Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Underground, overground, protesting free

The first of April is traditionally known as "April Fool's Day" here in the UK. Although tomorrow's first of April is being hailed by thousands of international activists as "Financial Fool's Day". The G20 summit opens tomorrow as representatives of the G20 countries (plus Spain and The Netherlands - they're nearby and well-behaved, why not invite them along?) convene in London, at the ExCel centre in the Docklands. The current agenda will focus on tackling the financial crisis gripping the world; discussing financial policies and organisations, as well as paths to stimulate growth, create jobs and pull the world out of the economic nose-dive in which it is currently plummeting downwards. So a jolly little event, with a ridiculously complex topic up for debate in a pitifully short couple of days. Jamie Oliver's even going to make the sandwiches, although apparently his menu is thought to be reflecting the current world state, so it'll be wartime spam and dripping all round!

As Barack Obama flies in to London tonight, it is not just statesmen and politicians who are readying themselves. London citizens are, according to the London Lite, "braced for violence as anarchists move in". Well we're actually just trying to continue with our everyday lives, and to be honest, so far so good, although tomorrow and Thursday will really prove how much these "anarchists" will disrupt the smooth running of our city. A series of protests are apparently planned to disrupt the G20, and attendees from activist groups all over Europe are expected. The French are fielding black-masked members of "Anarch-Autonomist", the Germans are sending "Antifa", and our own home grown anti-capitalist representatives are a group known as..."The Wombles". Seriously?! Who knew Uncle Bulgaria and Orinoco were so passionate not only about cleaning up Wimbledon Common but also about bringing down capitalism? What busy chaps they must be...

As I walked home from work on Monday morning I noticed that the front of The Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly had been entirely covered up with blue boards. London papers are full of photos of tailors, jewellers and well-known London buildings also being boarded up in anticipation of violence as protesters clash with the police. The police have also appeared everywhere, seemingly in groups of no fewer than three at a time, and as yet do not appear to be doing much except keeping an eye on the transport systems, watching people on and off buses or tube trains. Most of the details of the protests have been posted, helpfully, by these activists on the Internet, which in theory should make policing the event an absolute doddle. Not only have they provided timings and locations of muster points and protest sites, but they've also shared their tactics for dealing with unwanted police interference, including stringing lines between lamp-posts to unsaddle mounted police and wearing elbow pads and shin pads to ward off police batons. It all sounds remarkably like a school sports day to me!

Many of the sites marked out for attack (with items such as eggs, continuing the school sports day theme) include head offices of legal and banking firms, as well as large multinational corporations such as BT, Sainsbury's and BP. Barclays, taking a similar line to many other financial organisations, has advised its staff to come to work dressed in "civvies" tomorrow, to avoid their suits marking them out as capitalist targets for protestors. In a slightly overprotective measure it has also recommended staying away from all windows. To avoid bomb scares, another luxury goods firms is not accepting any deliveries made to its head office during the G20 summit, in case a champagne crate contains "Bomb Perignon" rather than vintage bubbles. Congestion is forecast throughout the centre of the city, and several tube and overground stations in the vicinity of the Square Mile are scheduled to close. Numerous commutes will be disrupted but the protests will probably still cause less of an intrusion into our lives than the snow did a couple of months ago. I hope that life will go on largely unaffected as usual, buses will be as unreliable as ever, but one must watch out for those Wombles, and duck if any eggs fly in your direction!

Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Boat Race

Despite the fact that London is to host the 2012 Olympics in a couple of years time it is not a city which one instantly associates with great sporting events. That said there are certainly some which make national coverage, even if not given airtime or column inches by the international media. We have Wimbledon tennis tournament; traditionally showery despite being held in the summer, fuelled by thoroughly British strawberries and cream, and Pimms (mostly consumed under vast umbrellas due to the aforementioned showers). We have thirteen professional football teams (Chelsea, Fulham, Arsenal and West Ham United to name a few), and I am informed by those who follow "the beautiful game" that some of them are world class standard. (Should anyone care, only Istanbul fields more professional football teams as a city - 22 in total - so it's probably safe to say that to host thirteen is quite an achievement. Although to be beaten in this by Istanbul probably is not.) With the new Olympic site in development London will soon have a world class velodrome, a brand new 80,000 seater stadium and an Olympic logo, which cost almost half a million pounds to commission, yet would have been more imaginatively designed if left to a 3 year old with a box of colouring pencils.

One annual event is so unbelievably British, and ever so slightly elitist, that I am constantly surprised that anyone outside the city, let alone the country finds it vaguely enthralling. I speak of the University Boat Race, held between Oxford and Cambridge Universities on the Thames each year as Spring approaches, on a day when it unfailingly rains; in 2009 that day was today. Despite being grandly termed the University Boat Race only Oxford and Cambridge compete, and it is easy to overlook the number of other universities around the country which are home to many of our finest international oarsmen and women. Oxford and Cambridge clothing is worn like a badge of honour on former students who watch "their teams" race, even people who never even went to Oxbridge haul it out from somewhere for the boat race. Proudest of all are former competitors who return every year to reassure themselves that in their own race however many years ago they truly achieved something special.

The competing boats, known as "blues", due to the navy and duck-egg colours in which they race, start at Putney Bridge and row 4 miles and 374 yards down to Mortlake, taking around 20 minutes depending on fluvial and weather conditions. Today Oxford won in seventeen minutes flat, and, according to those who saw the finish, by some significant margin. I did not see the finish, in truth I saw little even of the start, however I know this puts me in the majority of spectators. Putney today resembles the streets of Notting Hill during its famed carnival; throngs of people, most clutching plastic pint glasses of beer, wrapped up in gilets, scarves and gloves, all heading down towards the river. Pubs are packed, with punters spilling out onto pavements and even roads. The towpath along both sides of the river contained crowds of spectators 10 men, women and children deep.

This year's victorious Oxford crew (courtesy of the Boat Race website)

Honestly, and I used to row at university myself (no, not at one of Those Two) so feel I can say this, rowing is no thrilling spectator sport. Sprint races can be fun, as one can usually see the majority of the course, and teams go hell for leather in what can be fast and close fought challenges. Over a course almost 5 miles long, on a river as meandering as the Thames, one can see the action for a few minutes at most. On such a long course if one team is remotely more competent than an other they will take the advantage and hold it for most of the race - no surprise then that there has only been one dead heat in the boat race's long history. In discussion with a friend who once trained with the Oxford blues, we agreed that the Oxford Cambridge boat race is a sporting event unlike many others. Rowers train for years, treating each proceeding regatta or race as merely a warm-up for this single 20 minute slog. They change their diets, training routines, sleeping patterns and social lives for a single event which may all to easily end in hideous disappointment and exhausting pain.

For Londoners however the event provides the perfect excuse for a day by the river, and more often than not, a party. Putney is home to a significant proportion of London's Aussie, New Zealander and South African populations, who love nothing more than an excuse to loudly cheer on a sports team and put away a lot of beer. Even at half 7 in the evening, several hours after the race the streets are still full of race fans (many of whom are now considerably more drunk than when they watched the race; three large 6 foot men have just slurred there way through All-4-One's classic 90s boyband anthem "I Swear" in the road outside my house, surprisingly word-perfect) Putney's bars and pubs must take more money on boat race day than any other day of the year. Indeed the bars and pubs with their vast widescreen televisions are probably the best places to watch the race; warm, dry and with an endless supply of alcohol. You will have a better view of the start, the entire course and the finish, as well as avoiding the terrible British weather. To avoid the crowds, throw a house-party instead and invite your friends over, just make sure that you have a large enough television to allow everyone a good view, otherwise you might as well head down to the river!

Sunday, 15 March 2009

A tale of hope and cupcakes...and a couple of parrots

London, like the rest of the UK, and much of the rest of the world, is visibly changing in the current economic situation. The "credit crunch", the economic downturn, this recession we're experiencing; whatever you call it, something is happening which is performing drastic cosmetic surgery upon the face of our high streets here. Old staple stores, symbol of Englishness, are vanishing. Valuable real estate space stands empty and redundant.

One of the first and most horrifying shop to vanish was Woolworths. Nowhere else can one buy ridiculously cheap and dated CDs or DVDs, enormous or tiny photo-frames, school-clothes and collanders under one roof. Worse still, where is one to buy pick 'n' mix sweeties, short of the cinema? (And let's face it, you'd look rather strange just popping in to buy confectionary and not staying for the film.) Much as I could now write a eulogy mourning the passing of this deeply English shop, whose departure I was truly saddened by (reinforced by queuing daily for the bus outside its now dingy and empty shop-space), I would like to offer up a more positive tale of hope in these gloomy times.

Yesterday was Saturday, a sunny weekend day after a grim week at work. Deciding to make the most of my freedom and the kind weather I strolled to Chelsea, where I wandered the Kings Road in the sunshine. I shopped, I wandered, I perused, and then began my stroll home.

As I neared the World's End, well, end of the Kings Road, I found a little shop I'd never noticed before. People peered in through the window and a queue flowed inside, beneath a sign stating simply "LOVE". Keen to see what the fuss was about, and eager to set down my bags, I ventured inside. A tower of perfect cupcakes sat in the window, and a large case further inside displayed yet more; yellow, pink, blue, green, covered in sugar flowers, sparkling with glitter, alive with tiny butterflies. Along one side of the shop ran a bubble-gum pink bar with apple green stools beneath. A cheery blonde girl asked if she could help, so I ordered a cupcake and a coffee and sat down to observe the bakery traffic; yummy mummies, school children, teenagers, young professionals, an elderly gentleman who professed this was now his nearest place to get coffee. The stream of customers flowed in and out, conversing with the girl, and I guessed her father, who were in charge. They were obviously well known to many of their clients, and through their conversations I gathered that the shop had opened just that morning. It had taken a while to launch they said but their many clients wished them well for the future and promised to return.

Sat surrounded by the flowers and butterflies and pastels I felt slightly as if I was Alice, attending the Mad Hatter's tea party; a fairytale fantasy land of soft buttercream waves and vanilla sponge crumbs. It struck me as wonderfully brave to open any business during such an uncertain and pessimistic time. Yet these enterprising souls had gone one further, and created a frivolous luxury business, rather than cashing in on the unfortunate economics with a cut-price resale establishment, as have sprouted elsewhere in the city. Cheaper shops such as Primark are among the flourishing few. Obviously these bakers have picked their location carefully - they're on the Kings Road; expensive and inhabited by a lot of thoroughly wealthy residents, unlikely to notice the credit crunch is even occuring, ensuring a steady stream of cake-purchasing coppers into their till. I still felt that they were taking a risk, however, yet also providing a glimmer of hope and inspiration to Londoners to spend, to support local, independent businesses, and to indulge in fun and cupcakes. I am a huge believer in the healing power of cake, and left the bakery feeling cheered and encouraged. Spring may finally be sprung, new things are starting and the future may not be as gloomy as the media and politicians suggest.

As I gathered my bags to leave I watched a man walk past the door of the bakery, with a red and green parrot on his hand. First, Alice in Wonderland, now Treasure Island - what a fairytale-filled day! Following him down the street, I noticed he had a second, blue and yellow parrot, riding on his shoulder. They paused on the curb, waiting to cross a road, and I drew close enough to witness the blue and yellow parrot nibbling gently on the man's silk scarf, and whispering sweet parrot-y nothings in his ear.

I swear this all happened; it wasn't just the buttercream going to my head.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Windows of wonder: the legendary Harvey Nichols window displays

London Fashion Week has just ended.  But don't feel bad if you didn't even know it was occurring.  At barely 4 days of catwalks and coat-hangers, to call it a 'week' is pushing it.  This year's Autumn/Winter collections have been and gone before most Londoners are out of their 2008 winter coats.  Although Fashion Week is hailed in shop fronts from the Kings Road to Oxford Street, its most recent home has been, slightly incongruously, The National History Museum. Twice a year the ground outside this wonderful old gothic building has been covered by a vast white marquee, housing models, clothes and cameras, overseen by the wonderful creatures of the zoological collections within the museum.  This year it has been announced that from September (for London Fashion Week comes twice a year) the festivities will relocate to Somerset House, to give the dinosaur skeletons and stuffed birds a break. I confess that in my 18 months in London so far, despite the passing of three such '4 day fashion mini-weeks', I have not seen a single show or glamorous champagne-fuelled event.  Yet I don't feel I have missed out; partly as watching ridiculously expensive clothes draped over ridiculously thin individuals doesn't really pass, in my eyes, as a roaring good time, but also as I have the Harvey Nichols window displays to sustain me.  And these put on their show all year round.
A typically riotous Christmas window display from Harvey Nichols (image courtesy: Universal Display)
Harvey Nichols is a high-class (i.e. prohibitively expensive) department store, stretching across 8 floors of Knightsbridge real estate.  Originally a linen shop founded in 1813, the current Harvey Nichols building was completed in the 1880s, opposite Hyde Park.  It's wide windows run down Knightsbridge on one side, and Sloane Street on the other, and their contents contain award-winning, fashion-promoting works of art.  Mannequins enrobed in thousands of pounds worth of couture pose before pedestrians in elaborate dioramas worthy of museum galleries; less of a storefront, more of a fashion exhibit.

Past windows have held willowy ladies on swings in nautical gauze, with perfect blonde curls blowing in a permanent breeze driven by discrete fans.  Prada and Gucci have clad mannequins dressed as magicians' assistants being sawn in half, vanishing and appearing, and producing rabbits from expensive millinery.  Neon paint has been flung Jackson Pollock-style across pristine white canvases behind sculptured plastic bodies wearing day-glo dresses and high-vis heels. Their Dubai store once contained a 'virtual puma', projected to skulk through the windows, behind the stock on display.

London Fashion Week provides the window-dressers of 'Harvey Nicks' with a fresh design brief; to create a display which reflects the new season of international fashion, as well as the unique culture and backdrop of London.  For the Spring/Summer 2009 collections, last September, they outdid themselves.  The front windows facing Hyde Park became home to two full-sized dinosaur skeletons of a prehistoric fish and a monstrous land-dweller; iconic residents of the Natural History Museum, the home of London Fashion Week.  And just to hammer home the 'fashion' in Fashion Week, instead of bones the beasts were made of coat-hangers.  Utterly fabulous.  Even the Sloane Square side windows tipped their hats to the Museum's ever popular (at least with the under 10 year olds) 'Creepy Crawly' halls, as vast and evil-looking bugs appeared between plastic drainpipes and designer labels.
(Image courtesy of South African Elle's blog)
To celebrate this February's fashion-filled four days the window-dressers have turned to the jungle for their inspiration.  Maybe even the urban jungle, judging by their choice of materials.  In these times of financial austerity as we're all being encouraged to grow food on our window ledges, and reuse our left-overs (as if we were in the middle of a war), even window-dressers are extolling the virtues of recycling.  Zoological specimens created from landfill ingredients, stare out at shoppers and commuters, behind cavorting Amazonian mannequins clutching bejeweled handbags.  A cling-film elephant's head, chipboard cheetahs, toilet roll zebras and an acoholic's giraffe, his giraffe-print fashioned from dozens of broken wine bottles.  Another nod to the soon-to-be-replaced host of London Fashion Week and icon of the city. Paris or Milan, even New York, may seem more naturally synonymous with haute couture and designer runways, yet London manages to make fashion part of the city effortlessly, without our noticing. And unlike those places where fashion is taken just a little bit too seriously, in London it can still make us stop and smile.

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