Tuesday, 17 February 2009

I spy with my little eye....

There is a wonderful literature sharing scheme in operation across London's public transport system; a sort of transitory library with an extensive commuter membership. It's in evidence on buses, across Tube carriages, even on the more crowded platform. Watch closely and you will witness the participants, avid readers of other peoples' newspapers and books, masters of the over-the-shoulder paper perusal. They lean back slightly, discretely angling themselves to read their neighbours papers, often without their noticing. Newspapers of others are far easier to read than another's book; a small article doesn't require the knowledge of earlier pages to make any sense, and you are also likely to have got to the end of it before its possessor turns the page, leaving you with no idea how the story ended.

I confess that I am an occasional over-the-shoulder reader. Sometimes one can't help but do it. Our Tube and buses are so sardine-tin crammed full at rush hour that one's line of sight is filled with a vast range of sci-fi novels, broadsheets (tricky to handle in a small space, rather antisocial), copies of Metro and chick lit. I often reach the end of an article shoved in front of my face before I realise I'm even absorbing the words rather than staring into space. Pulling out my own book I would usually elbow two people in the ribs, then overbalance treading heavily on someone's foot if the bus or train were to jolt slightly when I'm turning the page. So it's really far more socially considerate to read a book or paper already on display! The owner of the literature being stealthily read should also take the practice as a display of appreciation for their choice of reading matter, a sort of "that looks interesting, what good taste you have!" nod of approval.

Sadly many public transport users label this habit annoying, cheap and rude, yet it can also be seen as environmentally-friendly, practical and informative. If one hasn't the time to grab a paper on the way to work, or watch the news, I am hugely grateful to the adjacent businessman who has had the sense to pick up a copy of The Times on his commute. (If he were empty-handed, with no reading material to redeem him, I would be far less willing to overlook his crashing his briefcase into my knees.) I can arrive at work, roughly informed of the day's headlines, feeling that I have not wasted my commute, eyes glazed over staring out into the darkness of the Tube tunnels, or the fogged up window of the bus.

Surely the sharing of papers must also play a part in decreasing circulation figures; making it more sustainable from an environmental point of view. No need to pick up your own copy of the free newspapers distributed on London's streets in the afternoons (the "Purple Tops", such as thelondonpaper and London Lite); share someone else's, or if you get really lucky, find a discarded one waiting for you on your bus seat. This is the jack-pot of the London literature thief. You can merrily peruse the details of who fell out of which club drunk the night before, and what Boris has done now to "improve" our city, without missing your bus whilst queueing in the newsagent. Such papers are like the seat-back magazines you find on planes and long distance trains, except not usually three months out of date and covered in coffee stains; they remain wonderously relevant as remaining copies are cleared off buses and trains at the end of the day. (Often though by around 7pm they may be very well-read, the odd interesting article torn-out here and there. And someone else has usually attempted the Su Doku puzzle and failed, leaving it frustratingly half-finished.)

But, and here is the really satisfying part, when you're finished reading about house prices in Shoreditch and the best bars in Brixton you can perpetuate the practice, by leaving it behind for another traveller - share the knowledge, pass it on! We Londoners should embrace the chance to practise our recycling skills, whilst imparting knowledge to our fellow travellers. Go on, share your newspaper with your neighbour and make London's public transport system a veritable learning establishment, for a better informed Britain!

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Home Sweet Home

"I've moved 5 times in the last 7 months" announced someone at work the other day; she sounded tired but not entirely surprised at the transient state of affairs. This is London after all, and a London currently wading through the economic crisis quagmire into which the housing market is slowly sinking. Houses are not selling, and when they are, only for far lower values than they would have done a year or two ago. Rents, however, continue to rise, as selling up and renting has become a far more financially sensible option in the city. People are on the move across our city, although often not very far. Our neighbours in the flat below ours, expecting a baby any minute now, have moved to a new house just a few streets away; still near the same supermarket, the same pub, even the same bus and tube stops. They are now renting out their former home, making easy money from those worse hit by the crunch, who have had to sell their homes, not buy a second.
Renting a property in London is a minefield, under the surface of which lurk unscrupulous estate agents, bathrooms riddled with painted-over damp, and shoeboxes masquerading as "double bedrooms". When I and my two housemates began our search for somewhere to live last January we were prepared for a hard slog, but none of us anticipated the sheer time and expense of hunting for a three bedroom flat in London, and we learnt many lessons in our five week quest.
  • Choose the people you live with carefully. If you can find friends, or at least acquaintances, to live with, do. Sharing living spaces with other people is always tricky but it is often a case of "better the devil you know". A first-time renter friend of mine took a room in a house-share, in a decent area in Wandsworth. All went well, despite the odd debate over which onions belonged on whose shelf in the fridge, until one resident waved kitchen knives under the bedroom door of another, late one night. She moved out soon after and has lived happily ever after with an old friend from university.
  • Similar rules apply to living with the landlord. We looked round one flat in our search which was above the landlady's own house, indeed both premises shared the same front door. ("She's separate" the estate agent assured us. "Really?" we asked unconvinced, as she lurked in the doorway. "Yeah, you know, from Cyprus." he replied. So actually Cypriote then, and not in the least separate.) No one wants the nosy neighbour complaining about noise or surveying your recycling collection/alcohol consumption levels, to be the same person to whom you pay your rent.
  • Be prepared to compromise on your requirements but never get too desperate. We started our search with a long list of, possibly unrealistic, requirements, including three double bedrooms, a separate kitchen and sitting room, a garden would be nice (but not crucial), the place should be fully furnished etc. As we viewed house after house and flat after flat, we seriously considered properties with bedrooms which a hamster would have been hard pushed to call spacious, and kitchens where one could have done the washing up whilst sitting on the sofa.
  • Avoid estate agents where possible. One agent who showed us a couple of properties bemoaned how little satisfaction he found in his job; "No one's ever completely happy" he complained, "The landlord wants the highest possible price and the renter wants the lowest. No one wins." This fact did not stop most agents playing the "I'm on your side card", which we found rather creepy. The individuals we dealt with were pushy, and took complete advantage of the fact that we had a limited budget and had never rented in London before. They harangued us via phone and email endlessly, and never listened to a word we said. To a man, and woman, they also all had hideous taste in shoes and drove like maniacs. One individual, whose acne and ill-fitting suit suggested he was younger than us, showed us one flat where the landlord's father was asleep in bed when we arrived, and he was not particularly thrilled to find us peering at his wardrobes when he awoke. The same genius also took us on an evening (i.e. in the dark) showing of a house where the lights didn't work; "I've found the kitchen, these feel like taps....no wait, sorry there's the bath". We ultimately found our flat through a property management company who, rather than pushing us to make an offer at full asking price instantly, encouraged us to take our time, and we have happily renewed our contract with them for a second year.
  • If a place is cheap it's probably for a good, if not instantly apparent reason. I don't think any of my housemates or myself regret the offer falling through on the seemingly bargainous flat in Clapham which we were afterwards informed overlooked the site of a recent grisly stabbing. "Situated in a quiet area" can also be estate agent speak for "in an area where there's no one to hear you scream". (If you'd be too scared to nip out for a pint of milk from the corner-shop after dark, it's never going to feel like home.)
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged that estate agents speak in their own coded language when describing properties. Excitedly we made arrangements to view a flat which had been described as containing "3 double bedrooms with split-level mezzanines". What we found were three tall but narrow rooms containing built in bunk-beds. What did we look like? 8 year olds?! "Separate guest toilet" means there's no loo in the bathroom, and a "kitchen-diner" is a room where you can cook and eat a meal without moving more than a few inches in any direction.
  • Never take a property based solely on its proximity to transport facilities. If the best feature of a place is that it is easy to leave, think again about putting down roots there. One housemate and I viewed what was undeniably a nice flat, but the area it was in was less than salubrious. It's major redeeming quality was its proximity to the local tube station. As it was an equal distance to the local prison, however, we politely declined the chance to make an offer.
  • Finally, never lose heart. Out there, despite many weeks of searching, is somewhere for you, and believe me, the hideous searching-process makes the final move-in all the more satisfying. And when you find somewhere good, hang on to it!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

If the shoe fits

Whilst many people bemoaned the incapability of local authorities to run public transport and make the city streets safe during our brief snowy interlude, a Canadian colleague of mine had another criticism. Why was it, she asked (whilst modeling a pair of boots which managed to be warm, waterproof and stylish all at the same time), we Londoners were so inappropriately shod in these times of snowy surfaces underfoot? I had to admit she had a point. Unaccustomed as we Londoners are to snow and ice lining our regular commuting routes, recently we have had to improvise our footwear somewhat, with interesting results.

Children seem to have coped far better than adults - they already possess footwear suitable for stomping through puddles and mud, which are easily, with endless glee, applied to sploshing through slush. They also do not seem to mind wet feet and cold fingers, which are balanced out by the novelty of the snow; if only adults took life less seriously they too would merrily don green wellies with frog eyes on the toes and skip joyously through the puddles to work.

Those with jobs have to balance getting to work across treacherous ice sheets with looking suitably attired to attend meetings. The bravest still wear heels (the most foolish, spiky stilettos, the less stylish and more sure-footed, chunkier platforms). I personally never got very far with Physics at school (due to a mutual loathing my teacher and I shared for each other), however I grasped enough of the basics to understand the principles of stability and surface area, i.e. the narrower the stiletto heel, the more likely one is to go flying on unsteady ground. And businessmen are not immune to this hazard. The flat, smooth underside of a Jermyn Street brogue provides no more grip than the high heel; and the slush leaves a horrid water-mark on the suede upper!

One item of footwear which transcends ages and professions are the omnipresent Uggs; from summer to winter these furry boots cover the toes of children, teenager girls with bare legs and denim mini-skirts, yummy mummies and business women (even the odd metrosexual male). Warm as they may be when it's a little chilly, waterproof they are not. The sodden Ugg drying under radiators at home and at work has become a familiar sight. Is this a surprise? Of course not! Uggs are made in Australia, for heavens sake; the only country where a freak snow storm in a major city would cause even more havoc and surprise than in London!

School girls seem as unwilling to compromise on their style as the city workers, opting to wear their tiny ballet pumps and even tinier skirts rather than look geeky in wellington boots. (They seem to overlook the fact that falling over in front of all their peers would be a lot more embarrassing than wearing functional rather than fashionable footwear.) Some of the more "out-doorish" types have donned walking boots, although it is mostly men who can get away with wearing them under their suit trousers. I confess, I teamed a pair of boots which I had climbed the Andes in with a pencil skirt and received several odd looks; but my feet remained dry and cosy and I didn't slip over once. Ha! Take that, ye slaves of fashion.

A few wellies have appeared on feet larger than a size 3 as well. Gimmicky printed wellies, produced for soggy summer music festivals, adorned with army camouflage, garish daisies and leopard-print, have livened up the grey pavements no end. (Even a few traditional Hunters have been spotted on the streets of Central and South-West London, imported from second homes in the countryside, or usually kept in the back of the Range Rover for watching rugby games.)

One major mercy of the snow, however, has been the banishment of the hideous MBT trainers from our footpaths (a photo of such a specimen is exhibited to the right). MBT stands for "Masai Barefoot Technology", a system based on the movement of barefoot East African tribesmen yet devised (but of course!) in Switzerland. They are designed to optimise

joint protection in the legs and back as well as burn calories as you pound the pavements. It's a good idea, just a shame they look so strangely ugly; as if the wearer has trod on an enormous slug which has cemented itself to the bottom of their shoe. And they make the wearer look so ridiculous, as they bounce down the road, concentrating on "walking right", to bust their cellulite and tone their thighs. Let us not forget that the task of walking is one that most babies have mastered in their first year or so on this planet. Give me knee problems and pretty shoes any day. If the slippery ice keeps these horrors off the streets, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Monday, 2 February 2009

London in the snow

Snow does not feature heavily in London's operational manual. It shocks the city into almost total inactivity. Tube lines are suspended, buses are halted and trains appear on departure boards as cancelled or indefinitely delayed. (A small meteor shower is probably considered, by the Greater London Authority, a more likely disturbance to our capital than serious snow.) Overnight yesterday, however, snow fell in London, covering its grey soggy concrete in a sparkly white duvet, several inches thick. And remarkably it stuck.

We awoke this morning to a magical wonderland, bare wintery trees once more clad in snowy foliage, and ugly architecture transformed into sleek shimmering postmodern masterpieces. Cars were wrapped in 6 inches of white blankets, as if they had been tucked in to bed on the roadsides. The first sound I heard this morning was silence; no road traffic, fewer planes overhead. Then I heard the sound of people in the streets; children playing, dogs trotting up and down, chasing snowballs. Throughout the day more and more Londoners ventured out into the streets and walked by the river, marveling at their transformed city. Londoners, it seems to me, often have a tendency to look slightly more miserable than is necessary in their daily lives; they move throughout the city with heads down and a slightly ferocious "don't step in front of me" manner towards fellow citizens. Today everyone looked slightly like small children, excited and happy, smiling and greeting at fellow walkers and constructors of snowmen. Although the shared contentment could very possibly have been due to the fact that as most transport links had disintegrated it was near impossible to reach workplaces further than a short walk away from one's home. Children looked delighted at the extra day off school, although their chilly parents, supervising their snowball fights ("Careful of Milly, Henry! Mind the cars, darlings!"), seemed less enamored with the situation.

Wonderful snow sculptures sprung up in parks, gardens and in the street; a small snowman even appeared riding pillion on the seat of a Vespa near my house. A wonderful array of and brightly coloured waterproof clothing appeared on people who normally dress for work in a conservative mix of black, grey and brown garments. I had wondered how Londoners in our cosy South-West corner of the city better equipped for a boardroom meeting, or lunch in a fancy restaurant, would fare in the chilly, wet slush, but they surprised me. Expensive skiing gear was hauled out of storage and pressed into use on the British streets; Putney could have been witnessing a lively apres-ski session in Verbiers for all the ski boots and snow jackets in which its residents were clad. (More sartorially unfortunate were the Eighties Moonboots which reappeared from dressing-up boxes, as Mummy claimed them back to pop to Waitrose.)

A day off work frolicking in the snow, is all well and good, but the English seem imbued with an inherent guilt at not working. Whereas they may not have tried too hard to reach their offices today, in the snow-induced novelty effect, tomorrow will be a different story. Once the snow on the roads has frozen into a dangerous skating rink overnight, everyone will rush back to work, and the spell will be broken.

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