Thursday, 26 November 2009

London's very own North Star

"You should've just told us to aim for the BT Tower!" bemoaned friends who had just spent fifty minutes getting lost walking a fifteen minute route to find my office. They had a point; this would probably have been more helpful than my perfect detailed road names and wiggly route through the streets of Fitzrovia. The iconic BT Tower dominates the skyline of central London, as the closest equivalent to Manhattan's Empire State Building, outside of The City proper. Like the North Star, if you can find the BT Tower, you should be able to orientate yourself in central London.
Still referred to by many Londoners as the Post Office Tower, the 620 foot tall building has been owned by several major British companies and organisations over the years, but has always been a crucial British communications hub. Doughnut-shaped floors of switchboards and electrical engineering, are served by lifts hurtling through the middle of them like express elevator jam. Currently owned by telecommunications company British Telecom, the BT Tower is responsible for maintaining endless telephone and internet links in today's London.
An old switchboard within the tower, dead connections on a deserted floor.
Once upon a time at the very top of the tower was a restaurant famed for its rotation, giving diners a 360 degree view out over London; although one wonders if it didn't also make them feel slightly motion-sick and put them off their food. Following an IRA terror attack in the 1970s the restaurant closed almost 30 years ago, but with the 2012 Olympics looming the tower has announced it is to reopen the twirling eatery. To further mark the advent of the Games, which are set to ruin both the British economy and the average Londoner's life with the advent of biblical hoardes of sport-seeking tourists, the light blocks around the top of the tower have been replaced. In place of changing colours the tower now sports a headband of LED displays which project multi-coloured messages out into the night. Launched with the legend "1000 days" scrolling through the sky, currently this display is counting down the remaining days until London hosts the Olympics.

Since the first restaurant closed, the general public have been banned from the tower. Indeed the location of the tower was a government secret until the early 1990s - okay not exactly the most unobtrusive secret, a whopping great tower, but it was not plotted on maps or officially linked to its street address (60, Cleveland Street, for anyone keen to visit). I was able to gain access due to a work event I was organising earlier this year, and was lucky enough to have a brief tour; I was only allowed in however after passing through security checks a major international, over-cautious airport would be proud of.
The original restaurant is now used for private events (costing two thousand pounds merely to open), but it still rotates to order. The view from the top is undeniably amazing, yet the areas I found most fascinating in this building were the now disused switching rooms. Cardboard boxes, abandoned biros and half-complete log-sheets still rest on desks at which no one has sat for five or six years. Once-blinking light panels gather dust and hundreds of metres of valuable floor space in the heart of London remain empty.

Maybe this is a reflection of the ways in which modern society chooses to communicate in this day and age. Maybe it shows how far we have come since the days of Alexander Graham Bell. Maybe it shows how struggling infrastructure companies are having to throw money at external events and organisations to keep going, rather than internalise their investments. Whatever is held inside its tall body the BT Tower has become an iconic image of the city, as well as a point of orientation for any lost local or tourist. So next time you find yourself wandering central London, cast your eyes upwards and look for that familiar shape rising above rooftops. It will tell you where you need to head...and how many days there are until the London Olympic Games.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A lack of Underground etiquette

Generally I avoid the Tube like the plague; partly as I'm worried one stands a high chance of contracting the plague whilst travelling on it. I find the enforced close proximity to fellow Londoners, the stifling temperature of the carriages, regardless of the external weather, and the odd sensation of being trapped in a jerking, clanking train beneath the ground, deeply unappealing. I am an unashamed bus girl. They are much less uncomfortable, and benefit from more light and air. Who cares if they're slower? I don't feel like a veal calf in transit to an abattoir on a bus.
Although London's Underground system is not a particularly pleasant way to travel, it does offer an extraordinary snapshot of the city's inhabitants. Watching someone pass time on the Tube is both illuminating and rather concerning. Whilst the average Tube rider reads their neighbour's newspaper, or annoys the rest of the carriage by forcing on them their questionable music taste via overloud headphones, occasionally people do the oddest things.
Today, for example, on my way home from university lectures, a woman got on and sat down next to me. She pulled out a shopping list and a biro, and proceeded to colour in the entire piece of paper, all the way from Paddington to Fulham Broadway. Let's be clear - there was no design to the doodling, just slowly turning a white piece of paper to scribbly blue. Why?! Doing su doku or a crossword is pretty common, if you have the space in which to open a newspaper; although a shorter friend of mine has complained she was used as a convenient paper rest for someone doing a crossword once, which she did not appreciate.

People seem to forget whilst travelling that they are still in very public view. They will happily apply make-up, change their clothes, undertake an impromptu handbag or wallet inventory (thus exposing their souls to their follow passengers), even eat their supper. I watched a girl the other day demolish a large cheese and ham baguette, which she constructed herself on her lap between Kings Cross and High Street Kensington, unashamedly sprinkling herself and the carriage with crumbs. The unmistakeable aroma of take-away food wafting down a carriage when someone gets on with a MacDonald's bag, often encourages a mass movement to the opposite end of the car - no one wants to watch anyone pick gherkins out of their Big Mac or hear them slurp up the final dregs of their milkshake.

On the Piccadilly Line I had a particularly surreal experience. The train stopped and on got a man, dressed smartly in a suit, carrying a briefcase, a newspaper, and a two foot high stuffed rat wearing a jaunty hat. Now the train was pretty crowded, but this chap calmly took a seat, placed his rat on his lap, and proceeded to read his paper, around the rat, oblivious to those around him who stared on in incredulity. It was like he was staging a one man production of "Wind in the Underground Willows".

Based on my own experiences therefore I advise anyone who likes their commute undisturbed by drunken rantings (I once had an inebriate stranger give me a total character assassination based on the fact I wouldn't engage with his questions about my personal life), travelling rodents or on-the-go chefs, take the bus! Just watch out for the man on the early morning No. 14 who draws commuters on their way to work; it's like someone snapping your picture when you've just rolled out of bed. But I'll take him over the average Tube-rider any day.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Burlington Arcade, Mayfair

Remember that bit in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" where Lucy finds herself entering an old coat-cupboard and emerging into a totally different world? A perfect place (bar the psychotic winter-worshipping witch, of course) where all is beautiful and magic happens? Well, here in London there is a similar wardrobe to explore, where one can access a forgotten world of Victorian shopping, simply by stepping through a set of black shiny gates. No fauns or talking beavers, but monogrammed vanity cases made from real crocodile skin, and silver-backed hairbrushes.

Step into the Burlington Arcade and you are Lucy visiting Narnia for the first time. Entering Britain's oldest shopping arcade takes you back to a time when you needed to be wearing a bonnet to peruse the bow-fronted windows full of soft leather gloves. Smart men in green livery and top-hats stand guard either end of the arcade, ensuring no one disturbs the peace of this hallowed ground.

Open for business since 1819, many of the shops are home to some of the oldest retailers (with ancient Dickensian names, like Pickett and Bentley & Skinner) in the country, purveying items the majority of us have little need for, or the finances to afford; cowslip yellow cashmere twinsets, antique silver salt sellars in the shape of foxes, a hundred types of hand-picked tea. Behind carved wooden windows the wares of perfumer Penhaligon's, patissiere Ladurée, and clockmakers Lapport are displayed proudly in massed ranks on tiny velvet shelves and podiums. From time to time the outsides of the windows are dressed too - tiny silver butterflies recently appeared fluttering around Penhaligon's bottles to tie in with a new scent.
The long stone floor is kept pristine (apart from its current festive carpet), unlike the dark, chewing gum decorated pavement outside. Light streams down onto the shops, with their perfectly polished windows, from the high glass roof. The Burlington Arcade echoes a bygone, Primark-free shopping experience, where the goods are created with care and  finished with expense. No fighting with fellow Brits, or even tourists, over the last size 12 black cotton-mix cardigan here. Shopping returns to being a pleasurable experience, with attentive sales staff, goods one really yearns for, rather than needs, and an environment which makes the activity an enjoyable past-time (as practised by the bonnet-trim-buying Bennett girls in Jane Austen) rather than a chore.

Such an icon of British style, or what remains of it, is the Burlington Arcade, that this summer it was transformed into a film set for Woody Allen's latest movie. His secretively titled WASP (Woody Allen Summer Project) '09 was kept so quiet only a small board at either end of the arcade announced "Filming in Progress". Hence, one morning, walking through the arcade on my way to work I found myself in the middle of it, wondering why there were people with sound booms and cameras everywhere. It was only when I saw a small, distinctive man in a somewhat grubby-looking fishing hat that I realised what was going on and quite what I was wandering through (ok, so I'm not at my sharpest first thing in the morning).

Yet in the Burlington Arcade the glamour of movie-making was assimilated so smoothly into the glamour of the environment itself that no one really batted an eyelid. For nearly 200 years the arcade has stood for style and taste (and beautiful fripperies) and in these times of fast food and cheap electronics somehow it resolutely remains. Here's to the next few hundred years!

Friday, 6 November 2009

A city for all seasons

London doesn't do seasons the same as other places. In fact some seasons, i.e. autumn and spring, it doesn't seem to do at all. For most of the year London languishes in a soggy, temperate, sometimes surprisingly gusty, mono-climate. It could be October or it could be June, and you'd never know unless you consulted a calendar. Approximately two to three weeks, usually heralded by the start of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, are uncomfortably hot, signalling, and sometimes completely comprising, summer. A further unexpected week of snow or disappointing slush towards the end of January acts as winter. Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' would've been a whole lot different - and a whole lot shorter - if he'd composed them here in London.

Overnight the trees which line our streets have gone bald. In a matter of hours, leaves have chameleoned from bright green to yellow to orange and hurled themselves from their safe branches under the wheels of the city traffic; now they lie in the soggy gutters all the same shade of water-logged-mulch brown. A synchronised shift from summer to winter, without the tedious in-between of autumn.

On 3rd November this year, winter, nay Christmas, officially began in London. Christmas lights already strung high above Oxford Street and Regent Street for the past couple of weeks were officially turned on today by Colin Firth. Yep, that's right, Mr Darcy flipped the switch of the tackiest festive decorations our city centre has witnessed in some time; all tied in with his latest film, "A Christmas Carol" - Oxford Street, you sell-out! (And don't even get me started on you, Colin...). I love Regent Street's tasteful stars which have returned from last year, but the illuminated Jim Carreys atop the film's promotional title plug are rather commercial.

(Regent Street and its recently illuminated Christmas lights, apologies for the slight blur - that's the rain, so hard it looks like seasonal snow is falling from the sky.)

Shop windows (usually reliable seasonal barometers) are now all a-twinkle with fairy-lights and shiny baubles. All the manekins are wrapped up warm in winter coats and heavy knitwear, against freak in-store snow flurries. Starbucks have even introduced their festive red coffee cups, visible in the hands of fraught-looking commuters, who thought they had another few weeks before they had to start thinking about present-buying and turkey-stuffing but have been recently informed otherwise. Sod Halloween, that's old news. Bonfire Night? Pah! Christmas is coming, and we only have 7 weeks to prepare for it. You'd better get yourself down to Selfridges, where its Christmas Shop has been open since early August. Yep, when we were all still vainly waiting for British summertime to shuffle along they were already decking the halls down the other end of Oxford Street.

No wonder our poor city's seasons are so confused, retailers and councils are stretching holidays to suit their stock and schedules, regardless of calendar dates or what the rest of the country is doing. So, from London to the rest of the world, "Happy Holidays, everyone!". (Boy, am I going to be bored of Christmas by the time it finally arrives...)

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The down and out "In and Out", Piccadilly

For nearly the last two years my daily commute to work has sailed me along Piccadilly, from manic Hyde Park Corner to slightly seedy-looking Trocadero. (Barring unscheduled diversions via Park Lane and Victoria when the usually reliable buses fail me, of course.) Early on I noted that, among the vast club-houses and glossy shops, Piccadilly has its grottier, less-cared-for-looking buildings; some in clusters and others standing alone. After the first few trips one seemingly-abandoned building caught my eye in particular.

Set back from the tearing traffic, behind heavy black ironwork and a small, round gravel drive is No. 94 Piccadilly. Two high metal gates are accompanied by thick, grubby pillars, two displaying the word 'In' and two the word 'Out'. The windows are dark and empty, unlined by curtains or shutters. Occasionally a strip light was visible, glowing luminously, attached to a grimy wall inside. Once or twice I even saw a car in the drive - a heavy, black and blacked-out cruiser, the kind usually favoured by gang-members and professional footballers.

I imagined it was a London crash-pad for an absent Russian oligarch. A site for illegal gambling activities or a secret drinking club. Each day I could conjure up a new shadowy purpose for this mysterious building. Never did I see a living soul go in or out. Imagine then my disappointment when I discovered recently that the building was not the shady den of vice I had into which I had romanticised it.

Built in the eighteenth century for the 2nd Earl of Egremont, the Palladian-style building has a fascinating history, during which it has assumed many identities. First Egremont House, then Cholmondeley House, it remains today Cambridge House, named for the Duke of Cambridge, Prince Adolphus. Lord Palmerston took possession in 1855, and after his death The Naval & Military Club expanded into it. The Club bestowed on it the nickname 'The In & Out Club' due to the signposts at the gate, and took the nickname with it when it moved on to larger premises 13 years ago. In 1994 the original "In and Out Club" hosted the after-party for the premiere of Four Weddings and A Funeral, and was thus the site where Liz Hurley launched her infamous safety pin dress, and herself, on the world. And if that isn't slightly sinister, I don't know what is!

Now the palace is owned by a property magnate, Simon Halabi, who uses the place purely as a car-park for his hummer. Having abandoned plans to turn it into a 6 star hotel, he is now trying to sell it on. The credit crunch being a major reason behind this decision, I don't imagine it will be snapped up instantly - few of us have a spare £250 million down the side of the sofa these days. So for now the club will be frequented only by the ghostly political and royal formal inhabitants of No. 94, having the phantom party of the century, with weeds to welcome them up the drive, illuminated by flickering neon strip lighting inside the long-locked doors. And not one of the tourists and commuters passing the gates will ever know.
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