Thursday, 22 October 2009

A high society birthday - Tatler is 300 years old

The windows of London's classier (i.e. pricier) shops are celebrating at the moment. Among several others, New Bond Street's shop fronts are hosting a 300th birthday party, for an iconic Londoner. This year Tatler magazine will have graced British (and increasingly foreign) newstands for 300 years, in one form or other. Manekins peer out past stacks of back issues, modelling outfits worn by celebrities such as Elle McPherson and Rachel Weiss on past covers. Gold and black letters spell out "Tatler - 300 years" and "1709-2009" on the window-glass. In Moschino on Maddox Street, copies of Tatler have come to life, and scamper about the shopfront with champagne flutes.

Whilst Vogue and Vanity Fair, and many similar glossies, have multiple versions worldwide, translated and contextualised, Tatler remains resolutely British, and totally untransferable from its London viewpoint. Although it may review 5 star eco-lodges in Tanzania or recommend the best bars in which to drink Mai Tais in Shanghai, the comments and analysis are resolutely British, and a very particular type of British at that. Whilst class issues and the role of the aristocracy in Britain may have shifted slightly towards "not particularly bothered" on the wider public opinion scale, within the pages of Tatler they stand firm at "ooh yes, we care deeply", not so far away from "well, we care as long as they sell magazines".

No other publication still glorifies the glamour and, let's face it, sheer cash, of the upper classes in quite the same way; ploughing on today despite the fact that the majority of the country shops at Primark and Somerfield, and would regard Chinawhite as something off of which you would eat Sunday dinner, rather than a recently revamped club. Society with a capital "s" in Britain resides in the South (with another capital "s") - London is the last bastion of moneyed, ancient families, regardless of where their draughty ancestral piles actually are. Wildly romantic though 23 bedrooms, rolling acres of ancient woodland, and a plumbing system dating back to times when Jane Austen first put quill to paper may be, practical for partying they are not. What's the point of having wealth and old English style in the middle of a field where there's no one around to see it?

Open the pages of Tatler and you will see scores of lithe English Roses (although nowadays elbowing the Euro-trash and celebrities out of the way to reclaim their once uncontested spot), raised in the back of beyond who've all made a bolt for London the minute finishing school had imparted its final lesson on napkin-folding. With Daddy supporting their handbag habits they are free to sleep until lunchtime, shop until tea, and drink and dance until dawn in bars and clubs with histories as intertwined with money, royalty and high class as their own. Rather like an over-lavish parish magazine or high school yearbook, for the top echelons Tatler is a glossy reminder of that night out at wherever, or whom darling Poppy has reinvented herself as this week. Every month the same faces appear, and thirty or forty years ago, so did those of their parents, the It boys and girls of the moment.

And for those of us never likely to grace its shiny pages Tatler provides a few hours of heavenly escapism, and occasional giggles when someone you DO know appears, pictured looking surprised at a book-launch between a luxury goods heiress and a shambolic yet critically-acclaimed artist. But while the cheap chain-stores and identikit celebrity-inspired lifestyles alter the face of the average Brit, it is nice to think that someone out there still keeps our diminishing reputation of class and glamour alive, wearing grandmama's pearls with Mummy's vintage Pucci, as they drink hundreds of pounds worth of champagne in exclusive members-only Mayfair clubs. Until they stumble out in the early hours of the morning, class and composure completely forgotten, echoing the alternative ASBO-laden side of our culture. But of course, those photos never make Tatler...

Sunday, 18 October 2009

A little learning...

Whilst at university I never envied friends who were students in London. I was an undergraduate student in a small cathedral city at the other end of the country, and I loved it. Three years of tramping along Durham's cobbled bailey to my college, under the shadow of the great, solid cathedral and the ancient castle, endowed me with a thoroughly charmed university experience. Durham was a wonderful place to be a student - small enough for my friends and I to own the city, and with Newcastle only fifteen minutes away when it got too claustrophobic.
Friends and I rented pretty terraced houses (ok, some with undeniable damp problems and vermin squatters) which didn't cost the equivalent of a month's wages, or force us to live in areas where we feared for our lives, miles from our lectures. We bought rounds of drinks for 8 people which cost less than a tenner. We lived among lovely, smiling Geordies rather than miserable, stressed Londoners.
When I would visit school friends who'd come to university down here I enjoyed their big city lives for a weekend, marveling at the wealth of fripperies on which to spend a student loan. But they would bemoan the fact it was hard to make friends on this huge city-wide campus, some made utterly miserable by feeling alone and tiny amid the millions of Londoners. Moving here after graduating myself I could entirely understand. I would have hated to have spent three years here, living in Camberwell, trailing miles across the city to attend lectures, sat next to people I would not recognise from one week to the next. University life in Durham was an educational idyll. One was systematically late for every lecture or seminar having bumped into at least 4 friends crossing the tiny city. You had chums with whom to giggle through every tedious discussion of etymology or philosophy. The library was a social club, an evening out in sticky-floored student club, Klute, was like a large house-party; with the added bonus that you weren't the ones cleaning it up in the morning.

Sad to leave friends (and a pretty cushy lifestyle), I was still very ready to finish my studies by the time I graduated. Whilst many of my friends plunged straight back into academic life, undertaking Masters or PhDs, I was determined I wanted to embrace real grown-up life instead. Which I did. For all of about 18 months. Then for reasons which still evade me if I'm totally honest, I decided to apply for a part-time MSc to accompany my busy job. Ten pages of application forms later, a few months of waiting and I was accepted into Bloomsbury-based Birkbeck College. A few more months and I was receiving my library card, perusing reading lists and turning down post-work drinks with "Sorry, I've got a lecture on post-colonial development that night."

And now I am officially (and definitely somewhat Accidentally) a London student, dashing chaotically from work meetings to seminars to friend's birthday parties. But by way of doing rather overambitious part-time studies I have at least avoided the isolation of being a full-time student in London. My job affords me a non-studenty flat in a nice area of London, as well as a more than adequate way to pass the time between assignments! I also have my old lecture-mates, now my housemates, who I slogged through three years of undergraduate studies with, to greet me when I finally drag my exhausted self through the front-door after 3 hour discussions on neo-liberalism.
Some days I wonder why on earth I thought it a good idea to cram so much into my little life, bemoaning leaving parties early to go home and work, giving up shopping trips to plough through weighty tomes on capitalism. A little voice inside my head (or outside it, provided by the Accidental family) reminds me it'll be worth it in the end. My last degree led me from Durham to London, so who knows where I'll fetch up after this one. The promise of a new place to explore and a new life to lead is enough incentive for me.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

You've NOT got mail

Everyone loves getting post. Not the boring bills or endless takeaway fliers, obviously. The proper stuff - thick, glossy catalogues for things you can never afford but can't resist torturing yourself with, parcels with surprises inside, proper letters and cards from friends, family, love-letters. Currently, however, not much is turning up on our doormats here in London, and invariably all that does are the bills and fliers. London, like several other regions in the country, has been suffering (and if press reports are to be believed will continue to suffer until Christmas) at the hands of the Royal Mail and its strikes.
Inconvenient as these disruptions may be to Londoners, our personal lives and our businesses, the strikes and their motivation herald a sad era and the potential loss of something which is very British. As thousands of postal workers prepare to strike in protest of job cuts, a once entirely national organisation founded in the seventeenth century, is close to collapse, taking with it much more than jobs.

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to visit Mount Pleasant, the Royal Mail's main sorting office; a visit I found both fascinating and rather saddening. Even then, before the industrial action really took off, the 7.5 acre site felt strangely eerie for a place through which 17 million letters pass a week.

The vast warehouse seemed to be running on standby power, lacking the full compliment of people to man the huge silver sorting machines. Nevertheless the main sorting office was an impressive sight, and we watched the post arrive fresh from the pillar box and make its way through the miles and miles of machines and sorters to be loaded back onto vans, and head off to the labelled addresses. The sorters we encountered were a jolly lot, tossing packages and letters into bins, like NBA stars slam-dunking basketballs. Huge silver drums and conveyors sifted letters quicker than the blink of an eye. Hand-sorting a misdirected letter can cost the Royal Mail up to £60 to return to sender - no wonder the company is in trouble!

Up above the main cavern of the sorting floor are endless offices, faith rooms, medical facilities, staff briefing rooms, and a huge canteen. This is so much more than an industrial processing site. It is a 24 hour community of workers committed to keeping our city connected, supporting companies and families. If we think the strikes are inconvenient, imagine what life would be without the Royal Mail completely.
For this is the future which awaits us, which I was told about over a cup of tea high atop Mount Pleasant. A senior Royal Mail employee, a postie himself for years, told me that in 3-5 years the company will be gone, its constituent parts sold off to entirely private competitors such as TNT or DHL. Sorting, distributing, collection, all part of one historic organisation will be cut apart and bought up by newer, foreign companies, and Mount Pleasant will change forever. No more bright red post-boxes or vans. The Royal Mail holds a trademark on their specific shade of red, a colour bestowed upon them by the nation's royalty, but this too will be lost with the company. The traditional letter boxes, icons of Britain invented by author, and former-postal employee, Anthony Trollope, will take on the colours of their new owners, and our streets will look very different without their jolly red presence.

So don't desert the Royal Mail, frustrating though it may be to lose your post for days or even weeks. This fabulous British institution needs our support in recognition for all their unsung hard work. Job cuts may be just the tip of the iceberg and there is certainly a whole lot more than just Christmas at stake.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Potential Energy - an exercise in post-modern publishing

The other day, as a colleague and I wandered back to the office from a much too brief lunchbreak, a flash of neon yellow caught my eye. At ankle-level, propped against a grubby, grey wall, set back from the pavement, was a bright book. It looked brand new, and carefully positioned against the wall, rather than tossed there. Printed across the top were thick black letters: "FREE BOOK Pick Me Up". And underneath a ball of black scrawl, over which was written "potential energy" and a web address. Being of a curious nature, how could I resist? We picked up the book and bore it back to the office, where we discovered that this was in fact, much more than a book. What we had found was a part of an experiment in publishing and promotion, a city-wide book-group project.
Turning the book over, as one usually does to determine a plot, we found an outline of the story within, and also a direction to the first few pages of the book, wherein there lay a story of a different kind.
Schist, the author of this book, entitled "Potential Energy", was unable, as so many budding novelists are, to find a publisher to give his oeuvre a chance. Having produced the full manuscript however he was reluctant to let this prevent people from reading it, so he devised a scheme to disseminate his work, through a sort of viral publishing method. He had 1000 copies printed and started to leave them at random points across London, and other cities. Obviously at least one was left outside university buildings on Fitzroy Street where I found a copy, and other Londoners have reported copies dropped in SoHo, Brick Lane, just off Oxford Street, as well as in the town of Marlow, outside the city.

The author encourages interaction between those who find, read and diseminate his work, which can be discussed on his blog, tracking the drop-offs and pick-ups. A reader register page at the front of the book lists the history of each individual copy, mapping the story beyond the book, as well as within it.

Now that the books are beginning to be found however, the real experiment begins. Will the city's keen-eyed book-enthusiasts do as the scheme demands and pass the book on? I already have a successor for mine, now all I have to do is finish reading it. I am currently a few chapters from the end of this tale of a 30 year old Londoner called Jon. Jon lives a very London-y life in the city, grappling with relationships and a job where he works hard all the while bound by a feeling that he's compromising his ideals, and even experiencing the frustrations of house-hunting in the city. The story itself is less remarkable however than the experiment surrounding its promotion and circulation; an inspired enterprise as the financially gloomy grip on our city continues. It is a scheme which serves as a hope within the city, reliant on the people of London to make something extraordinary happen. And who knows, they just might.

So keep your eyes peeled, and if you find a copy, read it and appreciate the imagination behind not only its story but the manner in which you come to hold it in your hand. Just remember to pass it on.

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