Sunday, 28 June 2009

The Wimbledon Championships: Tennis whites and well-tended greens

For two weeks, and two weeks only, of every year I become a hard-core sports fan. Outside of these two weeks I could not care less for football, or rugby or cricket, or even the athletics mega-event which is the Olympics. These two weeks are immovable - they only occur towards the end of June and the beginning of July each summer - and are focussed on one sport in one place; tennis and The Wimbledon Championships. Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, and has been held in this suburb of London since the end of the nineteenth century. Something about this age-old tournament, the tidiness of the players in their crisp whites, the lack of clashing contact and mud, the exotic and unpronouncable Balkan names (and the fact the players are all politely referred to as "Miss" and "Mr") appeals deeply to me, and my British sense of doing things (even sweaty, sporty things) in style.
Tennis fans flock from around the world to camp out for the much in-demand tickets, even electing to sit within the courts grounds and watch the matches on a vast screen, rather than at home on their sofa, just to be nearer the action. Faces are painted with national flags, clusters of yellow and green, kangaroo-printed t-shirts scream on Leyton Hewitt, whilst Andy Murray's fans drape themselves in Union Jacks. Spectators heads really do swivel from side to side in perfect coordination following the luminous yellow-green tennis balls hurtling across the court, moving faster than suicidal courier bikes around Hyde Park Corner.

Oh, and it's the sweetest sound in the world. Despite the power in the strokes, the noise of the tennis balls bouncing on the neatly trimmed (and, by the end of the first week, worn and brown), grass is a regular, soothing metronome, ticking away the dramatic game. Punctuated by polite clapping and aggressive "Come on!" roars from the audience or the players themselves, and the thrum of planes overhead bound for Heathrow, this is the sound of the start of summer. (It is also the sound which has filled my headphones all last week. To my colleagues, I am hard at work, typing and answering emails, yet in my head, I am court-side watching a Williams sister demolish an Eastern bloc opponent.)

Wimbledon Fortnight heralds a seasonal shift in London; it must be the only sporting event with its own peculiar climate. Without fail these two weeks combine hot and steamy sultriness, with grey and rainy skies. Dark clouds fill the skyline holding the heat, duvet-like, wrapped around the city streets. The unlucky majority of us who don't have tickets watch at home, glued to televisions inside even in the muggy weather, at times feeling as hot and sweaty as those players racing around the court; better to swelter indoors than miss a second of the action outside in the sunshine. All parts of London are bedecked in celebration of Wimbledon. Sales of Pimms and strawberries go through the roof, sports shops run tennis kit promotional sales, and the most un-tennis-related of shops and restaurants suddenly dress their windows with fluffy yellow tennis balls.

And this year the tournament holds further thrill for the British watcher. As we enter the second week there is still a British hope thrashing his way through the rounds. Not since Fred Perry in 1936 has a Brit won the Men's Singles title, and who knows if that will change this year. Our nation is behind Andy Murray, watching his every serve, his every backhand, his every fault, glued to television screens (and cheeky headphones in the office). But so what if he doesn't win this year? In 2010 Wimbledon will return, with a fresh batch of ball-boys and ball-girls (one of which was once an Accidental Cousin!), its well-watered grass ready for the onslaught of rubber soles, and with Hawk-Eye and Centre Court's new retractable roof ready for action. And this time in a week I will already be counting down the days until next year...

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Take me to the river

If I were sensible I'd be buying a house right now. While the market is depressed enough for it to be feasibly possible for me to afford a broom-cupboard in Barking, I should be taking full advantage. But herein lies the problem - we're talking London house prices, hence to get even my little toe on the property ladder the areas I could afford to live in are either so far out it's not even London anymore, purely residential areas where one has to take a bus to buy a newspaper, or so downright dangerous the insurance on your house contents would be greater than your mortgage. The bottom line is that I would have to leave Putney, the area in which I am very happy now, and I just can't do that. I couldn't leave the river.
Move further West? More expensive. Move further East? Well that's into The City (and equally expensive). Further East than that? Now we're talking stab-jackets for a quick trip out to buy some more milk. I have the best bit of the River Thames right here in SW15, why would I forsake it?

The Thames in Putney is wide and sweeping, rather than narrower and bendier as it is elsewhere. Due to its size here the grimy scum which floats upon it is far less obvious and easier to overlook. Putney Bridge stretches over the river in a solid, stoney sort of way; no flimsy Millennium Bridge or poncey, twinkly Albert Bridge. Here be rowers, and ducks and sailboats, and herons and sea-scouts (yes, really the 5th Putney Sea-Scouts to be exact). On a sunny weekend afternoon, or even on a pretty dismal one, the earthy towpath next to the river teems with dog-walkers, buggy-pushers, runners, and cyclists. You can get to Hammersmith without navigating the atrocious fly-over. You can wander down to Barnes for an excellent Sunday lunch at the picturesque Sun Inn overlooking the pond. You can check out divinely fit rowers and rugby-players whilst pretending to be taking an improving constitutional with your girlfriends.

But the river is not just there for the high-days and holidays, in blissful weather or when its surface is abuzz with boats and rowers and tourists. Of a quiet evening the river is at its finest. When things at the Accidental homestead get a bit manic, when work thoughts fly through my head like mosquitoes around a tropical watering hole, or even when I just need some peace and watery quiet, I wander down to the Thames. The calming effect of the flat water, be it blue or grey or green or brown at that precise moment, is the perfect antidote to the endless busyness of city life. The herons stalking in the shallows plod slowly through the rippling water and ducks snooze on walls warmed by the day's sun.
Either side of the river, human life goes on, busily. Lights twinkle, people move between trees and cars, vehicles drive along the grey, unmoving tarmac. The Thames flows on, peaceful yet never still. A presence in the neighbourhood which is reassuringly always there, even if you are not.
Like an old true friend, you do not have to see the river all the time to know it still likes you and wants to see you. For weeks you can be apart, without so much as a phone call, yet when finally reunited it is as if you were never apart. The river is always waiting, and always glad to have a catch up.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The tube strikes back

I consider myself a pretty fortunate Londoner. My daily commute is usually wonderfully straightforward; a nice hour long sit on a big red London bus from one end of its route to the other. A whole hour to read, do a little pre-work work, listen to music or just quietly people-watch as central London passes the window. Yesterday, however, I spent almost five hours traveling to and from work, via a multitude of methods, thanks to the ongoing Tube driver strike. For 48 hours, under the watchful, thug-like eye of union leader Bob Crow, the majority of London's Underground train drivers formed picket lines at stations and watched as the city's commuters struggled to find alternative ways into work.

A tube strike? Why should that disrupt my peaceful bus route you might ask. Well, all those displaced tube riders have to go somewhere. That somewhere is apparently the road; London's streets have been grid-locked for the past two days. In return for the lack of tube trains, 8000 extra buses trundled along the city's roads, along with extra cars and motorbikes. A large number of bicycles seemed to have appeared as well, dusted off from garages. Even some of those little scooters which seemed like a good idea at the time, were used once, and after the odd scraped elbow were swiftly abandoned, reappeared. Traffic has not moved that slowly since the days when people travelled in carts powered by lethargic oxen.

Longer travel times I can deal with. It merely means more time for me to read and not be at work; not exactly what I'd call a hardship. I have the tube strike to thank for having finished reading two whole books (ok, not exactly very high-brow ones. Oh, fine, they were downright low-brow; I've succumbed to the Twilight series. I can't get enough of teenage vampire angst at the moment.) What I found more disturbing than anything was the shock of quite how many people live in London.

All the people who normally move about the city beneath it are now in my over-realm. And there are masses of them! They are waiting at my bus stops and walking down my pavements, sitting in my seat on the No. 14 bus. Waiting on Piccadilly yesterday afternoon I stood surrounded by confused travellers, and I felt their panic. Workers were anxious and twitchy, frantic even. They knew where they needed to be and the route they could take to get there, but they were unable to make the journey. A journey they make twice a day without even looking up from their newspapers, let alone considering alternative transport options. It was a strange feeling to feel that the city was suddenly so full; like a block of flats where everyone who lives on the third floor suddenly has to move in with the people on the second floor.

London is a city of many levels, like an ancient Greek mythological world. We should pay heed to the oft hidden underworld which plays a crucial role in the running of our city. The Underground transport system, electricity cable tunnels, gas pipes, water pipes; at one time even our mail moved beneath our city. Funny how it always takes something breaking to make you realise its value.

As a little postscript to this tale of truly torpid transport, I shall describe my struggle home on Wednesday evening, to demonstrate the ridiculous farce that was, I ferevently hope, Crow's last stand. I left work early, anticipating trouble after a sluggish trip in the morning, and walked the first third of my journey. This was mistake number one - the further along the bus route I walked the fuller the buses were by the time they reached each stop. Along with much of Piccadilly I awaited a bus going in the right direction, and finally crammed on to it in conditions in which a sardine would have got claustrophobia. The bus, suspension groaning with its excess load, headed for west London. It may finally have got there. I know not, as the snail-like inching drove me so insane I eventually got off and started to walk home. I got as far as Fulham Broadway. Here comes the most gloriously ridiculous part of it all. Ready? And then I got on a tube and went home. Yep, you read that right. I got on the tube. During the tube strike. It ran beautifully, I got a seat, and it was wonderfully fast. Despite protestations to the contrary, 9 of our 11 underground lines ran throughout the strike, rebel tube drivers at the helm. And boy, was I grateful to them, and their wonderfully half-hearted approach to striking. You do have to admire the British feeling, which may well be their downfall, that even when taking a drastic stand, someone should be making sure we all get home to watch Eastenders.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

The rules of the pavement

When I first learnt to ride a bike I spent one afternoon a week on my local firestation forecourt learning how to put on my helmet, steer my bike round traffic cones and apply the brakes in a timely and controlled fashion in order that I not hurtle over the handlebars and splat onto the tarmac. These merry afternoons spent with other mini-cyclists qualified me for my cycling proficiency certificate; I was officially competant to handle my two-wheeled vehicle in public. Here in London I feel we need an equivalent - for responsible pavement usage. The overstuffed pavements of London must rank in my top hates about the city, and have done since before I lived here.

Londoners as a breed seem incapable of walking along a roadside without causing violent harm to their fellow pedestrians. What is more, they achieve this without batting an eyelid at the carnage around them. No screaming in agony as they stamp on your feet, no death-stare of annoyance as they plough into your path, no retaliatory elbow in the ribs causes any apology, remorse or even acknowledgement that they are being less than considerate in their pavemental conduct. (For pavements, also read platforms. Nowhere are Londoners less considerate of another's space than a tube platform, as the mania to cram into a rush hour Tube train consumes them. And nowhere is this selfish hogging of concrete more dangerous.)

Ah, the beauty of an empty platform
The commuting Londoner is a single-minded being. They have a single thought process focussed on getting from A to B. Sure, the odd diversion for coffee (to focus them further), may occur but the drive to reach a destination is not diverted by traffic (human or vehicular), street-vendors, or those day-glo yellow people who hand out the London Lite. The desire to reach work/home/Topshop on Oxford Street surpasses even the human instinct for self-preservation.

Now, there are two options for any pedestrian wishing to make their own trek through these ghastly pavement assailants. You can either give up and relinquish yourself to their stabbing umbrellas and fearsome feet, or you can fight back and arm yourself against their onslaught, with more than arnica for bruises and plasters for KGB-style umbrella-spike wounds in the back of the ankle, or you can enter the fray prepared.
First you need to attire yourself properly - there is a wardrobe for successful pavement pounding. Girls, if you struggle to walk in heels for heavens sake wear flats and put them in your handbag. Nothing says "Don't take me seriously as a fellow pavement user" like a wobbling totter down the road; you are begging people to cut you up, or walk slowly in front of you - you do not look in control. (Those who are able to wear heels in public without looking like one of those wooden toys you press at the bottom and the creature on top collapses, definitely invest in metal rather than rubber tips - they wear down on the harsh concrete far slower and enhance your stride with a scarier clatter!) So sensible footwear to outrun everyone else. No loose or flappy clothing, and arms by your side. Trailing cardigans which flap behind you or long trailing skirts will also only slow you down. May I also recommend a sizeable hangbag? (Ok menfolk, if you don't fancy that how about a briefcase?) Slung over a shoulder not only can you use it to barge people out of the way if needed, a nice big handbag makes you look larger, thus people giver you a wider berth. Personally if I can't use it as airplane carry-on luggage I deem a handbag too small. This is a weapon people, you need it to pack a punch.

Make sure you keep all extraneous items (newspapers, books, iPods, shoes which look divine but are useless for walking anywhere further than the fax machine, lunch, shopping bags) inside the bag - another reason it needs to be so huge. Have nothing which you can drop, get tangled with anyone else or which will slow you down. An iPod can be a help, in a throw-on-some-pounding-beats-to-speed-you-up way, or a hinderance, in a I'll-just-flick-through-my-music-and-choose-what-to-listen-to-whilst-standing-stock-still-in-the-middle-of-a-thoroughfare kind of way. Exercise your own judgement on that one. Just, I beg of you, wherever your pavement leads you, focus on the job in hand and become a paragon of pavement etiquette. Someone out there will thank you for it.
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