by rolling a dice. If so, then Albert Square's the local 6. It's a proper Victorian square (OK, oblong, truth be told), surrounded by a wall of prim stucco townhouses. Each is two storeys too high to be part of the EastEnders set, and rather too posh as well. An unbroken ring of arched windows encircles the square at ground floor level, with access to each front door via a balustraded staircase. These elegant dwellings could all have been divided up into flats by now, and some have, but most remain owner-occupied and aloof. Roger Moore grew up in one of them, don't you know, and Joanna Lumley's a current resident here or hereabouts. Albert Square E20, by comparison, can boast nobody more famous than Barbara Windsor.

At the heart of the Square, as befits so desirable an enclave, lies an extensive private garden. I say garden, it's more a patch of waterlogged grass at the moment, surrounded by a perimeter of railings, shrubs and mature trees. Once tended by pioneering botanist John Tradescant, this garden's now firmly padlocked at each entrance, presumably because the residents association wouldn't want any old local to venture inside and exercise their mutt on the lawn. There's no playground here, nor even a lovingly-tended flowerbed - the only amenity is a single wooden bench with its back to the hollybush. Dearest Arthur is commemorated with a blue plaque nearby - that's Arthur Rackham the children's illustrator, not Pauline's philandering husband. Had the Fowlers ever lived here they'd have been holed up in Regency Court, the ugly 60s block on the corner (near the speed humps), whose sole redeeming feature is that you can't see Regency Court out of the window. Other than these modern flats, Albert Square SW8 is a place with true character and history, and even boasts its own blog. But very definitely not a launderette, nor a used car lot, nor a gaggle of screeching East Enders.

So when you're watching E20 tonight, remember, 25 years, that's nothing compared to the real thing.

See also...

Bromley-by-Bow E3 (The Real EastEnders - my 20th anniversary tribute from 2005)
Fassett Square E8 (A square in Hackney - inspiration for the BBC soap opera)

 Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's taken a while.
More than three years, in fact.

Concerned that this might be pointlessly addictive.
posted by diamondgeezer [10:15 AM Dec 10th, 2006]

But I've finally got round to writing my 1000th tweet.
I'm so terribly behind schedule.

Having a nice cup of tea
posted by diamondgeezer [09:00 PM Feb 17th, 2010]

Most Twitterers tweet more often. I know this because I've counted. I've been back to check up on the first 20 people I followed on Twitter (or, at least, those who are still going, which makes this a slightly self-selecting sample). Of those 20 people, 90% have already posted more than 1000 tweets. 85% are over 2000, half are over 5000 and two are into five figures. I'm not really trying, am I?

I've averaged one tweet every 28 hours between 2006 and now, which sounds like it ought to add up to quite a lot. But when there are people out there dribbling forth their every waking thought in 140 characters or less, my occasional outbursts rank as mere amateurishness. I try to tweet quality, rather than quantity, and I think that puts me in the minority.

When I started out on Twitter (user number 54943, don't you know), it wasn't immediately obvious what possible use the service might have. Micro-blogging, perhaps, or the opportunity to reveal to the world what you were eating for breakfast. But, since the site truly took off early last year, I think Twitter's made its mark in three very particular ways. As follows.

What's going on?
posted by somebodyididntknowverywellbefore [1 minute ago]
It seemed ridiculous that an online miniature messaging service could help to bring people closer together. But Twitter has been a revelation. I know far more about certain internet users from their tweets than I ever learned about them from their blogs. Ten words of exasperation posted in the heat of the moment reveal more about someone's character than a thousand carefully chosen words arguing some esoteric point or listing everything they did on holiday. Twitter means I'm there with you on your evening commute, I share your misery when the baby's sick and I cheer with you when that goal hits the back of the net. We even all watch TV together, wherever we might be, and revel in sharing points of order and hilarity. It's the minutiae of life that make us all rounded individuals, and Twitter helps to share these with people we'd not otherwise tell.

What's going on?
posted by tediousselfpromotinglinkspammer [2 minutes ago]
And then there's the downside. Millions of people are only on Twitter to get noticed, so their contribution is an endless succession of "look at me" flag-waving. I just posted something on my blog, come see. This brand/restaurant/website is phenomenal, do share. Hello celebrity, I'm talking to you. And (my personal least-favourite, this) I just noticed this story in the media, you should read it. Thankfully it's possible to ignore most of these people simply by not following them, although their tedious "social media" influence permeates the entire site. They offer nothing of themselves, they're only out for themselves, and they add nothing that interests me.

What's going on?
posted by inadvertentlyrevealingtoomuch [3 minutes ago]
But what Twitter's really helped to bring about is the exposure of what was once private into the public domain. It allows conversations to take place in real time, in the real world, with everybody else watching. Previously two mates from opposite ends of the country might have communicated via MSN, now they banter by tweet and allow me to watch. Previously an invite to the pub might have arrived via SMS, now it arrives online and if you're in the area you can gatecrash. Previously you might have tried to get my attention via email, now you shout my name on Twitter and hope that I notice. It's a pitch-perfect opportunity for stalkers to get to know you too well, or for advertisers to precisely target your interests, or for the whole world to discover when you're suffering from PMT. Some people tweet too much.

And that's why I don't tweet very often.
a) Blogging's community enough for me
b) I'm not out to promote myself or others
c) I still prefer one-to-one communication to be in private

But I will happily tell you when I'm having a nice cup of tea.

 Wednesday, February 17, 2010

9.00am Doris wheels her trolley round the corner from the kitchen to the meeting room. She's been in the building since daybreak, firing up the hot water and ripping the clingfilm. Her collated handiwork now stands waiting in the corner by the door. One screw-top jug filled with non-Starbucks coffee. One giant thermos filled with once-boiling water. A bowl of teabags, both standard and non-standard, alongside far too many sachets of sweetener. Five teaspoons and assorted crockery. A litre of sustainable tapwater. A jug of milk, shrinkwrapped for hygiene. And a plate of assorted biscuits, specially arranged with the chocolate fingers round the edge, just like Doris does every morning.

11.00am She creeps back into the room to collect what's left of her beverage selection. Better-behaved attendees have placed their dirty cups on the lower levels of the trolley, but the rest of us still have our brown-stained receptacles closer at hand. Doris moves amongst us to collect them in. She smiles graciously throughout, returning to the door in twos and threes until the working surface is cleared of debris. "Shall I leave the biscuits?"

12.00noon Lunch arrives, and the meeting instinctively turns around to see what we've got. The Prestige Sandwich Selection, by the looks of it. Doris has been around long enough to remember the days when she and Jean sliced the bread and spread the butter themselves in the kitchen nextdoor. Now she serves up somebody else's triple-filling baguettes and hummus wraps, shipped in via refrigerated van from a packing shed on a surburban trading estate. Cheaper than in-house, apparently, and better able to meet verifiable health and safety criteria. It's probably only me, but I'd far rather one of Doris's tuna and cucumber sarnies than a taramasalata-stuffed bagel with a mixed leaves garnish.

2.00pm Our meeting has restarted, and there's much to clear away. Half a platter of sandwiches lies uneaten (seems the vegetarian selection wasn't popular today), and Doris balances our used plates delicately on top. The fish nibbles never really took off either, and most of the soy sauce remains unpoured. There's still sufficient food here to feed four more delegates, or a group of staff in the office upstairs, or several hungry homeless folk frequenting the pavements nearby. But no, the regulatory time limit has passed, so Doris knows these perishables are all destined for the waste bin back in the kitchen. "Shall I leave the fruit?"

3.00pm Somewhere, out of sight, Doris has enjoyed a belated lunch of probably sandwiches. Now she returns with a second drinks trolley, freshly chilled and steaming for our afternoon sustenance. One single gold-wrapped biscuit rests atop a plate of digestives, custard creams and bourbons, its tempting chocolate interior awaiting the lucky soul who reaches the trolley first. There'll be a pause in the meeting soon, no doubt, please, before the tapwater loses its cool. Doris takes her chance, and slips away.

4.00pm One final reappearance, and Doris nips around to clear the day's detritus. Her coffee wasn't quite so popular this afternoon, but at least the unused teabags can be recycled tomorrow. As for the milk, that's a whole half pint we've barely touched, and never will. Doris declutters with good grace, then shuffles off with the trolley to her kitchen sink retreat. She knows her days are numbered - there'll soon be no more meetings here and an enforced retirement awaits. And then she'll get to serve up tea to an audience of two, or maybe one, for as many mornings and afternoons as life will have her. We'll all miss Doris, but not I bet as much as she'll miss us.

 Tuesday, February 16, 2010

London's government has a new website. It's the same website that London's government had last week, only it's different. There's a new font for a start. Expect to see a lot more of that. And there's a new layout, and new content, and a whole new interactive style to Boris's City Hall website. There's even a weekly blog. Not so much a change, more a transformation.
Bye bye old site, first launched in 2001 and hadn’t seen any significant upgrades since, and hello to clearer layouts, easier to use navigation and more accessible and relevant content.
Now the site actually launched in 2000 [flashback], and started off looking like this [flashback], and saw a significant upgrade in 2003 [flashback], but they're right, it's not restructured much since [flashback no longer available]. As for "easier to use navigation", the jury's out on that. I know I've had seven years to get used to the old structure, but I'm not finding the new structure easy to navigate at all.
We’re not saying this new site is perfect, it’s not, that’s why this is a soft launch. But it is a good first step towards achieving our goals of using digital channels to engage with Londoners, give Londoners access to our work and enable conversations to happen that just wouldn’t have been possible before the advent of Web 2.0.
I'm glad they admitted that the upgraded site isn't perfect, because it saves me mentioning it. It's been launched before it's ready, before all the pages have content, before all the links actually link somewhere. A pedant might argue it hasn't been user-tested properly, but I'm sure there comes a point where it makes sense to launch whatever, and allow the public to make the most of the great majority that actually works.
All of these sites are built on Drupal, a free open-source content management system which is cheaper to develop on than proprietary systems and has a huge community of users with whom we will be able to share resources.
Now that explains a lot. The old london.gov.uk was a bespoke site, suited for only one purpose, and must have required a dedicated team to post and support and maintain. The new site's more modular, more off the shelf, so should be cheaper to run and easier to innovate. But I've seen other Drupal-style upgrades before. Tower Hamlets went all off-the-peg this time last year, and the resultant site is blander, sparser and far less inspiring than the bespoke site which preceded it. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that the latest version of the London 2012 website is run by Drupal, and the godawful Radio 4 programme database, and various other generic content-presentation platforms. The future's in shareable chunks, not interdependent link-trees.
We’re not going to spend lots of time telling you about what you’ll find on this site but we do hope you will browse around and see for yourself. And if you find any broken links or worse still any nasty bugs, please drop us a line and we’ll fix it.
So look, rather than me pick holes in the new london.gov.uk site, let me instead ask what you think.

If you've found any broken links or nasty bugs, do mention them here: buggy comments here
If you have any other moans and gripes, do post them here: moany comments here

And let's keep the comments box at the bottom of this post for positive messages of support for London's beleaguered civic website developers. Thank you.

 Monday, February 15, 2010

Day Out: Canterbury (part 2)
There's a lot more to Canterbury than religion. The city's historical roots run deep and the riverside setting's lovely. There's culture aplenty, as befits a university town, while opportunities for independent shopping abound [photo] [photo]. All that, and Bagpuss too. If you've never been, you're genuinely missing out.

Visiting... The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury TalesGeoffrey Chaucer's collection of stories told by a party of Kent-bound pilgrims is probably the most famous work of medieval English literature. No surprise, then, to discover a tourist attraction in the heart of Canterbury which recreates these tales for the benefit of modern-day visitors, based in a converted church up a sidestreet in the centre of town. A series of red banners attempt to lure punters inside with the promise of "dark stories", "desperate wives" and a "farmyard fable". I've heard more convincing advertising pitches, especially when entrance costs a whopping £7.75. But I'd been given a half price voucher when I bought my cathedral ticket, so I felt particularly smug when a party of five walked in behind me and forked out nearly forty quid. Before kick off a schoolmarmly operative offered each of us an automatic audio guide, then directed us through a door into tableau number 1. There was a very distinct medieval pong, which intensified when we ventured forth from the interior of the Tabard Inn to its stables. And then we were off along the pretend road from Southwark to Canterbury with five stories to stop and experience along the way. The commentary was light-hearted and accessible - most definitely not in ye olde Middle English - and the animatronics managed to bring each tale approximately to life. Chaucer would no doubt have smiled at the big cock and grinned at the bare backside, as did we, although most of the tales were rather less bawdy. Ejected after 40 minutes or so into the gift shop, the experience had been an entertaining introduction to the 14th century's most successful poet. Good value for half-price, I thought.

DurovernumVisiting... Roman Museum
Canterbury first came to the fore as a Roman stronghold, conveniently located near the Channel-crossing coast. The Romans were the first to construct city walls, in roughly the same location as those still seen today, and filled the enclosure with villas and all the trappings of a successful trading post. That street level is now below ground, so the city's Roman Museum is to be found in a basement alongside some recovered remains. Its child-friendly galleries explain what life in Durovernum would have been like (including a wonderfully revealing selection of market traders), as well as explaining the archaeological activities which uncovered them. Rebuilding after the Blitz confirmed the existence of an extensive temple and multi-storey theatre, for example, while a bathhouse was discovered during the construction of a modern shopping arcade. The museum's subterranean highlight is a complete L-shaped corridor complete with inlaid mosaic panels - no longer pristine, nor even flat, but highly evocative of a vanished era. Should council budget cuts be passed this week, however, local people fear it may be this museum that vanishes.

Visiting... Museum of Canterbury
Emily's Shop, Canterbury MuseumBacking onto a braid of the River Stour, this charming civic museum recounts the post-Roman history of a fascinating city. It's housed in the timber-roofed medieval Poor Priests' Hospital, which adds an extra dimension to wandering around inside. And, if you're of a certain age, it houses some priceless very modern treasures in amongst the old. From the street, the first sight that strikes passers-by is of a family of white humanoid bears having tea in the window [photo]. For this is the home of the Rupert Bear Museum - a series of galleries given over to local girl Mary Tourtel's most famous cartoon creation. There are annuals and original Daily Express verses for the grown-ups, as well as more interactive hands-on exhibits for younger visitors. Pity the lady who works in the adjacent shop, because she has to listen to Paul McCartney's Frog Chorus on a loop throughout the day. But Rupert's not the most evocative creature in the building. In a much smaller gallery near the entrance desk is a tribute to Oliver Postgate, the much-loved children's animator who lived locally, and this is where several of his most famous puppets have their final resting place. Two Clangers for a start (that's Small and Tiny in all their knitted pink glory) [photo]. ClangersOn the shelf above are The Pogles (I think you have to be of a certain age but, wow, that's Pippin and Tog). And then, joy of joys, there's Emily's shop window [photo] containing Bagpuss (dear Bagpuss, old fat furry cat-puss) sitting mute on a plumped-up cushion [photo]. Arranged round about are all his friends, from Professor Yaffle the woodpecker-bookend to those squeaky mice on the Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ [photo]. Each character is the genuine article, as seen in a mere 13 over-repeated TV episodes over the years. I found it all very special, although a young girl passing through with her grandmother was distinctly nonplussed. Upstairs there's another side of Postgate's work of which the world is less aware. In 1989 he illustrated a complete biography of Thomas a Becket in strip cartoon form [photo], and its beautifully illustrated panels now stretch around the walls of the Medieval Gallery, Bayeux-style. A national treasure was Oliver, now remembered in Canterbury with pride.

Not visiting...
West Gate Towers
: Canterbury's fortified medieval gatehouse forms part of the city's one way system, and bus drivers must pause before entering to ensure that they pass through its central arch with scraping their sides [photo]. Entrance to the interior and battlements is only available for three and a half hours a week at present, and I missed my chance.
Royal Museum and Art Gallery: Currently in the middle of a major revamp, and due to reopen in summer 2011.
Canterbury Historic River Tours: A 40 minute trip in a 12-seater rowing boat up and down the Stour in the heart of Town. Looks idyllic, in decent weather, which must be why they don't restart operations until 1st March. A good excuse to return.

 Sunday, February 14, 2010

Day Out: Canterbury
It's one of the oldest cities in England, and historically one of the most important. The Romans kicked things off, but it's as the cradle of Christianity that Canterbury's best known. The cathedral dominates the town, but there are also several museums and places of interest tucked away in its medieval streets. And all now less than an hour from London by High Speed train. So that's where I went yesterday. Starting at the big church.
Visit Canterbury
The Beautiful South: Canterbury
Canterbury 2010 tourist brochure (pdf)
The Canterbury Tour

Visiting... Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury CathedralThere's been a cathedral in Canterbury for the best part of a millennium and a half. Originally under the rule of Rome, it switched under Henry VIII to become the centre of the home-grown Church of England. The cathedral's a huge building, easily the dominant structure here or hereabouts, and its grounds take up a fair proportion of the square mile within the old city walls. Medieval pilgrims made their way here in droves, seeking solace at the shrine of a murdered saint. Entrance is via an intricately carved town gate, much of which is original but the bronze Jesus is a modern replacement for the original ripped out by Cromwell [photo]. That's the spot, opposite the Tourist Information Centre and immediately to the left of Starbucks. Pay your £7.50, give the Archbishop your Gift Aid, and you're in. [photo]

Whenever you visit a cathedral it's always half-covered by scaffolding - that's one of the unwritten rules of ecumenical tourism. At the moment it's the east end that's shrouded, but that leaves the main west end towers clean and clear and spiky and sparkling [photo]. I arrived early enough to have most of the place to myself, with just a few folk attending a bring and buy in the Chapter House to contend with [photo]. The interior was as awe-inspiring as it must have been to those first pilgrims, with a high vaulted ceiling, dazzling stained glass and the nave stretching down to the choir screen. I wandered around a little before deciding that I'd better get an audio guide or else I'd surely miss something important. And I was right.

Canterbury CathedralDown a staircase, in a transept called The Martyrdom, is the spot where Archbishop Thomas à Becket was murdered in 1170. A very simple square altar marks the site, or more precisely the single word "Thomas" carved in red letters on the stone floor. Only the audio guide revealed the gruesome method of TàB's assassination - "the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral" [photo]. No wonder they made him a saint. So long as there isn't a party of French schoolkids milling round by the radiators, or a couple of old ladies trying to rearrange their handbags out of shot, you might get a decent cerebellum-free photo. [photo]

Becket's shrine used to be down in the Norman crypt - now a vast vaulted basement set aside for private prayer. But his remains were later translated up to the chapel behind the high altar [photo], due to public demand, and presented to the world in a glittering casket. Pilgrims came from far and wide, making their final approach by shuffling up a stone staircase on their knees. But they stopped coming when Henry VIII had the shrine destroyed, so today all you'll see is a single lit candle (and the deep hollows those kneecaps eroded in the nearby steps).

Given this cathedral's position at the heart of Anglicanism, I was expecting a harder sell. A quick prayer over the loudspeakers on the hour, a few lists of services dotted around, and a single invite to pray at the very end of the audio guide, that's all. I appreciated Canterbury Cathedral all the more for its lack of missionary zeal, with the emphasis far more on welcome, sharing and understanding. If only the ancient Church had acted more like that, maybe with a gift shop selling tea towels, less blood would have been shed.

Visiting... St Augustine's Abbey
St Augustine's Abbey Visitor CentreEngland's history, even world history, would have been very different without St Augustine. He was sent from Rome by Pope Gregory in 596AD, and it was his job to try to convince pagan Britons to turn to Christianity. That spark was lit when he met King Æthelbert of Kent, who proved fairly easy to convert, and his entire kingdom soon followed. Augustine was granted some land outside Canterbury's city walls to build a monastery (across the ring road, past the pub, opposite a conveniently-sited Londis). Henry VIII, yet again, is the reason why the site's now mostly vacant. On Saturday morning I was the only visitor, for the reason that it had been snowing and the grounds were too dangerous to enter due to ice. I could only peer across the fence at the expanse of white lawn dotted with piles of stone and bits of wall (and the odd snowman). But I was permitted to look around inside the museum building for free, as a compensatory treat. Here were some proper sculpted chunks of stone and several archaeological finds, chronologically displayed, plus a few half-price biscuits in the English Heritage shop. Not quite what I was hoping to see, but serves me right for visiting in February.

St Martin's Church, CanterburyVisiting... St Martin's Church
Further up the road past the prison, where no tourist would ever think to look unprompted, is a genuine survivor from ye olde Canterbury. It's part of a UNESCO World Heritage site that also encompasses the much larger cathedral and St Augustine's Abbey site. It's St Martin's, and it's England's oldest (surviving) church [photo]. Parishioners here get to meet, pray and hold coffee mornings in a place of worship that's been operational since the 6th century AD. It was originally the private chapel of Queen Bertha - King Æthelbert's delightfully-named wife - and has evolved over the centuries into a minor parish church. I was lucky to find it open, taking refuge from the snow and biting wind beyond the old oak door. A volunteer perched in the chancel with a good book looked up to check I wasn't a vandal or a thief, then left me to look briefly around. Several bricked-up windows and doorways, at least one of Saxon origin, hinted at centuries of rebuilding. The nave narrowed abruptly beyond a high pointed arch, while the roof was modest with timbered beams. Bertha's church was so very unlike the grand cathedral up the road, but far more representative of the modern Church at the heart of its community.

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