Friday, 24 December 2010

The Christmas Exodus

One of the joys of living in London is that one never actually NEEDS to go anywhere else.  Which means one is saved the tortuous task of trying to leave the city, and at no other time of year is this expedition more vile than at Christmas, when it snows.  And this is an event for which London is always entirely unprepared.  If it happened in July, fair play, we'd all be a bit surprised, but winter in the UK is supposed to be snowy, and even if it weren't going on the law of averages given the last few years climate history you'd think some weather bods would be scratching their chins right now and identifying some sort of pattern.  In winter, in London, it snows.  Message received? Now, please be so kind to tell the transport people, because I think this may come as quite a shock.

London's transport system has its shaky moments at the best of times but when it snows its default position is stationary.  It stops dead.  Planes are grounded.  Trains vanish.  Buses stay warm and cosy in the garage terminus.  Cars remain frozen to the kerbs, and the less used roads become impassable.  Tubes, to be fair, do generally continue to run, but it's not snowing under ground so they really have no excuse.  The horror stories we have all heard in the last week about Londoners desperately trying to make it home to families outside the city have reached new levels of absurdity.  Families taking £1000 cab rides to the Alps so little Jimmy could spend his Christmas on the slopes.  People hiring cars to drive to other bits of Europe, which can actually handle snow, to get flights from their un-paralysed airports back to the rest of the world.  Tales have flooded back into the centre from Heathrow and Gatwick of days and nights, sat on the floors of departure halls, eating old, limp sandwiches provided grudgingly by BAA, who cannot be said to have come out of this incident well.  Again.  (A little new year investment in customer service training maybe?)

As this week progressed these stories began to panic me slightly.  Would I be forced to spend my first Christmas in London, apart from the Accidental family who I had been planning to join up in the Midlands?  Trains heading up north have been endlessly cancelled, delayed and stopped this week, and I have watched online tracking services like a hawk, desperate for updates.  A sinking feeling set in.  Virgin Trains have screwed me over innumerable times these last few months, hence I had a ticket booked on a London Midland train which was set to crawl back towards the Accidental homestead on Thursday afternoon.  Several days ago London Midland announced industrial action and cancelled my train.  I raged and mentally composed a thoroughly irate letter to them.  Then it snowed again, and, displaying a degree of humanity rare to public transport providers, they called off the strike, and my train was back on.

In deep gloom about ever seeing the Accidental homestead again I packed on Wednesday night, taking with me extra layers, food, water, and enough to entertain myself for a full night stuck on an unmoving, icy train; a la the horror stories from the beginning of the month when such a fate befell commuters on a Southeastern train.  I trudged to Euston a good half hour before my train was due to depart, pre-paid tickets smugly in my bag, and was greeted by a departures board littered with cancellations and delays, and a main hall full of desperate travellers, their luggage, and confused-looking small dogs.  A trailer for the new film of Gullivers Travels played on repeat.  Solidly.  For an hour.  I now cannot bear to look at Jack Black.

"This is a passenger announcement for passengers expecting to travel on the 15:46 service to Crewe.  This train is delayed and we are awaiting confirmation of rolling stock.  We will inform you of the platform when it arrives." Not an auspicious start.  Half an hour later..."The delayed 15:46 train will now depart from Platform 11" - cue mass exodus from the main hall as everyone else at Euston is also dying to go to the Midlands.  We arrive at Platform 11 where a train to Birmingham awaits.  Er, no.  A hurried announcement over the tanoy: "The delayed 15:46 train will now depart from Platform 10".  We swivel 180 degrees.  There is an empty platform, nary a train to anywhere to be seen.  We wait.  And then wait some more.  A train arrives and regardless of destination we all form distinctly unhelpful throngs around each door, as baffled arrivals to Euston station find themselves unable to disembark, faced with hundreds of anxious emigrants, brandishing metre-long rolls of wrapping paper, barring their way.  We all sort ourselves out and the new passengers scramble for the newly-vacated, and alarmingly still warm, seats.  Then we sit there.  Finally an announcement informs us that London Euston is the final destination of the train and thanks us for travelling with London Midland and reminds us to take all our luggage as we depart the train.  We ignore it.  Ten minutes later the train finally moves off and everyone sighs in relief.

The journey is slow, and cold.  My carriage companions are mostly inoffensively peaceful yet one individual, uses the endless extra hours on the train to row with everyone in her phone directory, in between munching fruit gums and painting her nails a lurid shade of orange.  A miserable sluggish few hours later (after we had been stuck behind a train doing a regional tour of tiny, pointless stations) and the train pulls into a stop two before the one for which I had been aiming.  Unable to face more hours of glacial progress and glacial temperatures inside the carriages I hop off here, having rearranged the Accidental parental taxi service, at a portacabin on the edge of a snowy carpark.  Inside a mop and bucket have been discarded in the centre of the makeshift ticket office, where seven people huddled together for warmth.  I picked my way across the soggy floor, and trundled my suitcase out onto an ice-rink strewn with cars.  Only a brief car-ride back to the Accidental village, and I had made it home for Christmas.  I intend to spend the rest of the festive season recovering (by which I mean drinking) from the trauma of my trip out of London.  Merry Christmas!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Alexandra Palace: The palace of the north

In the 19th century, when it was cool to advertise all the questionable evils we were inflicting upon our colonies, Crystal Palace was built in south London to house The Great Exhibition - a collection of colonial artefacts, culture, and, alarmingly, the odd live subject.  The original building that housed the exhibition, an undoubtably stunning greenhouse of enormous proportions, moved out of Hyde Park to the area which soon became known as Crystal Palace.  A wee while later the building and its contents burnt down.  Worried that North London might feel left out, The Great Northern Palace Company set about creating a northern equivalent.  They shouldn't have bothered.  

Alexandra Palace stands high above Wood Green, looking down over Crouch End, and to the entire city beyond.  It is an odd Frankenstein of a building, with new additions bolted on to the old structure here and there.  Metal struts are grafted onto ancient stonework, and the monstrous antenna which broadcast some of the nation's earliest television signals is spliced onto the end of the building as if a space shuttle has had to make an emergency crash landing through the roof.
On a drizzly Saturday, metal crash-barriers from a gig the night before marked my approach to the palace.  A torn ticket for "Vampire Weekend plus special guests" poked up through the semi-frozen grass.  Up close the building felt like an old gothic railway station, with its cracked boards and high stone arches. Yet, on a Saturday afternoon, it lacked any of the energy and activity usually associated with a station.

The lugubrious bar, painted a virulent bright blue, could hardly have been said to be doing a roaring trade.  Through the faintly steamy windows a grim-faced barmaid rearranged glasses and glowered across the bar.  Disappointingly all of the sets of double doors into the main hall were chained shut with enormous padlocks.  Huge palm trees were visible through the glass windows in the doors, but the portico was as far as we were destined to make it.  Somewhat ironically, vast signs above extended warm welcomes to "The Peoples' Palace"; we were clearly not the right sort of people.  I was reliably informed that all that lay round the corner I had not yet explored were "a rather grim boating lake and a children's playground", so I gave those a miss.

The one thing which, on a day clearer than the one I chose for a visit, may redeem this strange and enormous folly is the stunning view it presents across London.  Even on the dreariest of afternoons the grey vista is still quite a sight to behold.  The nub of Canary Wharf blinked resolutely through the foggy rainclouds.  London lay down below the hill on which I stood, curled up like a cat in a basket.  I began my descent down the hill, mentally redesigning Alexandra Palace, and imagining it into the fabulous venue it could be...if only someone would invest the time and plentiful cash.

Friday, 10 December 2010

The morning after the protest before

London looks a little ropey today.  A little forlorn and rough around the edges.  Its benches sit blackened atop one another.  Its vast white stone walls sport newly daubed tattoes of paint and offensive slogans.  Metal crash barriers lie on the streets and pavements, twisted out of shape.  Lawns have been trampled by kettled students, muddy and littered with discarded placards; some of which display mispelt slogans which demonstrate just why their bearers are so desperately in need of higher education.  On the day that the government decreed that universities could change fees of up to £9000 per year, thousands of students took to the streets of London, and left their ugly mark.

These student (and I use that term loosely given the blatant hijacking of these protests by destructive vandals, acting in the name of anarchy) protests have got me angry.  Both as a student and as a Londoner.  Yes, it's expensive to go to university, because it is a privilege, not a right.  The precious skills we learn at university should stand us in good stead for a solid, financially secure future.  Why should we be given this gift for free?  It is an investment.  We are buying the skills and instructive words of academics and tutors, the access to world-class libraries and learning resources, accomodation and food.  Even with the new increased costs the UK remains one of the most financially competitive places to study.  Students in the US can expect to pay in a single year more than we could pay for a three year degree course.  I am fortunate that I can afford my own fees, which are not inconsiderable, but in order to do so I have to work a full-time job.  And it's tough.  Very tough.  (My social life has taken a colossal hit, and the least said about my sleep patterns the better!) 

I would hate for anyone to feel they could not pursue a dream simply due to financial restraints, but there are always methods to achieve one's deepest desires.  And they should not resort to the desecration of a city and violence against those who have no control over the protest issue.  Setting fire to a Christmas tree and defiling a monument to those who fought and died to allow us to live in peace, are protests against freedom and happiness, and an attack on a city desperately trying to fnd something to celebrate amidst the doom and gloom of the media, and our new-found Arctic weather.  What on earth will be achieved in graffiti-ing a statue of a former government leader, now long gone, and with absolutely no control over his political successors?

It saddens me, and other Londoners, to see our city violated in such a manner.  What harm has London ever done to students?  It has given them homes, and locations for learning.  Its inhabitants have given them lecturers and admin staff and fellow students.  Pity our local policemen and their poor bewildered horses (and yes ok, I know they were armed, and it got a bit six of one, half a dozen of the other regarding violent behaviour) who are also dealing with the effects of the government's cuts.  When the protesters and anarchists are safely back home a new army will be mobilised, to clean up the mess they made.  This army will set to work scrubbing stonework and sweeping rubbish and righting toppled street furniture.  And within weeks the city will look much as it did before the events of yesterday.  The vote has passed, fees will rise - what was really achieved yesterday? 
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