diamond geezer

 Thursday, May 31, 2018

Location: York Avenue, East Cowes, Isle of Wight, PO32 6JX [map]
Open: daily from 10am (reduced opening Nov-Mar)
Admission: £17.20
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/osborne
Four word summary: Queen Victoria's favoured hideaway
Time to allow: at least half a day

To understand Queen Victoria, there's no better place to visit than her favourite home, on the Isle of Wight. A few years into her marriage to Prince Albert she sought somewhere private to bring up a young family, a rural hideaway, and plumped for a country estate on the outskirts of Cowes. She'd been to the neighbouring castle a couple of times on holiday, and liked the view, and buying a big house is easy when you rule the country. Unfortunately it proved nowhere near big enough, so a replacement was built in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo, and that proved perfect.

The royal family spent extended periods at Osborne House each year, once around Victoria's birthday in May, once around Albert's in August and again in the run-up to Christmas. After Albert tragically died at the age of 42, their wedding anniversary became the favoured time for a visit, and the estate's seclusion proved ideal during four decades of mourning. Queen Victoria died at Osborne in January 1901, leaving strict instructions that the house should not be disposed of after her death. Edward VII promptly did exactly that, because none of the nine royal offspring liked the place as much as their mother had. Osborne became a Royal Naval training college, then a military convalescent home, and is now one of the jewels in English Heritage's crown (as the admission price suggests).

I suspect more people would visit Osborne House if it were easier to get to (except of course the key driver behind its original location was that it isn't). But once across the Solent it's easily accessible, and I was impressed/disappointed by the crowds queueing through the gift stop first thing on Bank Holiday Monday. Large family groups sprawled down the drive towards the ramp into the back of the house, where the older generation paused for breath, and staff handed out activity trails to the younger visitors. These printed booklets looked like a jolly good idea at the time, but by the time we reached Queen Victoria's bedroom I was cursing their existence.

Visitors filter round the house via a pre-determined route, either admiring the decor and contents of each room, or tracking down a painting of a specific dog to scrawl into a box on page 4. Guides wait in each room ready to explain more than the single information panel by the door, or to direct overeager children towards the corner where the next answer might be. The corridors are almost institutional, save for the geometric frills, assorted sculptures and pristine Minton tiling. The art and ornaments are original, and impressive, and still the property of the (current) royal household. So many family portraits, so many busts of the Queen, and rather a lot of V&A monograms splashed everywhere you look.

Along the way you'll see the opulent state rooms where the family spent the day. You'll delve into the scullery where the gold-rimmed crockery was washed. You'll climb (steeply) to the top of the Pavilion Wing to the recreated royal nurseries. You'll enter the private apartments which were gated off for 50 years, to see Prince Albert's desk and the bed in which Victoria died. On quiet days this sombre chamber probably packs an emotional punch, but rather less so if you've been stuck in the doorway waiting for kids to be pulled from the foot of the four poster crying because they haven't been allowed to complete their wordsearch.

The final treat on the tour is the Durbar Room, recently renovated, which two ladies drawn here by the latest ITV Sunday night drama had been looking forward to seeing since they walked in. It's from the period after Albert's death when Victoria became Empress of India, and the decor (especially the intricate plaster work across the ceiling) reflects her increasingly subcontinental taste. Cabinets display some of the finer gifts she received for her later jubilees, and the corridor outside features more Hindu, Sikh and Muslim portraits than the most narrow-minded royalist would ever want to believe existed.

With the house duly ticked off, the remainder of the estate awaits. The rear terrace is splendid, all geometric beds and classical statues, plus a big fountain as a centrepiece. I was rewarded with bright sunshine for my visit, and was struck by the unnatural shade of the surrounding plasterwork, less virgin stucco, more Butterscotch Angel Delight. Stretching out in front of the terrace is a long path down towards the sea, initially quite formal, then dissolving into a meandering woodland. The sea's further away than it looks, and here you'll find Queen Victoria's private beach, a brief golden strand reopened to the public a few years back, now with deckchairs and cake.

The other prime spot in the woods is the Swiss Cottage. Prince Albert had this two-storey alpine chalet built to add a Germanic touch, and to act as a giant playroom for his nine children. Inside they learned cooking, housekeeping and etiquette, while outside it was gardening, building and playing at soldiers. He even built a separate chalet as a repository - a second Victoria and Albert museum - filled with rocks, stuffed birds, shells, fossils and all the ethnographic specimens a budding royal family might need to understand the world they would grow up to rule. It's a delight, despite its intended audience of nine.

Osborne House (and its surroundings) kept me occupied for rather longer than I was expecting, and that's without succumbing to a slice of cake, a light lunch or an afternoon tea. I can now more easily picture the happy family years enjoyed by the most powerful monarch on the planet, as well as one of the chief places she hid herself away for decades after her husband passed away. To understand Queen Victoria, there's no better place to visit than her favourite home, on the Isle of Wight.

My Isle of Wight gallery
There are 27 photos (including 15 of Osborne House)   [slideshow]

 Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Gadabout: COWES (IoW)

It's probably best not to live in Cowes unless you like boats. The town is divided in two by a river, faces the busy waterway of the Solent, and holds the world's biggest regatta every August. Let me tell you seven things about the place.

1) Cowes proper is on the west side of the estuary. To the east is East Cowes. The population is split roughly 60/40. East Cowes has the big Waitrose, while Cowes has the M&S Food Hall.
2) Connecting the two is the Cowes Floating Bridge. It isn't a bridge, it's a chain ferry, which scuttles back and forth across the Medina all day, linking the ends of two rather ordinary streets. Pedestrians pay £1.50 return to climb up on top, so get the best views of all the river traffic trying to nip through before the ferry arrives. Car drivers pay £2.60 single, avoiding an 11 mile trip by road. [3 photos]
3) East Cowes has the better beach, and the Classic Boat Museum, but the 'town centre' is pretty much dead. Local businesses say the final nail in the coffin has been the unreliable service provided by the new Floating Bridge, whose year-long teething problems (especially at low tide) have yet to be solved.

4) The Isle of Wight ferry isn't brown, and doesn't steam. Red and white catamarans whisk foot passengers from West Cowes to Southampton for £26 return, while red and white vehicle ferries operate (more slowly) out of East Cowes for £18.
5) Unless you have boating connections, it's quite hard to get close to the river through Cowes, which is lined by boatyard after boatyard. Only to the north of the High Street is a seafront promenade possible, where you can watch yachts and every kind of floating plaything feeding out into the Solent.

6) Cowes Castle, guarding the mouth of the estuary, was built for Henry VIII and is now home to the Royal Yacht Squadron. 22 brass cannons point out towards the Solent from the seawall on the promenade, and are used during Cowes Week to start the racing. "Warning, Starting Cannon May Fire At Any Time" is one of Britain's more unusual health and safety messages.
7) To feed the waterborne hordes, Cowes has a unusually dense concentration of restaurants and hostelries. One of the Tandoori restaurants distinguishes itself by featuring a photo of Richard Branson in the window, although it's not clear whether this aids custom or hinders it. I stuck to £6 fish and chips guzzled on a bench watching the big money float by.

ENGLISH HERITAGE: Carisbrooke Castle
Location: Castle Hill, Newport, Isle of Wight, PO30 1XY [map]
Open: daily from 10am (reduced opening Nov-Mar)
Admission: £10.00
Website: english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/carisbrooke-castle
Five word summary: the castle with the donkeys
Time to allow: at least a couple of hours

A few Tudor sea defences ring the Isle of Wight, but the only proper Norman castle is slap bang in the centre on a chalk ridge outside Newport. Specifically it's above Carisbrooke, half an hour's walk from the town centre (which might be worth knowing on days when the buses are proving infrequent). Walking the last stretch on foot requires somewhat of a climb, and those driving can only negotiate round one of the bastions by passing an ancient traffic light alongside a classic triangular sign warning Caution Dangerous Corner Drive Slowly. The gatehouse provides the sole point of access across the dry moat, now generally without fear of attack, although you may have to take evasive action if you meet an ice cream van coming the other way.

Carisbrooke has three big positives in favour of making a visit. The first is the castle walls, which provide an almost complete circuit around the entire central courtyard. The wall-walk is just narrow enough to be exhilarating, as well as endearingly irregular, and provides a prime vantage point to admire both the interior of the castle and the surrounding countryside, which is currently at its pastoral best. One particularly precipitous staircase with wildly uneven steps climbs steeply to the upper level of the keep, from which another flight rises to an outer walkway boasting the island's loftiest panorama. It's not uncommon to see a small child weeping part way up, or a wise parent at the bottom sitting out the ascent.

The second big positive is the castle's history. King Charles I was locked up here following defeat in the Civil War, and was well treated, with nightly banquets and a huge bowling green constructed out the back for his benefit, but spent the last year of his life repeatedly failing to escape. Another royal resident was Princess Beatrice, not the current one but Queen Victoria's youngest daughter, who spent twenty years here as Governor of the Isle of Wight. One of her creations was the Carisbrooke Castle Museum in the Great Hall, which showcases an impressively broad set of local connections covering fields from weaponry to seismology.

And the third star attraction is four-legged. Donkeys have been treading the wheel in the castle's wellhouse since 1696, when officers decided they were far more reliable than prisoners. Today the four donkeys stabled on site are only used for brief demonstrations, and only lift empty buckets, and sometimes refuse even to do that. On my visit Jack, the naughtiest donkey, declined to cooperate and wandered off the wheel for strokes and nuzzling, quite unlike the time when Countryfile turned up and he behaved perfectly. Some visitors walked out disappointed, but I was able to fall back on memories of asinine rotation from the last time I was here in the early 1970s, confirming that Carisbrooke Castle is indeed unforgettable.

 Tuesday, May 29, 2018

To experience that great scientific marvel of the 1950s, the hovercraft, the only place to go is the Isle of Wight. Hovertravel run a half-hourly service between Southsea and Ryde, with extra services slotted inbetween at times of high demand. If you've never consider hovering before, here's how it works.

The Hoverbus runs between Portsmouth & Southsea station and the terminal. A ticket for a day's travel costs £1.95, and the service is timed to link with hovercraft departures. Alternatively it's a 20 minute walk. Alas the Hoverbus never hovers.

If you haven't bought tickets beforehand, you can buy them at the Hoverport. Current fares are £18 single, £24 day return and £32 return. A catamaran to the Pierhead is a few pounds cheaper. Two Rover tickets worth noting are Hovercraft + Island Line for £24 (that's as many tube rides as you like), and Hovercraft + IoW buses for £29.

Once your ticket is checked you pass through into a waiting area with a drinks machine and toilets. Now is the time to buy a Hoverteddy, a Hoverlanyard, a £1 inflatable hovercraft for your bath, the I-Spy book of the Isle of Wight or the Ladybird book How it Works, The Hovercraft.

When boarding starts a well-mannered free-for all begins, so sit near to the exit door if you want a choice of seats. The most popular seats in the cabin are beside the windows, although these can get a bit grubby after several seasplash crossings, so don't expect the view to be perfect.

Two hovercraft are used to operate the route, both recent investments, barely two years old. The seats are comfy and leathery. Staff ensure that all big luggage is stored up front, then one will press the button for the on-screen safety demo and the other will climb the ladder to the bridge and drive.

Whooosh, the air cushions inflate, then the hovercraft manoeuvres round and heads into the Solent. At low tide the first and last parts of the voyage will be across sand rather than water. Expect to cross the paths of numerous other sea-going craft, occasionally disturbed by the wash from the largest ships.

The crossing takes only 10 minutes, which is twice as quick as the FastCat to the Pier Head. Disembarkation is quick, from the landing pad straight out to the railway bridge. Congratulations, you have just floated across the Solent on a cushion of air. Futuristic travel is alive and well on the Isle of Wight.

If travelling by rail from further afield, especially with a railcard, the cheapest option is to buy a through ticket. This covers your train journey, the Hoverbus and the hovercraft crossing. Make sure you ask specifically for 'Ryde Hoverport'. By travelling via Horsham and applying my Gold Card discount, I got the fare from London to the Isle of Wight down to an unbeatable £31, for a cracking day out.

Coastal ferry services in England
(and whether I've been on them or not)

Seahouses ←→ Farne Islands (foot)
North Shields ←→ South Shields (foot)
King's Lynn ←→ West Lynn (foot)
Southwold ←→ Walberswick (foot)
Felixstowe ←→ Bawdsey (foot)
Harwich ←→ Shotley/Felixstowe (foot)
Wivenhoe ←→ Rowhedge (foot)
Brightlingsea ferry (foot)
Burnham-on-Crouch ←→ Wallasea Island (foot)
Gravesend ←→ Tilbury (foot)
Lymington ←→ Yarmouth (vehicle)
Southampton ←→ Cowes (foot)
Southampton ←→ East Cowes (vehicle)
Cowes ←→ East Cowes (chain ferry)
Portsmouth ←→ Fishbourne (vehicle)
Portsmouth ←→ Ryde (foot)
Southsea ←→ Ryde (hovercraft)
Littlehampton ferry (foot)
Ichenor ←→ Bosham (foot)
Hamble ←→ Warsash (foot)
Eastney ←→ Hayling Island (foot)
Portsmouth ←→ Gosport (foot)
Mudeford quay ←→ beach (foot)
Southampton ←→ Hythe (foot)
Keyhaven ←→ Hurst Castle (foot)
Sandbanks ←→ Studland (chain ferry)
Poole ←→ Brownsea Island/Sandbanks (foot)
River Exe estuary (foot) (foot) (foot)
Teignmouth ←→ Shaldon (foot)
Torquay ←→ Brixham (foot)
Dartmouth ferries (chain ferry) (vehicle) (foot)
Salcombe ferries (foot) (foot) (foot)
Plymouth ferries (foot) (foot) (foot)
Torpoint ←→ Devonport (chain ferry)
River Fowey estuary (vehicle) (foot) (foot)
River Fal estuary (chain ferry) (5×foot)
Penzance ←→ Isles of Scilly (foot)
Padstow ←→ Rock (foot)
Appledore ←→ Instow (foot)
Birkenhead/Wallasey ←→ Liverpool (Mersey ferry)
Fleetwood ←→ Knott End (foot)
Barrow-in-Furness ←→ Piel Island (foot)

n.b. England only, so no Wales, Scotland, Channel Islands or Isle of Man.
n.b. Coastal ferries only, so no Windermere , Shepperton or Reedham
n.b. The list runs roughly clockwise, with the Isle of Wight separate.
n.b. I've omitted irregular or private ferries, like Lundy and Orford Ness.
n.b. I've probably omitted loads of other ferries, so do let me know.
n.b. You could tick/untick the list to see how many you've been on.
n.b. I travelled on two of these yesterday. I now have 19 ticks.

 Monday, May 28, 2018

20 years ago today I bought my first mobile phone. 1998 was a different world.

The Ex insisted I get one, so like a good boy I popped into The Link, a subset of Dixons, and picked myself a Motorola StarTAC. Specifically I bought the mr501, which was the budget option, and paid £49.99 for the privilege. Ah, that classic clamshell design, and that fiddly extendable aerial, and that satisfying click when you opened it up. It was like suddenly having a Star Trek communicator in my pocket.

Looking back at it now, with its little screen for displaying nothing more than a few lines of text, it all seems ridiculously basic. The battery is huge, relatively speaking. The SIM is credit card sized, and slots into an exposed gap below the mouthpiece. A splash of water in the wrong place and it'd never work again. But it still has a pleasing weight to it, and fits comfortably in the hand, and looks a lot more likely to survive contact with a hard surface than a modern £500 smartphone.

I joined the Orange network, and received a snazzy welcome pack for my troubles. The company were known for their cutting edge branding, at the time, and the two-tone paperwork collection didn't disappoint. Even the prepaid envelope to customer services was bright orange on the inside. The pack welcomed me to "one of the fastest growing national digital wirefree communications networks in the UK", told me the future's bright, the future's Orange, and listed all the wonderful things I could suddenly now do.

I read the instructions very carefully. How to turn the thing on, how to tell if the battery was running down, how to add numbers to the phonebook so you could see who was calling, how to pretend you were busy and send the call to voicemail - it all seems so obvious now, but it was cutting edge back then. I particularly liked the fold-out network coverage map which reassured me of "high quality outdoor coverage available now" in the area where my parents lived in Norfolk - something which has never materialised even 20 years later.

I didn't use my new phone on the first day because it was charging up. I used it on the second day while the Ex was driving us to Coulsdon to buy a very expensive television. Somewhere before the Dartford Crossing I rang my parents to tell them I now had a mobile phone, and was ringing them from the M25, and I couldn't remember what my number was but I'd tell them later. They seemed somewhat surprised. I then rang the TV shop to check where to park, on all-inclusive minutes, as the phone proved its worth for the first time.

I first used the Answering service a few days later at work, when I checked my phone mid-morning and discovered a mysterious envelope on the display. It took a while to realise what the symbol meant, and what to do, but eventually I rang back and discovered the Ex had called. Kerching, that was my first 28p on the bill. A short call followed, which was a surreptitious treat in an environment I'd previously assumed to be personal-communication-free. I made a note to set my phone to silent, and have left it there ever since.

I sent my first text message 10 minutes later. I had been trying to send it sooner, but I was on a steep learning curve trying to work out how to turn a numerical keyboard into words. I can't remember what the message said after I'd managed to type it in, but I know it was brief, and I suspect I'd now be too embarrassed to repeat it. Text messaging had the potential to be the most brilliant means of communication ever, so looking back through my first set of bills I'm amazed how infrequently we used it. During the remainder of 1998 I only sent a total of 20 texts - a number I can easily exceed in a day today.

In December, owning a mobile phone enabled me to plead for a job from the platform at Romford station, which changed my life. A few months later, owning a mobile phone enabled me to ring for a breakdown truck from a ditch in deepest Suffolk, rather than wait there in the dark until somebody noticed. Throughout 1999, owning a mobile phone allowed a long-distance relationship to thrive... then wobble... and ultimately collapse, as the Ex's itemised billing receipts unambiguously revealed a lengthy backlog of promiscuity. The mobile phone giveth, and the mobile phone taketh away.

In 2002 I switched my mobile allegiance to the legendary Sony Ericsson T68, a grey beauty which no longer required flipping anything open. It feels so small today, almost like it'd get lost at the bottom of a pocket, but small was beautiful when text was king. In 2004 I upgraded to a K700i, which for the first time had a camera attached, although sending one of its indistinct images as a message proved prohibitively expensive. I only ever picked it up if it buzzed, and the idea of using it to keep in touch with what was going on in the wider world would have seemed fantastical.

In 2007 I switched to a K550i, which could now shoot video, not that anyone was interested. I also finally switched to pay-as-you go because I never rang anybody so my contract was piling up hours and minutes I would never use. I kept that phone for five years, during which time technology progressed so rapidly that I had to succumb to a smartphone for fear of missing out. Mobile phones had become more about screens than buttons, a means of communicating many-to-many rather than one-to-one, and an essential key to keeping in touch.

Today's mobiles are part camera, part newspaper, part hi-fi, part plaything, part digital megaphone. They allows us to share everything we're up to, and to receive instant feedback from our peers. They nudge us relentlessly to remind us they exist, and leave us bereft should they ever go offline. Smartphones are inexorably becoming the most important gadget in our lives, the window though which we see the world, the magic rectangle which grabs our attention throughout our waking hours - increasingly the master rather than the servant.

I still have exactly the same mobile number as I was allocated 20 years ago today, in case you ever want to get in touch. But the gizmo in my pocket has evolved far beyond the clamshell I bought in 1998, because what a mobile phone is for has irrevocably changed.

 Sunday, May 27, 2018

This is a post about new town architecture and 80s synthpop.

The group Depeche Mode was formed in Basildon in 1980.

The lead singer Dave Gahan grew up in this house.

This is 56 Bonnygate.

It's unusual for this corner of Basildon in that it's an actual semi-detached house. What's more normal is several of these pushed together, but these are the last houses on the road so they get to be separate. They face a triangle of grass on a street corner, and Dave's is the one on the left in case you were wondering. Nextdoor's front garden currently boasts a bright yellow bush on the gravel and some splendid lilac above the hedge, whereas the front garden outside the old Gahan house has been fully paved and currently provides somewhere to park a Ford Kuga 4×4. Dave would have nipped out that front porch on his way to school or that first Top Of The Pops. The nearest chip shop is about five minutes away at the sub-centre on Church Road.

Songwriter Vince Clarke grew up in this house.

This is 59 Mynchens.

This is more like it, new-town-wise. Mynchens is a cul-de-sac of mostly three-storey flats, all flat-roofed, dating back to circa 1961. This east-facing block incorporates up and over garages on the ground floor with the main rooms on the first and second floors. A thin strip of grass runs up to the front door on the non-car-dominated side. The dominant feature at number 59 is the balcony on top of the garage, still with what looks like its original wooden surround, ideal for stepping onto from the living room for a smoke or a sun-dappled breakfast. The fledgling band once used to meet here for synth practice... for Vince's neighbours' benefit, thankfully with headphones on. Today one of the neighbouring residents owns a Rossi's ice cream van.

Keyboard player Andy Fletcher grew up in this house.

This is 101 Woolmergreen.

It's about five minutes north of Vince's house, which must have been convenient at the time. Andy's house is sandwiched into a long terrace up a pedestrianised walkway, with all the necessary vehicle access hidden along service roads behind. Three such walkways fan out from a bleak paved piazza, where the corner shop is, and deducing which one contains number 101 isn't especially intuitive. The front garden is unfenced, and verging on communal, with council mowers responsible for keeping the central strip of grass in check. The front of the house is a mix of brick and timber, with a slight bay window to distinguish it from its neighbours.

I did not visit Martin Gore's house.

It didn't crop up in my pre-visit Googling, and only later did I discover Martin lived a few hundred metres away from Vince at 16 Shepeshall. Also, apparently Vince lived at 44 Shepeshall for a while, and Andy started out at 69 Woolmergreen before moving to 101, and Vince may actually have lived at number 55 not number 59. Meanwhile Alison Moyet grew up at 14 Butneys. I have photos of none of these. Always do your research properly before you make a new town synthpop pilgrimage.

Also you may have noticed that Basildon has a thing about one word street names.

Bonnygate, Mynchens, Woolmergreen, Shepeshall and Butneys is only the start of it.

Other streets include Alcotes, Byfletts, Craylands, Dengayne, Edgecotts, Furrowfelde, Gibcracks, Havengore, Jermaynes, Kibcaps, Lynstede, Malyons, Oldwyk, Paprills, Rokells, Sturrocks, Teagles and Wendene, to name but a few.

If you Just Can't Get Enough, look on a map.

 Saturday, May 26, 2018

I arrived home yesterday to find a group of schoolchildren hanging around my doorstep, and had to weave my way through to reach the front door. This happens. Ignoring me, they carried on doing what they were doing, which involved staring at a phone and then bursting into song. They knew the song well, and sang two lines together in perfect unison before bursting into happy laughter. And my first thought was "I don't recognise that song at all".

I used to know every song in the charts, indeed in the 80s and 90s I knew the Top 40 inside out and could have hummed you the lot. Somewhere around the turn of the century I lost that ability, despite still being plugged into Radio 1 as my station of choice. Music was slowly changing, or rather what was popular was changing, and I didn't like the new stuff as much as the old. That trend alas continued, and what currently fills daytime airplay I find crass and empty, despite the fact that schoolgirls still love it enough to sing on my doorstep.

I'm aware this is a well-known stage most people go through, from loving the music of their youth to hating the music of the younger generation. What bemuses me is that I thought I had a pretty general musical taste, capable of wider appreciation, but instead the mainstream has careered off down some dark avenue I no longer appreciate and left me behind. There is still plenty of great new music around, as showcased on Radio 6 Music or on late night Radio 1, but these days it never troubles the charts.

Instead what's become popular are solo singers warbling inconclusively about relationships above a generic plinky plonk backing track. Tunes are out, in the common sense, and instead the done thing is to pick a note and then wander marginally up or down as the song progresses. Songs combine vocal showing-off with mundane instrumentals. The singer usually sounds like they've been mulched through a computer. Harmony is a rarity, and 'bands' simply don't get a look in. It's the worst excesses of Mariah Carey spliced with the X Factor's lowest common denominator. It's the monotony of bad rap bolted to the corpse of European Dance Music. And it's all so bloody samey.

Or at least that's my ingrained prejudice. So I thought I'd test it out.

Friday is chart day, so yesterday I tuned in to the Official Top 40 on Radio 1 and forced myself to listen all the way through. Pretty much every thing Greg James played would be new to me, so it'd be a good test.

Would I be pleasantly surprised, or would I simply sigh at the tuneless inanity of it all?
40 Ramz (new): Straight off, a full-on generic autotune warble, with homeboy la-la-las, from the bloke who brought you 'Barking'.
35 Tom Walker (new): Dull self-penned blokey ballad, with proper piano, streaming courtesy of an ad soundtrack.
30 Marshmello & Anne‐Marie (↓1): The first formulaic female. Repetitive bubblegum for backseat humming, oh so very Rebecca Black.
28 Shakka (↑12): Derivative vocoder wobbles, switching from male to female, and managing to rhyme Kilimanjaro with gonna aim low.
26 M-22 (↑7): Actual dance record with plinky backing, very mid-2000s, but the poorest attempt at a tune so far.
25 Rita Ora, Cardi B, Bebe Rexha & Charli XCX (↓1): Anyone could have written this predictable girlie-foursome meander.
24 Years and Years (↑14): I loved King, but this is pish, as Olly tackles unmemorable Casiotone trills.
22 Keala Settle & The Greatest Showman Ensemble (↑3): Finally something different, but also much more safe, a lot more Disney. Could've been a hit in 1988, and I wouldn't have liked it then either. 22nd week in in the charts, ffs.
21 Liam Payne (↓1): Ex boybander attempts streetcred with overtweaked duet, employing the "repeated syllables" gimmick.
18 Shawn Mendes (↓8): Sheeranesque guitarstrummer pitches for a John Lewis ad.
14 Khalid & Normani (↑2): A lot of vocal swapping, a lot of "mmm-uhuh"s, and the fewest notes yet. Has somehow been in the charts since February.
13 EO (↑2): Smug mindless paean to automobile worship, with even fewer notes still. An almost perfect exemplification of meh.
12 Clean Bandit (new): Jaunty rhythms plus Demi Lovato singing gimmicky farmyard hooks, keyboards bouncing underneath like a Club Med holiday.
11 Sigala (↑1): Paloma Faith guests to create a simple banger for the Top Shop changing room. Nobody's voice sounds like this for real.
(deep breath, now for the top 10)
10 Post Malone (↑1): Every line repeats at the end-end, with nothing much doing underneath-neath, like he was churning it out.
9 Childish Gambino (↓3): The first song to make me sit up and listen, but after the township intro the remainder was drably vacuous, because different isn't always good.
8 George Ezra (-): 18th week for this growly song with a faster beat, the closest so far to a standard tune, but still undeniably warble-influenced.
7 David Guetta & Sia (↑2): Strong slow Euro-stomper, with long-term shopping mall potential, but still within the generic envelope.
6 Jess Glynne (↑7): A pulsing beat and a firm vocal, but still a shallow song-by-numbers. On the Radio 1 and Radio 2 playlists. Will undoubtedly become a talent show audition favourite.
5 Banx & Ranx & Ella Eyre (↑2): Doesn't waste time with an intro, bangs in with a blanket tale of relationship woe, plus na-na-nas and a ringtone-esque hook.
4 Anne‐Marie (↑1): A lot of chirrupy syrupy reminiscence, essentially nostalgia for 20-somethings, yet lacking much emotion.
3 Ariana Grande (-): Very much standard girl-fare, from the one-note queen, which probably wouldn't be up this high were it not for Manchester.
2 Drake (-): I once understood the charts, but I fail to comprehend how this drab grunty rhythmic rap, underscored by tinkly babes, has been high-flying since Easter.
1 Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa (-): Sixth week at the top for the Scot with the magic touch, whose two-note synth refrain somehow sounds different, topped by Dua's you-ou-ou me-e-e which should be awful, but maybe I like it because it could be from 2006.
Having endured the entire countdown I can confirm I didn't especially enjoy the experience. Despite being braced for repetition, I was still surprised quite how formulaic everything got, and how a new over-produced genre dominates. It's still clearly pop, but it's more about the singer than the musicians, more about the delivery than the melody, and I can't get into it at all.

Where popular music and I have diverged is because I do genuinely like a tune, and revel on a bed of harmony. Sure, the 80s and 90s threw up some absolute stinkers, but also songs to make a wedding dancefloor erupt, and I can't see today's tranche managing the same. Almost the entire top 40 came over as riffs on one successful formula, as if someone's found the recipe for mainstream appreciation and resolutely refuses to let go.

Perhaps what's been truly lost is breadth, as quirkier stuff repeatedly fails to cross the streaming threshold, and all this bland burbling electronic stuff wins though.

The girls who sing on my doorstep know what they like. I shall stick with the cracking music the Top 40 no longer plays.

 Friday, May 25, 2018


Leicester is one of England's larger cities, and can be found in the East Midlands a nudge further north than Birmingham. It has a long history but has never been a major player on the tourist trail, indeed I was so underwhelmed on a day trip in 1994 that I've never felt the need to go back. But in 2012 the city unexpectedly hit the dead monarch jackpot, and quickly capitalised on it, so now offers a significant sightseeing draw.
[9 photos]

Richard III's death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 ended the Wars of the Roses and ushered in the Tudor dynasty. The last English king to be slain in battle, Richard's naked body was carried to Leicester on the back of a horse and there displayed to the public as proof of his demise. Henry VII's court historian reported that Richard was "buryed two days after without any pompe or solemne funerall... in th'abbey of monks Franciscanes", a location understood to be the Grey Friars priory. But this was levelled during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and modern-day Leicester gradually grew up on the site.

Now a set of highly unlikely coincidences take over. In the 1990s Philippa Langley picked up a random book at an airport, which turned out to be about Richard III, beginning her obsession with the much-maligned king. In 2004 her research took her to a social services car park in Leicester, never fully built over, where she had "an overwhelming feeing" this was the place. A crowdfunded dig eventually materialised, ostensibly to stake out the former abbey, but which unintentionally uncovered the royal bones in the first hour and a half. The skeleton's curved spine and battle wounds looked convincing, but only because this is the 21st century were scientists able to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that Richard III's remains had been found. To have rediscovered a king is all but unbelievable.

The city of Leicester has capitalised on its historical good fortune by building a visitor attraction on the site. They already owned the car park, and swiftly bought up the empty school building nextdoor, transforming it into the King Richard III Visitor Centre. Follow the RIII Dynasty Death and Discovery banners (and blimey, there are enough of them), towards the cathedral square where a swish-looking glass entrance awaits. An adult ticket costs £8.95, which is a mite steep for the provinces, but you'll get good value so long as you go round slowly and take everything in.

First up is a Throne Room, i.e. a room with nothing in it but a throne, and five actors performing virtual monologues on two arched screens at the rear. It is perhaps a nod to the Netflix generation, and the school party who followed me round certainly sat entranced. I was more involved by the utterly comprehensive rundown of the Wars of the Roses nextdoor, essentially a heck of a lot of words on some walls, which might be why the vast majority of visitors seemed to give it a miss. The ground floor concludes with an audiovisual reconstruction of Richard's final battle, a bit generic if all you do is watch the walls, so again reading is essential to make the most.

Upstairs, assuming you don't stray into the cafe, modern day interpretations of Richard III are put under scrutiny. A line up of top Shakespearean actors fills one wall, while changing attitudes to disability are challenged on the other. Things pick up when the exhibits reach the story of the hunt for Richard's body, because numerous primary sources are available, and the day-by-day astonishment of the major players comes across well. There then follows an in-depth examination of the scientific evidence which proved this was indeed the dead king, including DNA matching, carbon dating and bone analysis. The sheer improbability of the ultimate announcement packs an emotional punch.

To finish, you return to the ground floor and walk out into a special 'contemplative' room nudged out into the car park to cover the site of discovery. A glass floor allows visitors to look down into the crucial archaeological trench to see a layer of monastery tiles, and a hologram in the shallow indentation where Richard's body was exhumed. The member of staff keeping watch can tell you all about other bodies unearthed in the dig, and which way the choirstalls ran, so again take your time rather than dashing through. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, cars are still parked up in as incongruous a way as they must have been Philippa walked in with her lucky hunch, before the last medieval monarch was uncovered.

Several cities claimed burial rights for Richard's body, notably York because he was of their noble House. but in the end Leicester got the nod. This has proved particularly fortuitous for Leicester Cathedral, a parish church given an ecclesiastical upgrade in 1927, which suddenly gained something inside worth seeing. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Benedict Cumberbatch and some notably low ranking royals turned up for the reinterment in 2015, in scenes which you can relive on a touchscreen in the south nave.

Richard's tomb is undeniably impressive, topped by an angled slab of Swaledale limestone cut through with two deep indentations forming a cross. This sits on a darker-coloured inlaid plinth, namechecking the dead king and listing his dates, screened off behind a similarly-updated altar. A sign by the entrance alerts visitors not to use flash photography and, in a modern twist, also outlaws selfies. But check service times before you turn up, because you won't see any of the conclusion to this amazing story if evensong is underway.

And if all this has dragged you to Leicester, what else is there to see? Quite a lot, as it turns out, from across the centuries.

Jewry Wall Museum: Huge excavated Roman public baths, and masonry wall, alongside a repository of Iron Age, Roman and medieval remains [closed for long-term upgrade] [2nd century]
St Nicholas: The oldest church in the county, now seriously overshadowed by modern dual carriageway [10th century]
St Mary de Castro: Other than this church, which recently lost its spire, not much remains of Leicester Castle other than its grassy motte [11th/12th century]
Leicester Market: Much tweaked trading hub, currently spread across undercover benches, formerly home to the famous Lineker fruit and veg dynasty [founded 13th century]
Leicester Guildhall: Mighty-well-preserved timber-framed hall, once used as the town hall, now with historical exhibits attached [free] [14th century]
Newarke Houses Museum and Gardens: Odd historical hotchpotch of a museum, with industrial remnants, period 1940s shopping street and regimental reminiscence [free] [16th/17th century]
New Walk: Charming Georgian promenade, a kilometre in length, linking the city centre to the university (no bikes) [18th century]
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery: Splendid classical repository of the arts and sciences, mostly the former, but whose exhibits include mummified remains, Britain's largest (observed) meteorite and the free-standing Rutland Dinosaur [free] [19th century]
The Golden Mile: A stretch of Belgrave Road renowned for its Indian restaurants and sari shops, where the city's Diwali celebrations are based [20th century]
National Space Centre: Rockets, astronomy, cosmology and a planetarium... but heavily biased towards a family audience, so I gave it a miss [£14] [21st century]

 Thursday, May 24, 2018


In the wilds of Leicestershire, a horseshoe's throw from Rutland, lies the market town of Melton Mowbray. It's a proper agricultural town, with a long history of fox-slaughtering, but what it's best known for is cheese and pies.

It's the kind of place where you might meet a horsebox or a potato merchant's lorry amongst the usual traffic. I only spotted one man in a Barbour jacket.

It has the third oldest market in England, which is still held twice a week in the Market Square. I came on the wrong day and got four bric-a-brac stalls and a dustcart.

The Butter Cross in the Market Square is the single point where the lands of the Belvoir, Cottesmore and Quorn hunts coincide. If you're ever here on New Year's morning, expect to see numerous horses, hounds and red-jacketed riders ready for the off.

Every Tuesday, in a series of sheds on the edge of the town centre, Melton Mowbray holds England's largest livestock market. I was a day late, so all I got was the belated whiff of manure. There are separate sheds for calves, stores and cull cows. I loved the road markings outside.

This is my favourite ever quote on a blue plaque, courtesy of Monty Python star Graham Chapman. The plaque used to be on the front of his old school, but has since been relocated to a random building in the town centre, which is indeed a bit silly.

The town has an excellent museum housed in the former Carnegie Library. It's particularly good at highlighting issues relating to rural life, rather than simply showing you a lot of old ploughs. The sport of fox-slaughtering gets its own gallery, naturally, but is balanced out by a case of activists and saboteurs. Cheese and pies also make a strong showing.

If it's a proper Stilton you want, as produced relatively locally, the place to go is the Melton Cheeseboard. The shop doesn't look much from outside, but a wide variety of blue-veined stinkers are on offer within.

But really, it's all about the pies. Several butchers in town make their own, because the Melton Mowbray name is EU-protected, and production geographically limited. The most famous sellers, and overall winners of the 2017 British Pie Awards, are Dickinson & Morris of Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe.

Just look at this selection of pies, topped off with a) apple, b) cranberry, c) hot gooseberry chutney or d) Stilton cheese. Your arteries might not survive too many of them, but the smell wafting out of the kitchen at the rear was properly alluring.

I plumped for a wrapped individual pie, biting excitedly through the crust to revel in the grey chopped pork within, and regretting it was gone so soon. How the local youth have the gall to pop into Greggs on the Market Square I'll never know.

» Visit Melton Mowbray
» Melton Mowbray Heritage Trail
» Melton Mowbray Food and Drink Guide

 Wednesday, May 23, 2018

One thing you get to hear a lot of when riding on buses is other people's conversations. In particular you get to hear prolonged sections of other people's conversations, without being involved in them yourself, which is a relatively unnatural state of affairs.

I am always amazed by how much people are willing to divulge on public transport. They list what they're having for dinner tonight, they explain their aches and pains in detail, or they slag off Jennifer from Accounts. Of course what I forget is that when I'm on the bus with a friend we're usually having similar conversations, and so engrossed that we never notice those sitting nearby can hear every word.

One particular conversational tranche I've heard a lot on buses is what I like to call the "So I said, so she said..." exchange. Someone, usually female, launches into a full replay of a conversation they had with somebody else, either because it's somehow shocking or because they're very proud of how it went. "So I said I was out with my friend Ella, so she said Oh you're friends with Ella now are you, so I said Yes I'm friends with Ella now, so she said I can't believe you're friends with Ella now, so I said Shut up, so she said That cow, so I said... etc etc". It's as if the speaker has no imagination whatsoever other than to replay her conversational greatest hits, and the listener simply sits there and soaks it up. I hear it a lot.

It's not a very complex form of conversation, "So I said, so she said...". It's more informed than just grunting, but not so illuminating as a verbal disagreement about the state of the planet. So I started wondering precisely how not very complex "So I said, so she said..." is. What if there was some kind of sliding scale for conversations, ranging from not talking to having a considered reasoned argument.

Here's the ten-point scale I've come up with, a draft Conversational Hierarchy.
Zero has to be mute silence, the act of not conversing at all.

One is where you're not really listening, or interested, and simply mutter occasionally as the other person drones on. "Yes... oh yes... hmmm... hmmm, yes... yes". It's not really a conversation at all, merely one-sided oratory of no interest or importance. We've all been there.

Two is where you simply say what you see. "Sunny again isn't it?" "That woman's coat's very red." "Starbucks has an offer on." "Look, a pigeon." This kind of observational conversation makes the world go round, but it's not in any way deep, so doesn't deserve to be any higher up the hierarchy.

Three is where "So I said, so she said..." fits in. It's also the place for any form of conversation that's simply remembering something which once happened and recounting it. When we bathe in the rosy glow of a collective memory, or tell an anecdote, or simply mention the name of that TV programme from the 1980s that makes everyone go "aah", that's the art of recollection.

Four is where you slag something off. A lot of people's conversations are mired in the negative, how they don't like the way something's done, how something political pisses them off, or how awful it is that a certain event has happened. Nothing constructive is ever suggested, only nitpicking and downsides, and such thinking gets us nowhere.

Five is the bread and butter of passing on information. "We got back from holiday on Saturday night". "Turn left at the end of the road." "Have you seen this cute video of a skateboarding puppy?" It's the best description I can come up with for middle of the road, everyday conversation, so 5 out of 10 feels about right.

Six is the opposite of 4. Six is where some good comes out of the conversation, where something positive is said, and the sum of human happiness is increased. Life would be better if more of us managed to talk less about (4) problems, and more about (6) solutions.

Seven is where the conversational gets emotional. It's about feelings, and personal stuff, where at least one person in the conversation opens up about themselves. "I've been nervous about that for some time." "I love it when you do that." A 7 conversation is always going to be more meaningful than a 6.

Eight is where creativity makes an appearance. It's where the act of conversation causes something new to emerge, like an original idea or fresh connection. It's solving a problem, coming up with a witty response rather than relying on a library of polished repartee. The world needs more 8 conversations.

Nine is where an opinion is changed. The power of speech can be such that a good conversation opens your eyes to new possibilities, and alternative ways of thinking, maybe even nudging you along a different path. "I hadn't realised I came across like that". "You're right, the bathroom would look better in pink."

Ten is the ultimate in conversation, which I've deemed to be the classic reasoned argument. When evidence is provided, and conclusions follow on, when structured debate occurs based on rational thought, that's the top of the shop. I suspect the Ancient Greeks would have agreed.

Like I said, it's only a draft, and you'll likely disagree, and I'm sure modern psychology has already come up with a better hierarchical structure. But it's an idea, and it does help to explain why I believe "So I said, so she said..." to be such a vacuous form of everyday conversation. If you have any thoughts, and want to express them in the comments, anything above 4 would be appreciated.

 Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Railway update (1) - Hackney Wick

Where shall we start? Let's start at Hackney Wick, where a brand new station building opened on Sunday. No longer must passengers weave up a set of ramps from Wallis Road. Instead a swish new entrance has opened up on White Post Lane, cutting underneath the centre of the station (but not yet connecting fully on the other side). This is no tedious concrete box, this is an uncompromisingly brutalist structure comprising several separate constituent parts.

Out front is a slab portal, part sheltered, with a non-ticket office embedded within. Echoing staircases wind up to the platforms, one on each side, their surfaces enlivened by an orange handrail and ribbed timber. The fun part is the connecting subway, one wall all zigzagged glass, the other cast concrete etched with chemical hieroglyphics. Both represent complex organic molecules and are a clever nod at parkesine, the world's first plastic, which was manufactured (very) close by.

The new station is an undoubted architectural triumph, given the reaction one of my recent tweets has accumulated, and you can enjoy several more lovely photos over at Ian Visits. But this is also "the central project in the regeneration of central Hackney Wick", its gravitational pull helping to ensure that every unlisted local building gets knocked down to make way for not-quite affordable flats, and the harbinger of destruction for the area's quirky artistic vibe. Going, going, not yet gone.

Railway update (2) - TfL Rail (west)

Sunday was also the day Heathrow Connect services transferred to TfL Rail, which is Crossrail's larval stage. On Day 1 nothing changed except some restickered carriages, but on Day 2 some additional proper purple trains kicked in. They're not yet allowed in the Heathrow tunnels, while outdated signalling is being upgraded, so are restricted to shuttling as far as Hayes & Harlington instead. Geoff caught the very first one, if you'd like to have what's going on explained in a comprehensive video.

I took a ride from Acton Main Line, which is very much the runt of the western TfL Rail stations. Although it's the first stop out of Paddington it currently gets only two trains an hour, and although they're now both purple, you still can't get to Heathrow direct. I just missed one, so that was a 28 minute wait.

The second most common announcement at Acton Main Line is "For your own safety, please stand behind the yellow line." That's because the most common announcement is "The train now approaching platform X does not stop here", which plays out several times an hour, and can make waiting passengers somewhat despondent. I noted that all the trains on platform 4 are going somewhere called "London Padding", because the Next Train Indicators can't cope with 17 characters, and nobody seems willing to cut the "London" off the front.

Now that Acton Main Line is a TfL Rail station it has a permanent member of staff, whose job is to watch over the non-existent barriers and await infrequent trains. They also get to walk down onto the platforms every half hour and urge passengers to move along a bit, because every TfL Rail train stops at the far end. I asked why nobody has put up a sign saying "Trains stop further along the platform" and was told that management prefer the member of staff to do it, as it adds a personal touch. I hope that was a joke.

By the end of next year Acton Main Line will have a spanking new station building, rather than a shuttered hut, and a fully accessible footbridge with lifts. Currently it has no new station building and no footbridge, because upgrades to western Crossrail stations are embarrassingly behind schedule. Unless you enjoy a bit of purple purgatory, don't dash down.

Railway update (3) - Tube map poster, May 2018

A couple of years ago TfL accidentally published a tube map which placed Morden in the wrong fare zone. They noticed just in time, and had to pulp the lot. This week they've made a similar blunder, but not noticed, and their error is all over the network. The paper maps are fine, and the online maps are fine, but the poster maps have an embarrassing omission in the bottom right hand corner. Somehow, with all the designers' juggling and shuffling of edges and labels, New Addington has gone missing.

The tram stop is still there, at the end of the line, but the name of the stop is absent. Once again the pre-publication proofing regime has failed, but this time the error has made it as far as station walls. Will they get 4000 reprints done, at a cost of £2.06 each, or will the outer reaches of Croydon remain embarrassingly invisible until the next update in December?

Railway update (4) - Thameslink 2000

Sunday was also the day a millennial project finally came good. Destinations north and south of the Thames were linked via a proper timetable for the first time, with tightly-scheduled streams of trains fed through the central core from St Pancras to Blackfriars. Only, as you're probably aware, it didn't quite work out like that. Dozens of trains were cancelled, due to bad planning, impossible expectations and inadequate driver training. You can read all about the reasons for the debacle, in admirable detail, over at London Reconnections.

Here are the display boards at Farringdon at the height of Sunday's fiasco, showing four cancellations out of the next eight trains. Services between Kentish Town and Plumstead proved particularly ripe for relentless sacrifice. "We are sorry to announce that the XX:XX to XXXX has been cancelled due to an operational incident" was the most oft-heard announcement of the day.

Yesterday's cancellations weren't so great in number, but were arguably more serious because they impacted on a working day, and because they came on top of a massively restructured timetable forcing thousands to readjust their commute. In the middle of the day I snuck down to try out a couple of services, to see how the central core was holding up.
SuttonElephant & Castle14 minsSt PancrasSt Albans
Perfectly on time throughout. The train paused a couple of times outside Blackfriars, and again outside Farringdon, but still pulled into both stations on schedule thanks to padding in the timetable. When I made the same journey on the Northern line, it was one minute quicker.

BedfordSt Pancras15 minsLondon BridgeBrighton
Three minutes late throughout. The train paused once outside Farringdon, but maintained the same delay thanks to padding in the timetable. When I made the same journey on the Northern line, it was five minutes quicker.
My experience is that if you only want to ride through the core section, Thameslink's probably a good option now it has a turn-up-and go frequency, although the tube may well be quicker. But if you're passing through from one side to the other, or attempting to reach a specific suburban location, delays and cancellations could still seriously impact your journey.

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