diamond geezer

 Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Crystal opened to the public yesterday.
The Crystal is a sustainable cities initiative by Siemens that explores how we can create a better future for our cities. It is home to the world's largest exhibition focused on urban sustainability. As a world-class centre for dialogue, discovery and learning, it reveals the challenges that cities face, and the ways we can reduce their environmental impact using sustainable technologies, many available today.
It's not sounding great so far, is it?
Based in the Royal Victoria Docks, the centre of London's new Green Enterprise District, the Crystal is a natural home for thought leadership on urban sustainability. It provides a global knowledge hub that helps a diverse range of audiences learn and understand how we can all work to build better cities for ourselves and for future generations. Experts on urban sustainability will be available to exchange ideas, while a dynamic conference programme will foster dialogue between stakeholders.
Still, at least it looks interesting.

The Crystal is Newham's latest pride and joy, a long spiky glass building at one end of the Royal Victoria Dock, close to the Dangleway's northern terminal. It was due to open in time for the Olympics, to soak up tourists with nowhere to go, but construction and fitting out took a little longer than expected. The end result - with a cablecar landing alongside alien shininess - means there are few more futuristic-looking corners of London. The whole thing has been funded and built by German company Siemens, who do all sorts of engineering things you're probably not familiar with, and they'd like to change that. Half of the building is a conference centre, backroom offices and a café, and the other half an urban sustainability exhibition. It's not going to be an easy sell.

To kickstart day one, Newham held a Waterfront Festival which succeeded in bringing the crowds. Music blared from a temporary stage, faces got painted, beer flowed, and children poked around inside an inflatable whale (like you do). One of the longest queues was for a raffle to win one of 50 return trips on the cablecar, which I fear says more about the disposable income of local residents than the excitement of the journey. The Newham Steel Band cheered up the area by the bar (thanks Felix, thanks Marcia), and there were watersports and boat trips around the dock. An extensive area alongside the Crystal has been semi-cultivated with raised borders and diagonal paths - the 21st century version of an Elizabethan knot garden. Alas it was being summarily ignored by almost all the day's attendees, probably because it's had less than one season to bed in, but hopefully will look a little greener next spring. Meanwhile the café inside the venue was being well frequented, thanks to realistic prices and some appealing-looking baked snacks.

And so to the exhibition. There was a queue to get in (which I suspect will be a one-off), but also free biros for everyone (which may not be). A surprise - the building feels smaller on the inside than it looks on the outside, with the main display space clustered around a central mezzanine. We were directed first upstairs, to the 'Forces of Change' zone, where we filed into the small cinema for the a/v presentation. A succession of urban themes sped by, like the bullet points in a GCSE Geography essay, but nicely illustrated with globally sourced images. The picture quality suffered somewhat when a small child worked out he could stand on one of the projectors, but thankfully he got bored quickly and wandered off. The "megatrends" theme continued outside on a few electronic displays, with Demographic Change considerably more interesting than Climate Change or Urbanisation, but upstairs felt perhaps a little sparse.

The main body of stuff to do is downstairs, divided into several themed zones. Some are more interesting than others, with "Smart Buildings" probably the most tedious. "Water is Life" looks more spectacular, with a waterfall rolling off the upper floor to flow off a transparent table, but the associated text goes a bit too deeply into "non-potable sources" and "rainwater harvesting" to inspire the average visitor. A Boris bike makes an appearance in the transport zone, and the man himself appears on video in "Future Cities" giving a cogent argument for low-carbon initiatives (like a certain New Bus). Expect to have to read stuff if you want to get the most out of your visit. The Crystal's very much a fact-dropping place ("every second the world's cities grow by two people") ("on a planet of 7 billion, only 90 million are over the age of eighty... for now"). Although there's plenty to press, select and slide, children under the age of 10 aren't likely to be entertained.

All of the interactive displays launch with the swipe of a card, which caused a major problem yesterday because there weren't enough of these to go round. Instead management took the decision to distribute no cards at all, so staff had to keep wandering around to launch things else we couldn't view them. This made for a frustrating sub-optimal experience, having to walk past potentially interesting exhibits, although that was probably a Day One Only issue. There again, while some of the interactives were fun and thought-provoking, others were merely linear, or over-fiddly, or with non-obvious confusing functionality. By the time I sort-of understood what I was doing in the "Creating Cities" simulation I'd bankrupted the council coffers, and the complete four-player game proved much too complex for one run-through. Maybe that was the point.

I was expecting more of a hard sell from Siemens, but there was reassuringly little. The electric car in "Keep Moving" is plugged into a Siemens charging point, and the interactive windpower graphic has "Siemens" written entirely unnecessarily on all the turbines. Other than that, all the branding is concealed in which aspects of sustainability the exhibition chooses to showcase and which it doesn't. The "Healthy Life" section focuses on company-specific areas of technology such as CT scanners, while "Clean and Green" spends too long on waste management and not enough on practical advice. In fact I'd say that's The Crystal's major failing. I came away aware of several things that people should be doing to make their cities better, but felt that most of these were for architects, planners and politicians to undertake, not me. The Crystal's not a "change your lightbulbs and recycle more" sort of place, it's aimed more at education than direct action. Whether this is a sustainable attraction has yet to be proven, but a visit here (not Sundays) (nor Mondays) will definitely make you think. [8 photos]

 Saturday, September 29, 2012

99 current* blogs with diamond geezer on their blogroll**
*(at least one post since September 1st)   **(blogroll must appear on blog's main page)

Ace Discovery, All Tickets Please, Along the Central Line, AngloAddict, (Arthur Pewty's maggot sandwich), Aslef Shrugged, Autolycus, The Banbury Man, Barefoot Through Life, The Bearded Man, Blogging Up The Works, blue mai, Blue Witch, Bow Report, Brian Micklethwait, Brockley Central, CabbieBlog, Cabin Essence, Cameron Counts, The Charlton Champion, Chelley's Teapot, Chertsey, Chicago Addick, Clandestine Critic, crinklybee, Dave Hill's London Blog, Days on the Claise, The Deptford Dame, Depthmarker, dig your fins, Distracting From The Now, Dogwash, D4D, 853, Eine Kleine Nichtmusik, English Buildings, evilmoose, A Fistful of Euros, F-Life! (Beta), Fresh Eyes on London, Games Monitor, ganching, (Girl With A One Track Mind), Goodnight London, Goonerholic, The Great Wen, The Ham and Egger Files, Human Nature, (I'm a Seoul Man in Tokyo), Instant London, In the Aquarium, In the Mists, Jane's London, John Flood's Random Academic Thoughts, John Nez Illustration, Johnny Backhand, The Knit-Nurse Chronicles, The Knowledge, Lazylaces, Life must be filled up, LinkMachineGo, London Daily Photo, The London Review of Breakfasts, London's Docklands, Londres Calling, Make Lard History, Mick Hartley, the mogs blog, The Musings of a Red Dalek, Newsjiffy, No PC Views, (Notes from a small field), Northern Food, not young/not old, A Novice Novelist, Order of the Bath, Ornamental Passions, Oxo Cube Editorial, Pigeon blog, The Piranha Brothers, (Put 'em all on an island), The Quentin X Files, rashbre central, theRatandMouse, round the merseyrail we go, St Margaret's at Cliffe Photo Diary, Samizdata.net, Scaryduck, Scoakat's blog, Silent Words Speak Loudest, things magazine, Tired of London, Tired of Life, Tory Troll, Town Mouse, Transblawg, Travels around London, visitlondon.com, Wibbo's Words, The Willesden Herald
blogs that weren't on last year's list are underlined (blogs returning to the list appear in brackets)

I'm duly honoured by each and every one of these blogroll links, so many thanks to you all. But I also notice that the list is 15% shorter than last year (which in turn was 20% shorter than the year before that) (which in turn was 20% shorter than the year before that) (which in turn was 20% shorter than the year before that). Ouch!

I compile this list every year, so I started by checking all 113 blogs on last year's list to see how many of them still linked here. About one in three have fallen by the wayside and don't appear this year. Most of these are on hiatus (either deliberately, or through month-long neglect) which is a shame. A few have simply vanished off the face of the internet. Several have removed their blogroll altogether, usually after updating to a revamped template. And one or two are still going strong but have removed me from their blogroll, which I guess is the way it goes. I used to be able to refresh my annual list with several new blogs, but this year there aren't many to find. My list is ever-shortening, and is now less than half the size it was four years ago.

Maybe this blog is past its prime. These collapsing numbers could be explained by an increasing lack of interest in what I have to say, and far fewer people linking as a result. Who wants to read the verbose ramblings of a self-indulgent non-professional when the web now has so much more varied content to enjoy? And it takes effort to read 800 words a day, a length which I'm sure scares many potential visitors away. So much quicker to read a pithy 140 character summary, or to look at one lovely photo, rather than taking time out to plough through seven potentially irrelevant paragraphs.

What's clear is that blogging is evolving, shrinking, retreating. Fewer people blog these days because alternative platforms exist (and take far less effort to update). Blogrolls have become invisible and irrelevant, especially to anyone subscribed via an RSS feed. The majority of fresh 2012 blogs have no blogroll at all, because sidebars don't look good on smartphones. Most importantly, new readers no longer come clicking via a long-standing blogroll in a sidebar, they arrive via a one-off reference on Twitter/Facebook/whatever. A blog is now only as good as its last post, and long-term reputation counts for very little.

Anyway, I hope that my list is fairly complete, but I bet it isn't. Let me know if I've missed you/anyone off the list, and I'll come back and add you/them later. As for the rest of my readers, maybe you'd like to click on a few of these 99 links to see what you're missing. I can't promise they're all thrilling verbal discourses, but I'm sure you'll discover plenty that are.

 Friday, September 28, 2012

Open House: Camden (continued)

Senate House: When it opened in the 1930s, this University of London landmark was the tallest non-cathedral in town. You'll know it as that stark tower opposite Russell Square, rising straight ahead if you nip out the back door of the British Museum. It was designed by Charles Holden, whose recent success at 55 Broadway had come to the attention of the university authorities. He created an imposing Portland stone edifice, essentially one long central spine with lower courtyard blocks to either side. The upper floors were to comprise the university library, and the central tower is still entirely filled by the book stack. A small liftshaft runs up one flank, some winding stairs down the other, with both incorporated into the tower's elevated outline. Fancy a look around?

I fancied a look around, so I turned up for the advertised architectural tour. Unfortunately I'd read my Open House guide incorrectly, because it turned out all the day's tours were pre-book only. On the volunteer's clipboard all twenty spaces were filled, but in reality only four people had bothered to turn up. That's appalling, given the number of people who'd have liked to attend, for which we might blame the no-showers or we might blame the ballot system that randomly picked them. Whatever, there was no problem in me and several other speculative visitors tagging along, which saved the building's architect from shepherding almost nobody. I enjoyed a fantastic tour led by the man in charge of the building's renovation, but it can't be right that London Open House pre-booking is being substantially topped up by queue-jumpers.

The interior of Senate House isn't what you might expect from outside. OK, the uplighters beneath the tower give a clue, but only stepping through into the main axis brings you face to face with full crafted presence. A grand staircase rises ahead with balconies to either side, and those are the original globular luminaires hanging from the golden ceiling. At one end is the Vice Chancellor's old office, all wood panelling and Art Deco-ish lampshade, while at the other is Chancellor's Hall with its pillars and yet more uplighters. Our guide knew all about the architecture's overarching themes, but also the battle they'd recently had installing modern cabling and the difficulties of Grade II* listed central heating. The building was also open to those not on a tour, but I might not have thought to walk through the double doors opposite Princess Anne's portrait to discover the Senate Room beyond. This lush cuboid with walnut walls (and uplighters) is supposed to be Holden's masterpiece, which is impressive when you have Arnos Grove in your portfolio. We couldn't go any higher to explore the library, but 75 minutes in modernist academe was a morning well spent.

Anonymous Camden Open House venue: Sheltering from Sunday's storm brought me to the basement of this typical looking terrace. Free tea or coffee were on offer, and a space to dump umbrellas, which made this the most civilised Open House location I visited. Half-hourly tours were advertised, so when a chirpy volunteer asked us to follow, we followed. He smiled a lot, and clutched his factsheet close to his chest, whilst giving us a not terribly in-depth history of the building we were ascending. "I don't know much about..." was one of his favourite phrases, along with "you'll have to ask the staff downstairs at the desk." He'd researched a few tangential anecdotes, though nothing relevant to the building, and chuckled rather louder than we did on delivery. On the top floor we stood around in the library, where members of the tour group with relevant background knowledge asked basic questions he couldn't answer. On the way back down we filled the secretary's office for what seemed like forever, reduced to staring at the detritus on her desk for lack of other interesting diversion. And back by the front door we passed the bloke running the next tour, who was busy bandying about words like "cornice" to attentive faces... and only then did we realise how short-changed our group had been. Before taking his leave our volunteer told us how much he enjoys taking part in Open House each year and how he always picks somewhere different to steward, oblivious to the talentless embarrassment of a tour he'd just led. Most OH volunteers are excellent, don't get me wrong, so this delusional chump was a rare misfire. But as I stepped back into the rain and heard him summoning his next tour group, I couldn't help but feel sorry for their upcoming wasted half hour.

Open House: Not Camden

Chrisp Street Market Clocktower: Ah, the Lansbury Estate. East London's finest array of very-postwar housing, proudly displayed to all and sundry at the Festival of Britain in 1951. I've wandered round before, and been to the market many times, but I've never ever been up the clocktower. It's not been open this century, to the best of my knowledge, even though it was meant to be an observation platform and a focal point for the local population. Its brickwork zigzags upwards, mirroring the twin staircases inside, one for walking up and the other for walking down. Estate architect Frederick Gibberd described his clocktower as a “practical folly”, and it certainly has the right mix of everyday allure. How exciting, then, to finally gain access and to reclaim the elevated future that the Fifties promised. Few had come, probably because advertising hereabouts was limited to a scribbled sheet of paper stuck to the usually-locked door on the ground floor. One or two marketgoers noticed, and grasped the opportunity, but most stayed on the ground and mingled and bought stuff and left.

Only one staircase was open, the other sealed off by tape at the top (for no apparent reason). There are several landings on the way up, each with an open view, and which it was easy to imagine smelling of post-pub relief. Thankfully not. Small boxes on the floor are used for after-dark illumination, staged alternately red and blue, a rather more modern addition. And so to the narrow upper deck, the walkway encircling the entire perimeter. The tower's clockface is bold and blobby, even more so from directly underneath, though the Union Jack hanging from the balcony is only temporary. And there's the full 360 panorama, which those of us who live in East London so rarely get to enjoy due to the estuary's lack of contours. The City and Shard spike the western horizon, beyond the Lansbury rooftops and the streets of Stepney. Not quite so good a view to the south, with various highrises blocking the financial powerhouse of Docklands. Southeast the appealing combination of Robin Hood Gardens, cablecar and Dome, more or less. Immediately east the stark silhouette of the Balfron Tower, sister of the Trellick, lit up in the afternoon sun. And up north, somewhere past my house, the Olympic Stadium nestling almost insignificantly amid the inner suburbs. It's a damned shame that this visual treat isn't available on a more regular basis, even if only once a month, even though it would have to be supervised to avoid aerial unpleasantness. And thanks to Open House for opening it up, and satisfying my thirst to ascend, and bonding me to my local area just one notch more.

I thought I'd also link to all the other bloggers who've been out enjoying London Open House this year. Not the photographers, not the tweeters, but people who've actually bothered to write about their Open House experience in 200 words or more. Tens of thousands of Londoners were out last weekend, and now it's Friday which should have given a significant number of people ample opportunity to publish. But here's all I've managed to find. Either I've missed stuff (in which case, please, let me know and I'll add more to the list) or long-form blogging's dying. I fear I know which it is.
» Pete explored several buildings in and around the City
» Michael Murphy queued sort-of-successfully for the Gherkin
» Mike really enjoyed St Mary's church in Perivale
» Chris and his camera adored Lloyds of London
» Ian visited East London's sewage-related finest
» Deptford Dame ascended the Seager Distillery
» Autolycus visited a mixed Westminster trio
» Richard travelled widely south and east
» The Silent Hunter toured two Whitehall classics
» any more?

 Thursday, September 27, 2012

That's it. The last Metropolitan 'A Stock' train slipped out of public service last night. There'll be one last hurrah nipping round the entire line on Saturday, but that's special £40 tickets only, and they're long gone. These fine old workhorses have given sterling service over the last fifty years, but their time is up and an air-conditioned future awaits. This train terminates here.

Wednesday evening, mid-City, height of the rush hour. A bog-standard Met line train rolls into the platform, white headlamps blazing. As the doors beep open its passengers pour off and not that many step aboard. If they'd all waited another minute they could have ridden the special train, unique of its kind, that's approaching through the tunnel. It has a small white board on the front - 1960-2012, Last Day In Service. The carriages are still unusually full, a body on every seat, and they're definitely not your normal commuters. These are the men who love trains (I looked, but I couldn't see any women, sorry), out to ride their favourite rolling stock one last time. I sit down beside a large bloke who smells like your worst traingeek stereotype. It's not the fragrant final journey I was hoping for.

At Aldgate a familiar mechanical whining noise kicks in, emanating from somewhere unseen beneath the carriage. Normally everybody alights, but today a substantial proportion stay on board - they're here for the journey, not the destination. Many others get out to walk along the platform and stretch their legs, or more likely amble up to the cab for a commemorative picture. There are a lot of photos being taken, of anything and everything stock-related, because this won't ever be possible again. But hurry, because we're not hanging around at Aldgate for long. Train 412 is a regular scheduled Metropolitan service that's already been out to Amersham three times today, and needs to make space for the new breed coming in behind. At eight minutes past six the doors slam shut with a not quite synchronous clunk, and the train heads off on its penultimate public journey.

A short distance up the tunnel we pause. "Sorry for the delay," says the driver, "but we're waiting for a C Stock ahead." He'd never normally say that, but on this occasion he knows his audience. For one stop only we're the enthusiasts' train, as evidenced when one man slips out a Fisco Unimatic tape measure and starts checking the dimensions of my seat. But at Liverpool Street the clientèle changes, as we're joined by hordes of City commuters heading home to Metroland. Many of them get a seat while others stand, flicking through the Evening Standard or checking their Blackberries. Nobody slips their briefcase onto the luggage rack, and no umbrellas dangle from the overhead hooks. A few of these passengers may have noticed this isn't their normal train but most are entirely oblivious - to them we're just a semi-fast to Watford.

With each passing station more crowd aboard, for this the A Stock's final exit from the City. The platform announcer at Farringdon is on the ball, alerting passengers to their "privileged journey" home tonight. I'm sat by the window, a longitudinal view that'll be hard to come by tomorrow, watching the brightly lit Metropolitan future speeding by. It's hard to believe I'll never do this again, especially given that these trains have been running since before I was born. Every time the grinding whirr kicks in I'm transported back to childhood trips to town, an unexpectedly evocative sound, yet imminently doomed. But I'm not heading all the way out to Hertfordshire, I have more important places to be, so I join the throng disembarking at Baker Street and pat the old girl goodbye.

From today on, consider the Metropolitan line fully upgraded. Every train in service now has air-conditioning, every train has scrolling in-car announcements, every train has fewer seats, and every train is fully accessible. Expect TfL to update a number of wheelchair blobs on the next tube map from white to blue, now that the entire S Stock fleet affords level-ish access from platform to train. It's a whopping investment, and a major success, and never mind any nostalgia for trains gone by. Which leaves the Circle and Hammersmith & City lines with the Underground's oldest remaining rolling stock, although these too have kicked off the process of being replaced. When the last of the C Stock disappears don't expect quite so much of an outpouring of affection as these Met line trains have earned. And if you're on that final train on Saturday, wish her a final thanks from me.

Photos and a video of the last day (not from me)
Ten A Stock shots from me (mostly from June)
Ian's farewell trip on the not quite penultimate train
ITV London Tonight news report

Previous dg coverage of the Metropolitan revolution:
Ken announces first air-conditioned train will arrive in 2009 [December 2006]
Public invited aboard a mocked-up carriage [September 2008]
Boris unveils aircon tube [June 2009]
First air-conditioned Metropolitan line train in public service [July 2010]
Metropolitan 'A Stock' celebrates its 50th anniversary [July 2011]
Last chance to ride the old Metropolitan line trains [September 2012]
District, Circle and H&C now all fully airconned [some time in 2016]

 Wednesday, September 26, 2012

London's toppermost listings magazine, Time Out, finally threw in the towel and went free this week. From a cover price of £3.25 to diddlysquat, the intention is to drive up readership with a Tuesday morning giveaway. Other publications (such as the Evening Standard) have had success with this model, but it relies on increased readership of adverts replacing income lost at the newsstand. It might work, especially if punters can be directed online where Time Out hopes they'll book tickets and stuff. You'll see evidence of the magazine's new "book now" rationale if you scan the listed events promoted on the Time Out homepage, or if (as they hope) you download the dedicated Time Out app. The risk is that punters might see their new freebie as another chuck-on-the-floor lightweight, not an invaluable guide to the week ahead, but we'll see.

I wasn't sure I'd get a copy now they're only being given out in a single morning rush hour. Imagine my surprise to find a bloke in a red cap doling out Time Outs outside Bow Church DLR, which is not somewhere any other free periodical bothers with. A few hundred yards later at Bow Road station another free issue was thrust into my hand, and all this before eight in the morning. This suggests some considerable amount is being invested in distribution, or else they were just making a special effort for the launch. But at the other end of my journey, at a major tube station in central London, no copies whatsoever. On my way home the bloke at the kiosk where I bought last week's copy told me there had been "loads of 'em about" later in the morning, but I passed through as a wholly missed opportunity.

And what of the new slimline magazine. To be fair it's only one-third down on last week's pagination, which isn't bad for a 100% reduction in price. A couple of longer articles remain, but the content's mostly granular recyclable 100-word snippets. The font size has increased, so it's taken rather fewer words to fill the 80 pages (and no doubt a corresponding cut in staff costs). Almost all of the familiar sections remain, thinned down rather than cut. But we're now talking highlights only, as the comprehensive listings for which Time Out was once famous are summarily dumped.

Let me analyse the new Time Out properly by tallying the pagination of three separate editions. A fat issue from five years ago kicking off with The Big Smoke and ending with My Favourite Londoner. Last week's issue, starting with the now defunct letters page and ending with Michael Hodges' Slice of Life. And this week's zero pence 80-pager, from The Hot List at the front to London's Top Ten at the back. I've counted up all the content, occasionally approximately, and the table below shows how each section's declined in size.

12 Sep 2007

196pp, £2.80
20 Sep 2012

124pp, £3.25
25 Sep 2012

80pp, free
Intro stuff19 pages15 pages8 pagesMuch bittier, and briefer (but still something to read)
Things To Do9½ pages5½ pages4 pagesNow only selected top-level events get a mention (sigh)
Film17 pages12½ pages4 pagesWant listings? Bugger off to the internet (or get the app)
Music11 pages9 pages4½ pagesFor all future gig-booking opportunities, it's adverts only
Classical3 pages3 pages½ pageTime Out's not really for the classically-inclined
Clubs/Cabaret7½ pages5½ pages3 pagesApparently London now only has 14 clubs (last week 59)
Comedy3 pages4½ pages2 pagesWith no more than three stand-ups a night (usually one)
Theatre/Dance12 pages10½ pages3 pagesSeveral highlights, but no depth (and minimal fringe)
LGBT2 pages1 page1 pageHanging on in there (barely)
Art5 pages4½ pages3 pagesDoing its best in not much space
Shopping9½ pages5 pages2½ pagesNuggety promos a la Stylist or Shortlist
Food & Drink8 pages3½ pages2½ pagesUnexpectedly limited, and oddly uninspired
Time In/TV18 pages8 pages2 pagesFrom the mag that fought for listings, no more listings
Books2½ pages1½ pagesnilDead. Books are officially dead. Sorry.
Classified9 pages2 pagesnilSmall ads have entirely migrated online
Sport/Health5 pagesnilnilThere's no money in this, it's long gone
Adverts55pp (28%)38pp (31%)29pp (36%)A greater proportion of ads, but not by much

In attempting to cover almost everything, the new Time Out covers nothing in depth. Film and Music come out best, relatively speaking, but each has fewer than five pages of editorial reduced from considerably more. The film section fares particularly badly, without even a complete list of this week's new releases, and box office listings entirely jettisoned. Sure, that's all on the internet these days, but the magazine's next to useless for planning a decent night out. The other enormous casualty over the years is Theatre, where Time Out's gone from a comprehensive overview of West End and Fringe to, well, not much really. If you're in town for the week and looking for a night in the stalls, Time Out won't help you. The future's smartphone enabled, obviously, but a significant proportion of the population aren't anywhere close yet.

On the Time Out blog the magazine's editor, Tim Arnold, says "It’s bigger, bolder, funnier and I truly believe it’s better." He's clearly lying about it being better, because his highlights-only Time Out Lite can only skim the capital's surface. Those seeking detailed information will now be at the mercy of the Time Out website - fine for film, but whose searchable event listings I've never found a rich source of inspiration. But at least the magazine has retained its independent and comprehensive editorial stance, unlike the equally-free Shortlist and Stylist which are no more than platforms for PR puff. And come on, what do you expect for nothing? Time Out's not what it was, nor will it ever be again, but it is still worth grabbing a copy.

 Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Open House: Camden

For efficiency's sake I thought I'd concentrate on one borough for this year's London Open House, like I did a few years back with Haringey and Southwark. Skedaddling around Camden wasn't as easy as you might think, either in the planning or the execution, but I made it to a fair few fascinating places. Here's four.

Alexandra Road: It looks like an ordinary street on the map, but Rowley Way is anything but. Futuristic terraces slope down to a pedestrianised curve, six storeys high on one side and four on the other. Low-rise, high-density, that's the Alexandra and Ainsworth estate. All the buildings are cast from white concrete, less pristine now than in the 1970s, and following the line of the Euston railway. Together they resemble a Blake's 7 filmset rather than the backstreets of Kilburn, and were part of Camden Council's pioneering social housing scheme. Every flat boasts its own inward-looking terrace, draped with plants or bikes or washing or whatever, making this a strikingly interactive community where it's nigh impossible to hide. At the far end of the curve is a humming power station with three thin chimneys, alongside a Tenants Hall with weekly food co-op (please tie your dog up outside before entering). Cars have been banished to a subterranean undercroft beneath the paved path, a claustrophobic dystopia lined by imposing garages. On the southern side is a linear park, narrow but four acres long, with grass and gardens and hard courts spread out along its length. On a sunny Saturday it's all rather lovely, although the park's clearly seen better days and is under threat from continued disrepair. For Open House we were permitted to enter one of the less upgraded maisonettes, but shoes off first please (always select your socks on Open House day with care). The duplex interior was adequately-sized if not spacious, especially upstairs where a wooden partition could be drawn back to link kitchen and living room. The brown tiles, wooden stairs and ducted heating screamed Seventies, although not everybody across the estate has kept theirs. We chatted to the owner, who's been here almost since the place was built, and is fiercely proud of the concrete hilltown she calls home. Watch this 20 minute documentary about living on Rowley Way and I think you'll see what she means. [six photos]

Cecil Sharp House: London's folk music hub isn't some club in the West End, it's a little-known building in Primrose Hill. Tucked onto the triangular site where Gloucester Avenue meets Regents Park Road, look out for the white shield announcing that the brick shell beyond is home to the English Folk Dance and Song Society. They arrived here in 1929, five years after the death of Cecil Sharp, the man who'd inspired construction of the building. He'd specified precise dimensions for all the rooms, and the need for a library to house his collection of folk-related books, but never saw his dream realised. I think he'd be impressed today. The place was buzzing on Saturday with attendees of all ages, and most definitely not a dead-end backwater for the retired. Our guide led us into the barndance-sized main hall to see Ivon Hitchen's mural, for which privilege we had to interrupt the term's first class of "Melodeon for Beginners". Sorry. To see the stags in the practice room downstairs we had to sneak into the back of "Intermediate Banjo" just as the lesson was kicking off. Sorry. Even nipping into the bar, formerly the men's changing room, we stumbled upon three gentlemen clearing away dirty glasses so that they could jam their way through the afternoon. Apologies. The librarian was keen to see us, in his well-ordered room where sea shanties, ballads and nursery rhymes are all shelved separately. I noted that the magazine rack contained subscriptions to Concertina World, Dulcimer Players News and Fiddle On, amongst many others. A broad programme of concerts and ceilidhs are held in the main hall, indeed Time Out readers have voted Cecil Sharp House their second favourite live music venue in the capital. It strikes me that thousands of Londoners who don't know the place exists would undoubtedly enjoy all it has to offer, be that participating or as part of an audience. In case that's you, my apologies, but now you know.

Royal College of Physicians: The professional body that oversees Britain's doctors used to be based in a creaky building off Pall Mall. One bomb changed that, and for their post-war rebuild they commissioned something very different indeed on the edge of Regent's Park. Architect Denys Lasdun could have designed something 'safe' to stand alongside Nash's terraces, but instead persuaded the august body to accept a tempered Brutalist design. The main block has a blocky mosaic facing, perched on non-classical columns, with Corbusian utilities jutting from the roof. Adjacent is a sunken lecture theatre, faced in contrasting black brick joined at a sculpted corner (I learnt all this on the architecture tour with Barnabas, which was excellent). The interior focus is a twisting stairway rising through a balcony-fringed void, which could have looked like a shopping mall, but in Sir Denys's hands is somewhat more sophisticated. He went on to design the University of East Anglia and the National Theatre, but it's this building which gets the Grade I listing. If you ever end up taking medical exams you'll likely end up receiving your award inside, but if you can't wait that long then regular tours of the building are available all year round.

Swiss Cottage Library: This modernist gem was built as the borough of Hampstead's central library, and completed just before local government reorganisation in 1965. The architect Sir Basil Spence was also responsible for Coventry Cathedral, and although there's no stained glass here there is a cavernous feeling of space and light. Arts up one end, sciences at the other, with open spiral staircases to link the main floor and mezzanine. The edge of the library building has fins, and once matched by the swimming baths nextdoor (although the pool's since been knocked down and replaced). Our Open House guide used to work here in the early days, and revelled in the opportunity to dig around again in the book stacks beneath the public floors. Should you ever fancy a sit down with a book or periodical, plus a drink and a light bite from a well run cafe, I'd bear Camden's leading library in mind.

 Monday, September 24, 2012

plaque at Lewisham stationOpen House: Trellick Tower

Few social housing projects are instantly recognisable, but the silhouette of West London's Trellick Tower couldn't be anything else. Nothing else apart from the Balfron Tower, that is, its smaller sister in Poplar. Both were designed by Erno Goldfinger, the Hungarian architect, whose home at 2 Willow Road I told you about a while back. Trellick's widely agreed to be his masterpiece - a commission from the Greater London Council in 1966 - and the embodiment of his Brutalist concrete-loving style. To get inside you need to buy, or rent (most people rent), or else have very good friends who live in this thin highrise tower. Or you need to wait for Open House weekend and get lucky. I got lucky.

Yet again, the Open House pre-booking system proved incredibly flaky. I tried for a Trellick ticket during the only hour the online booking system was vaguely operational (so much frustration, so many refreshes), and thought I'd been unsuccessful. Then two different emails arrived each telling me I'd got a ticket, but both with the same ID code, so really only one. When I turned up at the tower yesterday the concierge buzzed me in and gave me a leaflet, but no names were checked and nobody ever asked whether I had any right to be here. Our tour was under-attended (I guess the hideous weather battering North Kensington put some people off) so anyone could have walked in off the street to make up the numbers. Even you. I'm not sure how Open House could organise pre-bookings better, but it seems they could hardly organise them worse.

It looks lively enough at Carnival, but the top of Golborne Road's no place to be in a September gale. The street lay empty as the rain beat down, and only the foolhardy were still dogwalking in nearby Meanwhile Gardens. One man sheltered in the doorway of the off licence, another two were chatting under the overhang by the betting shop. It was rammed to bursting in the Trellick Lounge, which sounds like it ought to be an upmarket eaterie, but was instead a cafe cum social club where local males congregate to watch big screen TV. The entrance to the Trellick Tower is currently mounted with scaffolding, above which rises a narrow cliff face specked with slit windows. This is the lift tower, used by residents to gain access to the upper floors of the adjacent accommodation. And sticking out at the tip is the plant room where the boiler and hot water storage tanks reside, or used to until made irrelevant by the 70s oil crisis.

The entrance hall used to be open access but now there's a controlled door and a concierge, which has done wonders for the block's previous unsavoury reputation. The lobby's narrower than you might imagine, but then the whole thing has to fit inside the footprint of the lift tower so there's not much space. A noticeboard alerts tenants to important issues (do not feed the squirrels!), while the far wall is brightened by a geometric pattern of stained glass rectangles. At some point in the last 40 years a CCTV camera has been added, and even that's been done semi-sympathetically within a bold green square, such are the demanding requirements of Grade II* listed status. As each new face entered the lobby it was fairly easy to identify who was a resident and who an Open House visitor. Trellick Tower's not the uniformly aspirational living space many would believe, with a relatively small proportion of the 217 flats owned by eager architecture aficionados.

The lifts are currently being upgraded, with only two out of three in service which delays progress up and down the building. They stop only every third floor, due to the peculiar way the main building is laid out with longitudinal corridors on multiples of three only. On reaching your target floor you exit into a double height lobby with six slit windows in the wall to your right. The attention to detail is impressive, for social housing, even down to the tiling which is a different colour on every floor. A solid-looking doorway leads off to the left, with curved concrete surround and a blocky tinted lintel. Step through and you're into the connecting tube, suspended umpteen storeys high looking down over Kensal Town and the Westway. If you've no head for heights, best live somewhere else.

Each corridor is bright and well-maintained, leading eventually to a second emergency staircase at the very far end. One wall's glass, and canal and rooftops, while the other is lined with more than the usual number of front doors. Cleverly all the flats on floors x+1 and x-1 have their entrance on floor x, with stairs beyond either up or down to the appropriate living space. Some are two-storey maisonettes, others rather smaller one-bedroom dwellings, but all somehow fit together in a complex multi-level jigsaw.

For Open House we were kindly allowed entry into two flats, of very different scales. They were neither exactly as built, nor would you expect them to be, but several original features remained. Each had a certain boxiness, though with plenty of space, a true sense of light and a larger kitchen than I might have imagined. Communal heating, paid for out of the service charge, allows residents carte blanche to pump out warmth all year round. And everyone gets a balcony, south-ish facing, which I'm told helps create a perfect elevated suntrap. In yesterday's grim weather, however, the sliding doors were best kept shut to keep the wind and driving rain outside.

The two owners of the Open House "show flats" clearly love living in the Trellick Tower, in one case infectiously so. I'm not quite sure I'd be so keen, more because of access arrangements than architectural quibbles, and because I couldn't afford to buy. If this has whetted your appetite then Chris currently has a flat for sale on the 21st floor, and a bespoke website that'll entice you still further. You'll need half a million pounds, which is bloody good going for a former council flat, plus a substantial wodge of cash to pay for upcoming blockwide refurbishments. But how cool to live in Erno's iconic tower, overlooked by nobody, king of the sky.

» photos: 11 from me, 25 from McTumshie from OH2011, 18 from Hoosier Sands from OH2009

 Sunday, September 23, 2012

Open House: Canary Wharf Crossrail station

In six years time, if all goes to plan, the first Crossrail trains will glide into Canary Wharf to collect passengers. The shopping centre associated with the new station should be with us by Easter 2015, so you'll be able to drop by and buy sushi relatively soon. But to get any lower, four floors down where the platforms are, that's a much longer wait. Unless you were lucky in the London Open House raffle, that is, in which case you might have slipped in yesterday.

Sheesh, the London Open House pre-booking system has been a disaster this year. They promised an online launch several times, then retreated when the system wholly and utterly failed. They shifted the deadline and promised the system would work better, only it didn't, and only a random handful of desperate web-refreshers managed to book anything. They apologised and shifted to an email-only lottery, which probably worked better, although I applied for lots and won absolutely nothing. A complete mess all told, and even more so in the execution. According to the cribsheet at Crossrail security our tour had 20 pre-booked attendees, except the majority of these turned out to be illusionary, accidentally generated during the website booking meltdown a month ago. Only six of us gained entrance with official documentation, and all the remaining places were filled by speculative queuers who'd ignored the "pre-book only" message and turned up anyway. Well done to them for trying, but a kick in the teeth to anyone who failed to book a place and stayed away. The snowballing success of London Open House (which is great) has created total reservation instability (which is not), and the team desperately needs to sort out something better by next year.

The Jubilee line station at Canary Wharf was created by draining one of the existing docks and digging a deep hole. The Crossrail station's being built in much the same way, this time in the North Quay. Construction work began in 2009, and since then a vast concrete structure has arisen. The top two storeys are visible above the waterline, a good 250m long, and destined to be full of retail and restaurants. I find it hard to believe that Canary Wharf needs yet more shopping space, but I guess demand for lunchtime browsing and after-work entertainment is insatiable. Rather worthier is the linear park that's due to appear on the rooftop, a rare strip of greenspace hereabouts, and part of wider plans to knit Poplar more closely into its wealthier neighbour.

Entrance to Crossrail's construction zone can be found directly underneath West India Quay DLR station. Nobody gets too far inside without protection, which for those of us on the tour meant hi-vis, helmet, goggles and gloves. "Feel free to take take photos," said the manager in charge, although that's easier said than done when your fingers are encased in safetywear. We crossed the water via a ramped bridge and entered the heart of the site. One day there'll be stairs and disabled-friendly lifts, but for now access to the lower areas is only by hoist. I had visions of this being some flaky maritime contraption, but instead it was more like a miners' cage, perfectly safe for lowering up to 2000kg of human cargo into the abyss. "Don't worry about the jolt when it starts up," our guide reassured us, "that's perfectly normal."

The doors opened at what will one day be ticket hall level. It's a massive ticket hall, broad and very long, comparable to that of the Jubilee line station a few hundred metres away. Expect a direct link to enable swift interchange, via a passageway also linking this shopping mall to the lower mall at Canary Wharf. Developers are expecting 36000 passengers an hour to pass through this station during the morning peak, that's ten a second, so the ticket gates (or whatever swish technology we have by then) needs to be able to cope. It's all a bit nondescript down here at the moment, a lengthy concrete cuboid plus scaffolding lit by bright lights, but expect a much more architectural sheen when you finally arrive here.

Steps twist down to the bottom of the station - very temporary metal stairs descending into the void, down and down. The final landing is labelled "Level -6" and is approximately where the platforms will be. We had one more flight to go because there are no platforms as yet, only the box in which they'll eventually appear once tracks have been laid. We stood in the path of oncoming trains, a few years too early, and gawped around. It is a very long station, as I think I've already mentioned, but it needs to be long to cope with ten-carriage trains (and the possibility of later extension). Getting on at the right end of the train is going to be important come 2018 - board at the front and you'll alight at Moorgate, board at the rear and you'll alight at Liverpool Street. There'll also be floor-to-ceiling electronic platform doors dividing waiting passengers from arriving trains, much more substantial than on the Jubilee line, with all the fire safety benefits such sealing-off brings.

The main reason there are no tracks yet is that so far there are no tunnels. Four giant metal hoops stand ready to be pierced, two at each end of the station, their interior supported by thick piles until breakthrough comes. Crossrail's tunnel boring machines are due to arrive here next April, after burrowing a mile from the Limmo peninsula at the mouth of the Lea. Then in July they'll be off again, this time towards Stepney and Whitechapel, bringing dreams of high-speed commuting that little bit closer. We were allowed right up to, even into, the incoming eastbound portal, to see the concrete octagon within the metal circle at close hand. Various people posed for pictures ("this is me wearing serious safety gear stood in front of an important wall"), then took photos of their partners for good measure.

You could tell that the project manager leading our tour party was proud of his team's achievements so far, and rightly so. Design and building have been undertaken by Canary Wharf Contractors Limited, not TfL or any of the usual national construction companies, and so far they're delivering ahead of schedule. I'm sure he'd have stayed talking for much longer given half a chance, except there was another tour party arriving behind so we had to end our subterranean odyssey forthwith. Another ride in the hoist awaited, this time from 25 metres below water level back to the surface. And that's the last I expect to see of this amazing station until I come back by train in six years time, this chamber transformed. You'll all be saying "wow, it's a step-change in the London transport experience", but we Open House visitors will also remember it as a hole.

And no, my camera didn't function well in the artificial gloom. I grabbed a few blurry shots, but if you want something better then Ian Visits and M@ from Londonist were taken down to platform level a few months back, and not a huge amount has changed down there since.

 Saturday, September 22, 2012

It's been a high profile summer, which means scores of PR folk and marketeers have stumbled across this blog, then thought it a good idea to fire promotional missives at my email address. They thought wrong.
Hi there,
I hope you’re well. Some stats below which I hope are of interest for you.
Your ridiculous car hire survey is of no interest whatsoever, Stuart.
I’m getting in touch to let you know about a high energy Facebook challenge that <fashion company> is rolling out next week...
No. Just no.
I wondered if the following would be of interest to you blog?
"The following" is a press release about furniture, Sarah. You can guess the answer.
I hope you don’t see this email as a marketing email. I just wanted to let you know about...
It's a marketing email, Amy. Stop right there.
Hello Diamond,
My name is Matilda <Surname>, social media manager at <Parasite Company>. We’ve been following your blog at <not my blog address> for a while now and your writing style is pretty great! I’m willing to bet PR agencies and Brands might find it appealing as well.
They do indeed, Matilda. But if you can't even get the name of my blog right, what hope is there?
Hi Diamond Geezer,
I hope you don't mind me getting in touch, my name is Lucinda and I work for <famous chocolate bar>. I'm getting in touch because we have LOADS of exciting news coming up and we want you to be amongst the select few to experience it first.
Only in Lucindaworld is receiving an premature press release about chocolate somehow exciting.
I would like to contact you about the Social Media company <social media company>. We are currently planning an event for the September 12th 2012 from 6pm till 8pm. We would like to ask if you would be able to lead a 30 minute workshop in which bloggers will be able to learn how to become successful on the internet.
That came out of the blue, James. Trust me, if I opened my mouth at your event, you wouldn't like what I had to say.
Hi Administrator,
I came across your website and wanted to notify you about a broken link on your page in case you weren't aware of it. The link on diamondgeezer.blogspot.com/2003_10_01_archive.html which links to http://www.guernsey.net/%7Esgibbs/roman.html is no longer working. I've included a link to a useful page on Roman Numeral Date Conversion Resources that you could replace the broken link with if you're interested in updating your website. Thanks for providing a great resource!
For this, and for the other three emails you sent, and for the other ten thousand you could send, let me stop you there Jennifer.
Hello Diamond Geezer,
Hope you’re very well. My name is Ben and I’m writing on behalf of the travel guide website <travel guide website>. We noticed that you share a love of unique things to do in good old London town. We have just created a brand new infographic that features some first-hand knowledge about the top things to do in London, which we think will give your cultured, adventure-loving readers something to chitchat about.
I emailed Ben back and pointed out five errors in his "Top 12 facts" infographic, including the fact that the London Eye was much heavier (and rather shorter) than he thought, that he had the wrong price for an Oyster bus fare, that he'd made anachronistic assumptions about Thames Barrier Park, plus the usual "Big Ben" mix-up.
Thank you Diamond Geezer,
The infographic has been changed and I will personally ensure that our infographics are well resourced and of the best quality in the future. Very sorry to have wasted your time.
I'm very sorry you wasted it too, Ben.

And the rest of you marketeers too, please save your emails, because they're wasted here.

 Friday, September 21, 2012

A taste of London, say the adverts on station platforms. A special TfL-themed pop-up dining establishment has opened, in the heart of town, as part of this year's London Design Festival. The blurb hints at a nostalgic vibe, perhaps waitresses in pinnies serving hearty meals in exchange for ration coupons. Check out tfl.gov.uk/canteen and you'll likely be enticed. But try to work out when it's open, how to get in and what they're serving up inside and you'll likely be stumped. Give it a go now if you like. I'll wait.

On opening day I thought I'd try to get some clues from outside. The location is the old High Holborn Sorting Office on New Oxford Street, a cavernous shell left empty when the Royal Mail moved out a decade ago. The building's recently morphed into an event venue for temporary extravaganzas - for example London Fashion Week - which made it the perfect choice for a five-day celebration of all that's supposedly great about UK Design. I'd accidentally turned up during the preliminary "Press View", but nobody on the front desk seemed worried I was an off-the-street member of the public with no accreditation. They were happy for me to fill in the registration form (be careful what you tick or they'll start sending you design spam) and step inside. They also gave me a special wristband to wear, black in colour, which I later deduced meant "off-the-street member of the public with no accreditation". Ah well.

Woo! The inside of the old sorting office is cavernous, as you'd expect from somewhere formerly devoted to pigeonholing letters and carting them away. There used to be metal chutes down to the basement, though you won't get down there today, nor to the underground Mail Rail which formerly carried envelopes and parcels beneath London. But we're not here to gawp at industrial heritage, remember, we're here to celebrate design. A lot of this is furniture, especially chairs, whether you have a living room to fill or an entire chain of offices to stock. Curvy chairs, wicker chairs, colourful chairs, plastic chairs, lightweight chairs, metal chairs... and matching tables, and some innovative crockery to top things off. Lampshades are always a good way for designers to show off, and clocks, and luggage, and small electronic gizmos. But mostly furniture. And especially chairs.

The media were busy chatting to stallholders and trying things out. There wasn't much photography going on, nor many people wielding an iPad or notebook, but I sensed that people were merrily networking, collecting information and accumulating ambience. With three floors to explore, each massive, a serious player could have been kept busy all day. I grinned and smiled my way around, in an attempt to fit in with the trendy well-groomed folk milling by. I was glad I was wearing one of my better work shirts, not shabby jeans, but even so I was blatantly not "one of them". Surely they'd clocked me as an external interloper. I could imagine everyone muttering at my shoes... did you see those shoes, too sensible, no style, he's not one of us.

With the London Design Festival being a major event and this one of its major hubs, food and drink needs had to be satisfied. A couple of bars kept delegates refreshed, although the champagne may only have been big on day one. An ice cream outlet offered three quid cones, although this was posh colourful gelato so it was slipping down well. And for food, obviously, they'd invited TfL to team up with a well-known restaurant and given them a space at the rear of the second floor.

Welcome to the TfL Canteen, identified by two roundels stuck to the window which say CANTEEN in New Johnston. The set-up looks like a fairly bog-standard pop-up dining establishment, ie a counter laid out with cakes and a few primitive cooking/reheating facilities behind. The menu is, let's be frank, restricted. There are three £4.50 breakfast options (bacon roll, toasted cheese sandwich, etc) and three more substantial plates for £5.50 (pie and mash, goats cheese and tomato tart, etc), plus cakes. There's also a £19.95 afternoon tea option, which sounds extortionate, but it's designer tea and I think you get to listen to a design guru pontificating while you sip, I think, it wasn't clear.

TfL has a world class reputation for design, so it wasn't surprising to see them here showing off their creative heritage. The dining area's seats are covered in moquette, resembling longitudinal tube train benching. A few seats inspired by the New Bus For London are lined up too, plus a Heatherwick chair to win in a competition. I tried to engage the lady with the prize chair in conversation but she wasn't having it, probably because she'd spotted my black wristband, or maybe my shoes. True TfL design aficionados might be interested in a limited edition Thomas Heatherwick Oystercard holder, fashioned from New Bus cork flooring, for a mere £25. But as for the café, it wasn't as special as I'd expected - just a generic eating space, nicely decorated, round the back of an exhibition.

Do by all means head down to Holborn and take a look around before the end of the weekend. But don't come purely for a TfL-themed snack... much better that you're interested in stacks of chairs and mailroom retro. And don't wear your anorak.

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the diamond geezer index
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my special London features
a-z of london museums
E3 - local history month
greenwich meridian (N)
greenwich meridian (S)
the real eastenders
london's lost rivers
olympic park 2007
great british roads
oranges & lemons
random boroughs
bow road station
high street 2012
river westbourne
trafalgar square
capital numbers
east london line
lea valley walk
olympics 2005
regent's canal
square routes
silver jubilee
unlost rivers
cube routes
Herbert Dip
capital ring
river fleet

ten of my favourite posts
the seven ages of blog
my new Z470xi mobile
five equations of blog
the dome of doom
chemical attraction
quality & risk
london 2102
single life
april fool

ten sets of lovely photos
my "most interesting" photos
london 2012 olympic zone
harris and the hebrides
betjeman's metro-land
marking the meridian
tracing the river fleet
london's lost rivers
inside the gherkin
seven sisters

just surfed in?
here's where to find...
diamond geezers
flash mob #1  #2  #3  #4
ben schott's miscellany
london underground
watch with mother
cigarette warnings
digital time delay
wheelie suitcases
war of the worlds
transit of venus
top of the pops
old buckenham
ladybird books
acorn antiques
digital watches
outer hebrides
olympics 2012
school dinners
pet shop boys
west wycombe
bletchley park
george orwell
big breakfast
clapton pond
san francisco
children's tv
east enders
trunk roads
little britain
credit cards
jury service
big brother
jubilee line
number 1s
titan arum
doctor who
blue peter
peter pan
feng shui
leap year
bbc three
vision on
ID cards