Sunday, 28 February 2010

The end of an era

And so it came to pass that over Christmas I decided to move out of the wonderful little house which has been my home since my arrival in London. For five weeks the Accidental housemates and I trudged the city streets in search of the perfect Accidental home, and I am sad to be off in search of pastures, well, split-level flats, new. I leave behind my light double bedroom with two lovely big windows onto the peaceful cobbled street below. I bid adieu to a modern, yet utterly miniscule, kitchen. No longer will I slump on the sofa in the stunning high-ceilinged (if freezing) sitting room. Estate agenteze aside however what I really leave behind me are the remnents of my old studenty self, and two housemates whom I will miss terribly.

When us three old university friends moved in together we presented a somewhat silly, and deeply girly, household. We were drunk on city life, and usually champagne, thanks to one of the Accidental housemates who worked for a well-known luxury goods brand. Never again will I live in a house which frequently runs out of milk but NEVER Moet or Veuve. (We also had an fittingly grand receptacle should one of us fall ill after too much fizz; no ancient washing up bowls or buckets here, instead a trusty old orange Le Creuset casserole dish would be summoned to the Accidental sickbed.) A friend christened our little unit with a nickname, drawn circuitously from the adult entertainment industry, which over time became corrupted and reinvented, but we ultimately became "The Flouffes"; a proud band of girlies who always tipped out for a party, or would throw one at a moment's notice.
The Flouffes off to an Underground fancy dress party, as "Green Park"
Gradually over our two years together we made our little house a proper home. We decorated, built flat-pack furniture, laughed when it collapsed, and cleaned and tidied endlessly. Within the house we assumed, and swapped, roles - the cook, the user of power tools, the shower scrubber, the one who fixed the internet connection, the chief cocktail mixer, and the master baker of cupcakes. We drove neighbours mad with occasional raucous parties. We lay on the sofa all day after said parties, whingeing away our hangovers in front of girly films with lots of tea and bacon sandwiches. Cooking together in our tiny kitchen would be an effort of contortion and spatial awareness, culinary expertise, and belting out power ballads at the tops of our voices.

Alighting in this huge city some time ago now, we three fresh graduates had each other as a safety net to prevent any disastrous falls. We learnt how to live in London together, yet each one of us marked out our own version of the city, through places we individually loved and frequented, people we met, and paths we trod.
Bridget Jones declared friends the new nuclear family, and in our little corner of South West London we have had a strange little family for the last two years. In the absence of flesh and blood relatives, our household was our familial support system, and together we cried and consoled over break-ups and sad news, and cried also from laughing too hard at silly deeds and endless jokes. One week to go until the proud Flouffes are disbanded, but hopefully not forever. Like every great rock band which splits citing artistic differences, the reunion tour always looms on the horizon. We already have dates in the diary for dinner and watching terrible TV with a bottle of wine. No longer may we dwell under the same roof but our fearless band will divide and conquer - long live the Flouffes!

Friday, 19 February 2010

Accidental Visits: The technicolour temple of Wimbledon village

Time was in Britain everyone would rise on a Sunday morning, put on their finest hats and suits and head to church. Nowadays we're all too busy eating pain-au-chocolats and perusing the Sunday papers, or panicking about cooking roast lunch for the family. It is fair to say, not denigrating those who do regularly practice what their chosen faith preaches, religion is no longer the national concern it once was. Yet while many of us may be letting the spiritual side down, in a tiny corner of Wimbledon, the Thai Buddhists are certainly not.

"Why don't we go and wander around a Buddhist temple on Sunday morning?", said the Accidental Cousin when she rang to arrange weekend plans. I could think of no reason why not, being of a pretty open mind and keen to put off going to the library to work on my latest assignment, so off we went. Leaving the main road to Wimbledon Village we wove our way down through a wealthy residential area, and turned along a new tarmac driveway, following numerous people who looked far more like Thai Buddhists than us. Inside a high set of pillars stood an average-looking large house, evidently an administrative base and home to the monks who have inhabited the temple in Wimbledon since the 1970s. The Buddhapadipa temple was the first Buddhist temple established in the UK, surprisingly, only in the 1960s. In 1982 the Wimbledon temple celebrated and formalised its monastic boundary, making it officially the only traditionally recognised Thai temple in Europe. Somewhat even more surprising was that this was all going on in Wimbledon - a bastion of middle-class British WASPy wealth.

But set in its 4 acres of beautiful garden the white and gold temple does not look entirely out of place. Once off the A219, and past the gated mansions, one could almost be in (ok, a somewhat chilly) Thailand. We strolled happily over tiny bridges, found some Buddhist ducks, read hidden signs relaying ancient wisdoms, and played a merry game of "hunt the Buddha". It was extraordinarily peaceful and calm, despite being within a city as rambunctious, even on a Sunday, as London. After our tour of the green grounds, we cautiously entered in our sock feet the temple itself. It sits like a white and gold mushroom in the centre of the site, gold finials bounced the fleeting January sunlight around the green lawns. Inside the theme of gold and sparkly continues. This is the kind of religious venue that Elton John, Lady Gaga and Liberace might have dreamt up over tea one afternoon.

The walls are covered in intricate paintings of technicolour gloriousness. Mountains, monsters, stories from ancient Buddhist texts, people of the past and the present all crowd from floor to ceiling, wrapping themselves around windows. I spotted, no word of a lie, Mrs Thatcher by a wide, flowing river, not too far from a group of skinheads with multicolour mohicans. Watching over the painted people is a 900 year old enormous black Buddha, draped in flowers and surrounded by yet more gold. As we quietly marvelled at the overload of colour we heard the meditation class in the basement below the temple break up. Children, adults, monks, all began to spill out of the cosy temple into the wintery sunlight. A small crowd was gathering around what looked like a summer barbeque near the main building as people cooked, admonished overexcited children, and chatted.

Who knew that, not just a magnificent building, but an entire community existed behind these unassuming red brick walls? And one which is so wonderfully different from the status quo of South West London. Amid fears that our world is becoming a single homogenous mass of Westernised culture, it's reassuring to know that up in Wimbledon are a few acres which will, quietly and calmly, never surrender.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Cycling in London: A wheely dangerous way to get around

As I stood on Putney Bridge this morning, watching the world, and numerous buses which were not my desired No. 14s, glide by I observed a sea of fluroescent bees zoom past. Bees? Should they not be in hibernation this time of year? But these were no ordinary bees. These were bees on bikes, yellow jackets on their backs, grim determination on their faces.
London is a city of cyclists. They are everywhere. On roads, on pavements, on tow-paths. Wandering in to the office all sweaty and flushed, clutching their helmets, moistly smug at their virtuous exercising before 9am. And Boris Johnson is even trying to up their numbers with his London Cycling Campaign.

Not only do London's cyclists exude an air of self-righteous health and fitness, but also a slight mania. Battling the oil-powered traffic on the city's roads is a job for a crazy person. The majority of Londoners negotiate this hazard from the safety of a double-decker bus, or even by going underground and avoiding it entirely. Nothing scares me more than the thought of being marooned in a speeding sea of taxis and vans balanced upon a wobbling metal frame. Actually I lie, nothing scares me more than the thought of appearing in public under a plastic hat with a chin strap, and skin-tight luminous lycra.
With my own eyes I have seen two road accidents on London's streets. Both had involved a bicycle coming into contact with a larger, heavier vehicle. Both required police and ambulance services to deal with the impact. One was the only time I have ever seen blood run down a concrete surface, if not in a river, at least in a moderately-sized stream.

No surprise, I do not own a bike in the city myself. My Oystercard is one of my most treasured possessions; my key to travel which is dry, safe and steady. Yet I have had my own brush with cycling-induced death. Last summer I was wandering down Kensington High Street after work to meet some Accidental schoolfriends on one of those warm, summer evenings, when the sun still shone and people sat on the pavement outside bars sipping cool cocktails in shirtsleeves.
Fifteen minutes walk from my friend's house I glanced over my shoulder to witness said friend hurtling down the High Street on her bike, clad in compulsory lycra, with streamlined backpack strapped onto her slightly breathless person. Seeing me, she braked and mounted the pavement. "Hey, cool, so do you want a lift to mine?" she enquired. I eyed her single-seater bicycle with scepticism. "Come on, I'll peddle, you sit on the saddle, and try to keep your legs away from the pedals, unless we need to stop then you'll sort of have to, er, stop us." My eyes widened, and I tightened my grip on my handbag. "Right, here, put your bag in my basket. You'll have to wear my backpack, and hang on to me."

Sweaty backpack on my back, I tried to arrange myself on the saddle, hanging on to my equally sweaty friend. She stood up on the pedals and very slowly the protesting bike lurched forward. We wobbled for a few metres and built up some momentum. Then promptly screeched to an uncomfortable halt at a set of traffic lights. "Ok, you'll have to help me get going again", my friend yelled back to me, "I'm a bit worried the cars may plough into the back of us when the lights go green." I gripped harder and tried not to think of my delicate, unhelmeted, little head being crushed under the wheels of a truck. Needless to say the motorised vehicles stuck behind us when the lights changed colour could not have looked less impressed as we bounced forwards, lurching from side to side, two pairs of legs flailing widely, screaming with hilarity and terror. In an attempt to avoid another start-up we zipped through the next set of lights on amber, narrowly missing a white van. The speed bumps at Olympia station ejected me off the seat and into the back of my friend as if the world's fattest person had just parked themself on the other end of my see-saw.

It was with a mixture of surprise at our relatively minimal bodily harm and immense relief that we fell off the bike at the chum's front door. A second friend, already arrived courtesy of her air-conditioned, stable car, regarded us with both amusement and despair. Clocking our sweaty selves she declined to hug us, rolled her eyes, and asked "Drink?". I could think of nothing I needed more (except perhaps a shower). It is a wonder anyone cycles anywhere in London without the calming influence of alcohol. And there is the real reason I don't ride a bike in London - I simply couldn't afford the heavy liquor required to keep my nerves steady enough.
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