Thursday, 30 April 2009

Pond Life - ducks, geese and other wonderous winged things

Despite the fact I am now in my mid-twenties, whenever I see a pondful of ducks I long to be four again. Standing on muddy banks or leaning through metal railings, with a loaf of bread a little too elderly for human consumption in my hands. There is something immensely soothing about feeding ducks. Watching them come gliding eagerly towards you when they realise it's tea-time, hearing moorhens' silly little voices demanding crumbs, loud geese bossing smaller birds out of their way, seeing them dip down into the water to retrieve a stray piece of bread and emerging, perfect droplets of water resting on their shiny feathers.
A month or so ago (when we got a stray summery day towards the end of the same freakish February which brought us the snow), a couple of friends and I, and a slightly out-of-date loaf of wholegrain, pottered along the Thames to Barnes. We were there for ages; we had a lot of bread! But we were also hypnotised by the calming process of feeding these little water-birds.
Three girls, old enough to know better, we ripped and tore bread into duck-sized bites, mesmerised by ripples in the pond, by tiny diving ducks and the rare sunshine. We soon picked out the smaller birds, being shoved to the back by bigger, greedier feathered bullies, and took greater aim with our bread chunks, willing the smaller ones to reach them first as they landed in the water.
Small children out with their parents (who were obviously too well-organised and life-preserving to have copious amounts of mouldy bread in their houses) watched covetously as the ducks clustered at our feet. We offered them, slightly grudgingly I confess, some of our loaf and watched as they delightedly joined our merry band of bread-tossers. (We did of course select the least mouldy slices for the children, embarrassed their well-to-do Barnes mummies and daddies would judge our slovenly housekeeping!).
And so passed a happy morning; feeding, watching, chatting, myself snapping endless photos. Like they say, simple things please simple minds, and that day we, and the assembled ducks, geese, moorhens and the odd bolshy gull, were very simply pleased.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Threats & The City

Having spent the previous hour poking around Winston Churchill's underground wartime dorms (the way you do), walking back to my office across London today, my colleague and I were suddenly surrounded by a sea of River Island shop assistants. There were hundreds of them, all in their black logo-ed t-shirts, with their little name badges glinting in the sunshine. A team away day? An employee picnic in the park? Moving through towards Oxford Street we noticed more clusters, workers from offices nearby, The Photographers' Gallery, M&S, HMV. What on earth was going on we wondered? Surely not the world's largest inter-office sports day. Had all shop assistants in Britain suddenly gone on strike, demanding less jumper-folding and longer lunch breaks?

Besides the floods of extra people, who on vacating their work places seemed merely to be hanging around outside them, the streets rang with a discordant orchestra of fire alarms, joining in the Evacuation Overture. As any Londoner knows, Oxford Street is usually a constant seething maelstrom of tourists and shoppers, heavingly busy all week long. The long road is home to vast flagship clothing stores, the iconic Selfridges department store and small havens of tourist tat selling enormous Union Jack hats and t-shirts emblazoned with those oh-so-hilarious "My son/daughter/girlfriend/Auntie Jane/third cousin once removed went to London and all I got was this stupid t-shirt"-style slogans. Buses and taxis crawl along Oxford Street, on the alert for crazed shoppers who frequently plunge suicidally off pavements and under their wheels; "Must get to Topshop NOW! Abandon personal safety for the sake of gladiator sandals!".

By lunchtime today however, shops were shut-up, buses and other traffic diverted through Soho, and police incident tape cordoned off pavements. We were turned back from our usual route through the area by 4 firefighters and one slightly overexcited store security guard; usually occupied by tailing teenage shoplifters through the knitwear section, today's drama (whatever it was) was obviously what he dreamed of when he chose a career in security enforcement!

Finding an alternative route we managed to get up onto Oxford Street briefly, in order to cross it. Looking back down its length, this shopping mecca sat quietly in the sunshine. Twelve foot models frolicked on posters across shopfronts. The road and pavements, peaceful, grey and empty. Usual noises of high heels, people chattering, booming sound systems, the rustle of plastic carrier bags were blissfully absent; Oxford Street was silent and still, and surprisingly rather beautiful.

Rather ugly in comparison were the hoardes of irate shoppers and workers clustering on the other side of the police tape, annoyed at the disruption to their day. My colleague and I discussed what could have happened to bring Oxford Street to a standstill. Most likely, and what instantly sprung to mind, was a bomb threat. Why else had an entire street been evacuated and closed off, open only to various members of the emergency services? My colleague, who had narrowly missed taking the tube train on which one of the 7/7 bombs was detonated, was actually quite unsettled by the stillness, the police presence and the general confusion. Walking on back to the office we discussed the former terror attacks, and how, in moving to a large iconic city, you are put yourself in a new form of danger. Growing up in a small village in Staffordshire bombs and attacks on people as they walked down the street happened elsewhere, in war zones and other faraway countries, reported in newspapers but never experienced. In a big city such as London you can be part of that news, caught up in a single action which is part of a far larger campaign or issue.

Once back in the office we scanned the BBC website, SkyNews, The Times online, desperate to find out what was happening, feeling like we were part of it, whatever it might be. Nothing. No news reports of bomb scares, no alerts of Oxford Street being closed. Eventually we checked the Transport For London website. They reported in small standard lettering that Oxford Street services were on diversion due to a gas leak.

Strangely we felt disappointed. A gas leak. Nothing more to the closure of a section of the city than faulty engineering. If there had been a drama it would have been partly ours. As Londoners we could have laid claim to an attack on our city. A gas leak was a far more likely explanation for the disruption but our conditioned minds, driven by the media and our city's experiences, immediately leapt to a less likely and more dramatic assumption. Living here imbues a citizen with a heightened sense of threat; life is simply more risky in a city. We are warned that if you don't get hit by a bus your workplace may burn down or your house may be burgled. With the scare-mongering media it's a wonder we ever leave our homes!

Monday, 13 April 2009

It never rains but it pours: A visit to Argyll

Despite my resistance to London before I moved to the city, I fear my person is slowly becoming accustomed to the place. Having left London a few days ago to spend time elsewhere, within hours of not being there I was wishing that I was. Although this was most probably due to the fact that the place I was in, was a soggy pocket of Scotland known as the West Coast. For many years my family trailed up to this spot for summer holidays. We would tramp sodden on long walks through the countryside, sheltering in stone cairns. We endlessly visited the same tourist attractions; sea life centres, gardens and stately homes, wildlife sanctuaries, and a bizarre collection of museums, including one on Oban Pier which contained miniature dioramas created in dollhouse-sized scales.

By the end of the two weeks we would be pale and unhealthy looking, from a lack of sunshine and diet of Irn Bru and cream cakes - sheltering in cafes became a popular way to pass the time. Our entire bodies would also be covered in marks of the tiny assaults of countless midges. These were not particularly stress-free holidays, and I have no idea how my parents perpetuated this cycle of familial torture without killing my brother and I or themselves. Why you may then ask did I return to this place last week? Moreover, why did I sacrifice some of my precious holiday allowance to do so? I had not visited Argyll for over 2 years I calculated, and there were family friends I had not seen in ages to visit. Plus, I persuaded myself, it was a trip in April, a long time from the notoriously soggy summers, and the start of the midge season. How bad could it be?

As my plane touched down at Glasgow International (an airport slightly smaller than its car-park), quiet rain tapping on the plane windows welcomed us to Scotland. By the time I had cleared arrivals it was coming down harder, and by the time we left Paisley the windscreen wipers on the car were going flat out. Ah, some things never change. My parents, who I had joined, assured me they'd had lovely weather the past few days but with my arrival, Scotland had no more sunshine left for that week. Pleasant weather quota exhausted it proceeded to rain all week long, during which time I morphed into a soggier, curlier-around-the-edges version of myself as even my hair-straighteners knew when they were beat. In memory of family holidays gone by, we trudged once more around dripping gardens to admire Rhododendrons (the only living things to appreciate the constant downpour), walked through muddy fields in the drizzle and took shelter in the shop formerly known as John Menzies in Oban, where once we had seen Judi Dench perusing newspapers, and probably waiting out a shower; a wise woman (although evidently not wise enough to holiday elsewhere).

Daffodils at Arduaine - pretty even through the pelting rain
If one has a commercial desire for anything more than overpriced poor-quality cashmere, shortbread in tartan tins or stuffed Loch Ness monsters, Scotland is not the shopping haven for you. I yearned for Ted Baker and Zara, I longed for Habitat and Waterstones, or for any shop one might walk into and NOT be met with an "Och no, dearie! We've no call for fancy things like DVDs up here!" I missed being able to get a pint of milk from the end of the road where I live, instead of having to trail for 20 minutes in a car before seeing a cow let alone a bottle of semi-skimmed. My diet went downhill instantly, as I put away Tunnocks teacakes, chocolate shortbread and vast plates of fried scallops in an effort to keep out the cold, and to pass time indoors, rather than brave the elements. No hopping on a bus two minutes from my front door. Much as I loathe TFL's inadequate management of London's public transport systems, Argyll's potholed single track roads, weekly bus services to the nearest post office and lack of train stations in useful locations, has made me desperate to get back to London's miles of concrete. At least there's less open space to dash across when it rains!

As my parents threatened to retire to this soggy paradise, which can be undeniably beautiful on the rare occasion that the clouds part, I begged them to reconsider. Although by the time they get round to it, I dread to think what will remain after climate change and a few more years of torrential rain have played their part. Don't get me wrong, I was brought up in the countryside, and I will forever enjoy walks through fields and woods, with vast clear skies above. I enjoy the fresh air, and the lack of congestion and grey-faced commuters. But something about a big city, the energy, the excitement, the ease of obtaining a decent take-away, is just too alluring for me right now. And so tomorrow, to London...with relief!

Sunday, 5 April 2009

After the circus

It is all over. The protesters have taken down their tents, packed up their mung bean salads and headed home. The superb Michelle Obama's First Lady fashion show, with supporting Presidential husband accessory, has folded up its J.Crew dresses and twinsets and jetted off to continental Europe (as the best couture so frequently does). The streets of London still have heavy metal crash barriers along the pavements but they serve little purpose now. In truth I don't believe they were serving much purpose during the G20 summit either, despite the show of battening down the hatches and ramping up security over the two days when the senior world politicians were in town.

My initial thought on April 1st when I ventured out was "nice day for a protest". Beautiful sunshine, clear skies with no risk of clouds to rain on their parade. (A brief thought which flickered through my mind was that I hoped they all wore sunscreen and took lots of water.)
On my way to work I desperately searched for signs of anarchy and public dissent, and disappointingly I saw nothing so exciting. There were a few more blacked out people carriers on the road than usual, and possibly fewer suits pounding the central London pavements. Many office works vowed to ignore the advice to dress in "mufti" clothing (i.e. jeans and t-shirts) rather than suits to avoid anti-capitalist attacks however. Many city office workers reported a rise in the number of ludicrously coloured cords and tweed sports jackets; hardly a look which screams "man of the people". One senior office worker at a city firm apined to a local paper that he would be going in to work in his suit as usual as "my only other option is my gardening clothes".

From my office I watched the news coverage of the march progress and protests outside the Bank of England. Lots of people standing, waving their arms, chanting, holding banners and signs (the odd one embarrassingly misspelt). A firm favourite from the day seems to have been the wag who waved "Make Love Not Leverage"!
Lines of fluorescent yellow police dividing the great swathes of multi-coloured protesters, the majority of whom seemed energetic but unthreatening. (Those who were dancing in a quiet square, and rolling around on the floor very slowly were more bizarre than demanding.) A couple of trouble-makers could be picked out, jostling police, provoking others around them, but the vast majority were peaceful yet solid. As much as the papers hyped up the "chaos" and "anarchistic attacks", a mere handful of people were arrested for carrying knives, climbing a monument and hitting a policeman (this could've been a regular Thursday night in some areas of London). Thousands of others remained well-behaved however, and for this I feel we should commend them.

Air Force One left Stanstead on Friday and conveyed the Obamas to Strasbourg to attend another two day summit, this time for Nato. Now I know the French are taught to protest, smoke Gitanes and drink wine as soon as they can walk, but watching the protests in Strasbourg made me feel rather proud of our own efforts; as if London had taken a more grown-up approach to taking a stand against globalisation, capitalism and those who irresponsibly disregard climate change.
Before the summit in France had even started three hundred people had been arrested for rioting. Where a few protesters in London had smashed into the Royal Bank of Scotland offices with a large pole they had seemed reluctant to go any further with destruction and violence, lest they get into real trouble. After smashing in the window they dithered outside ("After you, man", "No, no mate, please go first") then climbed in, were unimpressed by what they saw, and were out again within about five minutes. In Strasbourg the protesters set up flaming road blocks and smashed up telephone boxes. The fact that the protestors in Bishopsgate, London, were being goaded by several banking idiots (no doubt clad in bright red cords and sports jackets) waving £10 notes out of their office windows at them seems not only to explain their frustrated snapping and hitting the odd policeman but also seems to point towards the reason we're in this mess in the first place. Go and do some work you morons! It's no wonder the world's in a state of financial crisis with those monkeys at the helm. Congratulations should also go to the extremely efficient police force who by Friday, after the window smashing incident on Wednesday, had all four people responsible scheduled to appear in court to answer charges of criminal damage and pinching a single computer. We all should admit that's a pretty swift turnaround, as sort of Kwik-Fit approach to crime-fighting.

The news of the death of Ian Tomlinson, who died on Wednesday was deeply saddening however, although his involvement in the protests remains unclear. Whether he was there as a protester or merely a bystander who got caught up in the situation, his death was premature (he was only 47 years old) and evidently linked in some way to the action going on around him. What I found most saddening, and here I lost a fair bit of pride in how our nation behaved, was that as police struggled to administer help to him, they were attacked by protesters. Ironically a new march appeared a couple of days later to Bethnal Green Police Station demanding an inquiry into Mr Tomlinson's death. I fear that if an inquiry takes place certain behaviours will be exposed which will shame those involved, whether they be police officers, protesters, or members of the public. Something went too far. When demanding something one has to admit that sometime enough is enough, and heading home then trying again another day may be just as effective. Or if you really can't wait for another international summit to complain about, go to France where they hold such protesting jollies most Mondays, except in August when they're all at the beach.
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