Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Neglecting London: why I am so glad to be through with university (again!)

I was running late as I locked up my flat and walked to the heavy front door of my building.  Amid the piles of festive flyers and brochures destined for the recycling bin I saw a large white envelope, relatively thin and flimsy, with my college's logo stamped on the top.  In my hurry I snatched it up and stuffed it into my handbag.  Only when I was sat on the tube ten minutes later did I open up what I assumed would be a page or two of administrative waffle.  Inside - now slightly scrumpled - was my degree transcript, detailing my module marks and my overall awarded grade, stamped with my college's seal.  I was now 'Accidental Londoner BA (Hons) MSc'.
With as little ceremony as the entire miserable slog made to obtain it, my industry for my Masters degree was over.  When I came down to live in London after I graduated going back to uni could not have been further from my mind.  I was finally free of essays and late-night panics about writing 2000 words by the morning.  I had no more exams to revise for.  My life no longer revolved around lectures and an embarrassing addiction to Australian soap operas.  I still had to work of course, but my labours stayed firmly within my office, and more importantly occurred during office hours only.  

But then, as I began to form the beginnings of what might ultimately transform into a career, a nasty realisation hit me; to work in my industry of choice, further academic study would at some stage in the future be necessary.  Without any thought of what it might do to my evenings or weekends, to say nothing of my mental stability, I decided to see if I could find a relevant Masters degree that I could do part-time, whilst I continued to work full-time to pay the bills.  I applied to a course and was accepted.  I despatched the first cheque covering tuition fees and bought notebooks and a pencil-case.  With retrospect if I had had any idea how tough I would find completing such a course whilst working a full-time job there is no way I would have entered into it so merrily.  But if I had truly given it the due consideration such a matter merited that Masters would still be a far off dream, a longer-term goal, whereas now (thank God!) it is over.  My final submission made.  Done.
Second time around my university experience was hugely different from the three years I spent in Durham working towards my BA.  It was a lot less fun, that's for sure.  I no longer lived with fellow students, indeed the sense of camaraderie between those who I was now studying with was nothing like that at my first university.  We saw each other once a week for a couple of hours, but all had very different lives outside of those hours.  University was no longer about parties and drinking.  Indeed, university now seemed to curtail rather than centre around such activities.  Weekends and evenings were no longer times to switch off and enjoy not being in the office; now they were consumed with reading for upcoming lectures and preparing for terrifying seminars in which I would have to present an argument in front of people who seemed to know far more about each subject than I.

Over this summer, as my friends made the most of the meagre sunshine the season bestowed upon London, I shut myself in a library dungeon and read books on civil war and writing a 10,000 word dissertation, wishing more than anything for a seat beside the river and a cold glass of Pimms.  I consumed cake at an alarming rate to get me through the miserable days and crawled home exhausted from work to have to open my notes and begin again as my colleagues flopped in front of a proper dinner and night in front of the TV.  Worst of all I had no time left for London.  No more could I indulge in exploring the city.
Once my dissertation had been handed in however, I found I could finally get back to enjoying London.  I had time once more to potter round markets, to run on Hampstead Heath, to meet friends for leisurely lunches, and  to have the odd much-needed lie-in to recover after a novel night out.  And I loved it.  With the weight of study lifted from my shoulders I could now skip merrily around the city, pottering in and out of my favourite places and finding plenty of new ones.  London, forgive me for forsaking you.  I can only promise you that you will have all my attention now that academia no longer has any claim over me.  I look forward to getting reacquainted in 2012... 

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Slovenly festive blogging

My poor blog has been a little neglected of late.  I blame Christmas, which has crept up on me somewhat this year.  The myth of 'winding down for Christmas' has been a torturous illusion.  No one does that anymore, if they ever did!  The pre-Christmas period has been a whirl of work deadlines, desperate attempts to catch up with friends, too much mulled wine, too many Christmas cards reminding me that I haven't even bought let alone sent any, total failure to buy useful things like wrapping paper, and a whole lot of online shopping as there's no way I'm braving Oxford Street at this time of year.

But now I've made my annual pilgrimage back to the Accidental homestead in the Midlands and am holed up ready to eat and drink until I pass out in a festive coma in front of the Doctor Who Christmas special.  But before I left I did have a wee potter through London's streets in search of some seasonally appropriate trees and lights and decorations.  Some were huge and gaudy, others were tasteful to the point of being barely discernible.

Spot the tree bedecked in simple white fairylights amid the communal gardens and surrounding glares of Bedford Square...

Something a little more obvious and borderline tacky?  Festive lights twinkle above the frantic last-minute shoppers in Covent Garden - disco droplets above 7 Dials:

And enormous baubles suspended above the central market plaza:

But the most lovely holiday decoration of the year, for me, has to be the vast Christmas tree currently standing in St Pancras station, constructed entirely from small Lego bricks.  Reaching up from the busy concourse to the usually more calm second level, the green of the tree and the coloured decorations make  it a rather classier decoration than the Olympic Rings in the background.

Alas, back at the ranch it has just been brought to my attention that there is a cake to be removed from the oven, biscuits to bake, a wreath to assemble (HOW?!) and a tree to trim.  So I shall go and do such necessary Christmas-y things but wish every one of my lovely readers a super break whatever holiday they may be celebrating!  And bad luck to those of you who are slogging on through just another week while a good proportion of the world slacks off for a few days.  Now, what am I supposed to do with this wreath?

Friday, 16 December 2011

Finding one's place in the big city and finding the people who make you want to stay there

Life in the big city is anonymous and unfriendly. So say many people who don't live in cities, so do a few who do. I have had friends who came to university here in London who would certainly endorse that statement. Yet I would contend it depends entirely on which area of a city in which you are. Many of London's more commercial areas would be odd places to live. When househunting I looked at a flat (well, dark dungeon beneath a pub actually) in Clerkenwell which I rejected mostly on the revelation that this busy daytime area was almost deserted during weekends, when the office-workers were not at their desks. As my hunt went on I realised that my new flat needed to be in an area where I could feel part of real, 24-hour London life. Somewhere I could be part of a proper community.

And so I came to live in Holloway.  Well, actually in a sort of grey, no-man's land between Holloway and Tufnell Park, but as I am safely within easy reach of Her Majesty's Prison Holloway let's call it Holloway.  My street is the sort of street on which people wash cars at weekends.  (No word of a lie, someone was even sponging away to a radio blasting 'Car Wash' by Rose Royce last week, which made me smile.)  Neighbours clutching newspapers and shopping lean on railings to chat about local goings on, while their dogs do their own catching up, sniffing and tail-wagging.  The church at the end of the road hosts a decorous tea dance one day and an extravagant Ethiopian wedding the next.  

Round the corner lies the Holloway Road, which never sleeps, and not just in terms of the traffic that uses this key artery as a route in and out of London.  Even in the darkest, sleepiest hour of the night people stagger along the pavements or slumber on metal benches.  Late-night kebab shops sell styrofoam boxes of unidentifiable meat to bar-goers who are too drunk to care what they are eating.
By day the road buzzes from the minute that McDonalds opens for McMuffin-purveying business.  It is peopled by stall-holders, shoppers, children trailing along behind their parents, cyclists, runners, coffee-drinkers and tramps drunkenly dozing on benches before 10 o'clock in the morning.  A mixture of high street stores share the commercial floorspace with independently run, uniquely local establishments, including the splendid Selby's; a one-off department store with an excellent kitchenware department and a hidden branch of Cafe Nero in which I have passed many Saturday mornings working on university assignments.

People greet those they recognise, often they greet those they don't.  On the whole they're a friendly bunch in N7.  In shops, assistants offer genuine assistance rather than the customary sneer and disinterest in attaining customer satisfaction.  After I had bought a vast, heavy box of cookware from Selby's the charming lady who rang it through the till offered to call me a cab to make sure I got my purchase safely home.  I recently ordered my new bathroom floor (having spent the last month stripping both the hideous old tiles from the floorboards and the first layer of skin from my hands in the process) from a business which has been run from Holloway for 51 years.  Not once was I patronised when I ambitiously talked about laying it myself, nor was I chivied or sighed at whilst I spent an eternity comparing samples and changing my mind about which option I wanted.  'Seeing as how I was just round the corner' the fitters even kindly agreed to get it all in by Christmas.  The perks of being a local!

Holloway, if one was to be brutally honest, is not the most charming of London's areas when it comes to its architecture or greenery.  It is an ecclectic mix of large terraced houses and even larger, bleak-looking council blocks, shameful post-war offices and modern geometric education buildings.  The small parks which exist are not going to win any horticultural medals any time soon.  It is clearly the people with whom I now share this place who make it such an interesting and enjoyable place to live.
During the riots over the summer, Holloway was surrounded by neighbouring areas that witnessed looting and rampaging youths.  Yet within our little area there was an unexpected aura of calm, a feeling that any approaching violence would not be able to cross our invisible postcode boundary line.  There was a powerful feeling of community repelling any form of threat to our shared security; a sort of shield around the houses and blocks of flats, around the businesses and the people who ran them.  Twitter was alive with messages between strangers who were advising each other of the best way to return home to the area, and people happily and proudly reporting the lack of any trouble.  A local 'HollowayGossip' tweeter even began coordinating the plans for a post-riot street party for the whole community.

Whilst I am all too aware that a vast city full of strangers can be an oddly lonesome place to live and work, from my time in London I have certainly learnt that it is the people rather than the buildings and infrastructure who make a city.  Whether they make it fun or dull, fast-paced or desperately slow, friendly or scary, their individual energies and attitudes alter each area, and thus every new inhabitant's experiences within them.  Two years ago, when I first contemplated searching for a new flat I would have not known where Holloway even was in London.  If someone had described it to me I think I would not have thought it sounded very appealing.  But someone asked me a few months back if I could choose to live anywhere in the city, exorbitant housing costs aside, where I would live, and I thought long and hard before replying, 'Here.  Where I am now - Holloway.'  And I really meant it.  

Monday, 5 December 2011

Crazies and school kids: The Accidental Londoner's Taxonomy of Bus-Riders

I take the bus to and from work every day.  Whether I am late to arrive at the office or early home in the evening is entirely influenced by Transport for London's scheduling of the No. 29 bus.  Thus whether I spend the entire day in a good or foul mood is similarly determined by my bus experiences.  And even if the buses themselves run on time, my fellow travellers can also have an impact on my journey.  With this in mind, and in the wake of numerous articles which have appeared in the last few weeks about different types of tube-rider, I present 'The Accidental Londoner's Taxonomy of Bus-Riders'!   

The Worker: This is probably the largest species of bus-rider in London.  The worker carries a large handbag or briefcase, out of which some produce a sizeable novel, usually a paperback bestseller, which they read whilst one hand clutches a greasy handrail.  Occasionally their hands contain instead a papery take-away cup of coffee or a newspaper (never a broadsheet though - no room to stretch out and read it).  The Worker's coat is usually smart and dark, their hair neatly styled.  The Worker likes to scowl a lot, often at their fellow passengers.  Of an early morning they look in no particular hurry to reach their workplaces, but by the evening they look far keener to end their journey.

The School Kid: This species will only be encountered by most commuters in the earlier part of the day.  Each School Kid looks almost identical to its fellows, cladding itself in a standard outfit; a dark blazer and trousers or skirt with a single colour accent.  Such standard outfits vary between the different London habitats; in some western or central regions a straw hat or ridiculous-looking knickerbockers may be worn.  Younger members of this species may be accompanied by Parents or Workers, whilst older members move in packs.  The shriek of a School Kid is a piercing sound, and may be heard the length of a bus as an individual communicates with their fellows of the species.

The Parent: The Parent can often be identified by the buggy they wheel, the School Kids they chaperone and the perpetually stressed look they wear.  They use the bus as a location for their child-rearing, education and feeding activities.  Their small charges provide a running commentary on the species activity in the bus; 'Mummy, that man smells.  Why is  that lady on her phone shouting so loudly?  That man's hair looks funny.  Why is it taking so long to get home?'      

The Student: The Student is an evolved School Kid.  They travel with a companion or two and loudly discuss the frivolities they got up to the night before.  The Student is a somewhat scruffy bus-riding species.  The Student carries large bags of books, yet they never open a single one on the bus.  Instead they tap away on a Blackberry device, or communicate with other Students via their iPhones.  Typically, as they yap at one another or plug their ears with headphones from which thump repetitive dance beats, they appear to have little regard for their fellow travellers.

The Tramp: This oft malodorous passenger is probably the only bus-rider with no desire to reach a destination.  They are happy to ride the bus round and round its route, due to its presenting them with a warm, dry place to spend a few hours.  The Tramp usually travels heavy, filling the floor by their feet and at least one seat next to them with shopping bags and bin liners stuffed with their possessions.  This induces many glares from their fellow travellers.  The Tramp never feels their wrath however as they are usually asleep.

The Driver's Friend: The Driver's Friend hops on to the bus and immediately causes havoc for other embarking passengers.  Pausing at the driver's window, and thus in front of where a bus-rider is supposed to pay, the Driver's Friend proceeds on a long social chat, catching up on gossip and personal news as other riders attempt to squeeze past them and swipe their Oystercards.  As the driver sets off along their route once more, the Driver's Friend hangs onto the handrail by the front door, conversing loudly with their friend.  Despite loitering by the Oystercard reader, this bus-rider rarely pays for their trip.

The Tourist: This breed of bus-rider is most commonly spotted during the daytime, rather than prime commuting hours.  They are the least confident of bus passengers, embarking with hesitation and usually a three minute chat with the driver about whether or not they are going to Lie-sesster Square.  The Tourist sports a vibrant coat and plumage, favouring clashing luminous garments of flammable material.  Once seated they survey their fellow passengers with interest - they are probably wishing they had a copy of The Accidental Londoner's Taxonomy of Bus Riders with which to identify the species they encounter - and remark loudly to one another on the landscape through which the bus passes.  (All London bus-rider species are united in a common disdain for the Tourist.)

The Crazy:  The Crazy is a combative species; they love nothing more than a fight with another bus-rider, physical or verbal.  Merely catching their eye is enough to induce a rambling diatribe which may be offensively sexist, racist or ageist.  Simply brushing past them can encourage them to leap from their seats and start shoving other passengers around. Fortunately however, this bus-rider is fairly rare, and is not commonly found on more central or wealthy bus routes, but they should be avoided at all costs if you seek a peaceful journey.

To be continued...(all suggestions for species to appear in the Accidental Londoner's Taxonomy of Bus-Riders, Volume 2 gratefully received!)

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The man on the platform

As I stepped off the Tube and headed for the exit I saw him.  A fifty or sixty-something man in a suit, carefully placing his belongings in a pile and then lying down beside them on the ground.  By the time I reached him there were only a handful of other people on the platform.  Plenty more had already walked past him, oblivious to this man sprawled on the floor, with his arms over his head, clearly in some pain and distress.

Two young women were hovering near the man, asking tentatively if he was ok. This was a question that did not need an answer.  'Should I call an ambulance?' one asked him.  He nodded weakly, his face white and sweaty.  I returned to the platform where a station attendant was changing the posters along the platform; 'Excuse me, there's a gentleman here who needs some medical help.'  He finished struggling with his papery task and headed over to join our little huddle on the now empty platform.  The two women dashed off to dial up the emergency services, whilst the attendant adopted a facial expression which indicated he had clearly seen this all before.  Getting down on the ground next to the man he established the man's name and the fact he had a heart condition, rearranged him into the recovery position, and radio-ed upstairs to alert the rest of the station's staff.
As the attendant spoke into his crackly radio and shortly departed for the ground level control room, I was left with the poor man, crouched on the cold, dusty station floor, trying to keep him in the recovery position as he rolled backwards and forwards clutching his chest.  I talked to him, trying to calm him down, explaining why he needed to try and stay still and why we could not do any more to alleviate his pain until the trained medical professionals arrived.  He told me where he had been and where he lived, gasping out his words as he fought for breath.  For several minutes we two people were alone on the platform, and then another train pulled in.  Blocking the exit as we were, numerous commuters hustled towards us, most of whom gave neither of us a second glance - this older gentleman in what now looked like severe pain, and this young girl who knelt by him probably looking rather terrified.  Someone asked if we'd called an ambulance or if we needed any help, but the majority of people swept past keen to get home to their warm houses, where no stranger in distress threatened their comfort.  

Time crept by as I and the man awaited the paramedics.  Another train-load of people passed us by, some trampling a little too close for my own personal safety, rubber-necking but unwilling to take any responsibility for what they saw before them.  Then silence again.  A minute or two later I heard a radio crackle, and two paramedics dressed in green arrived, all jolly and jokey.  'Hello!  Who have we got here? Is he your dad?' one asked me.  I admitted that until about twenty minutes ago I had never seen this chap before in my life.  Once the paramedics were there however I breathed a sigh of relief.  Here were people used to dealing with strangers in need, something I most certainly was not.  The tension in the tunnel dispersed, as the paramedics conducted tests, joked about the man's luck at being found by 'such a pretty good samaritan', extracted further information from the man and stabilised him.  Despite his protests that he would rather spend a couple more hours lying on the floor of the station, the paramedics, now aided by two more colleagues, hoisted the man into an e-vac chair and pushed him towards the elevator. They picked up their large crash bags and I gathered up the neat pile of belongings which he had deposited when he was first taken ill.  'Ooh thanks! You'd be amazed how many times things like that get left behind.' laughed the paramedics as I placed them in the back of the ambulance once we were above ground once more.

'Thank you' the man said as the doors of the ambulance closed on him.  Once he had got his breath back down in the station he had repeated it over and over.  'Don't worry about it. It's no problem!' I'd said, and smiled in what I hoped was a reassuring way, that didn't convey how unsettled I had been by the whole incident.  What I didn't say to the man was 'When we were alone in the tunnel I hoped you wouldn't die because I wouldn't know what to do.'  I didn't say the thing that haunted me afterwards as I walked home, which was 'One day that might be me on that floor'.  As a sufferer of migraines that leave me half blind and unable to speak properly, I have often worried about what would happen if one struck on the Underground.  And maybe that was partly why I stopped to help the man, in the hope that my actions might accrue some karma points that I might need to cash in sometime.  If I were to collapse in a subway station I would want someone to stop and find out what was wrong, to get me help and to stay with me. I would want someone to find out who I was.  I would want them to make sure my coat and handbag were not just abandoned on the platform, but came with me when I left.  I would want more than anything not to be alone.  And that was the main reason I could not just walk on by, because being alone somewhere in a city where there are hundreds and thousands of people all around you is somehow so much scarier than being alone in a place where you are truly on your own. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Accidental Eats: Pizza at Franco Manca in Brixton Market

A shortish post today (but who knows, maybe it could be the first in an Accidental series on city eateries...) on a rather lovely place to eat.  I am, a year on from my move into my first flat, a well-established North London gal.  I feel rather about Hampstead Heath as I once did the Thames when I lived in Putney, and cannot bear the thought of not having it within easy strolling distance whenever I chose.  So I am at a complete loss when I venture into certain South London areas.  Brixton, for example.  Brixton for me for a long time was simply the place one went to for gigs, at the slightly scummy but atmospheric Academy.  You took the tube to Brixton station, nipped through the streets to the Academy, watched a band or two, and hurtled home.  (Occasionally there might be an additional detour in which one repairs to Speedy Noodle for some post-gig take-away, however let me prevent anyone else making the mistake we did and assuming that their service as well as their Noodle was speedy...slowest chips in London.)  

When the Accidental Ex-boyfriend announced he was buying a flat in South London I had a hope that my ignorance of places 'sarf of tha river' was about to be rectified, and so it seems it was.  After a visit to what will become his new local cinema (the Brixton Ritzy, not too shabby but it's no Curzon), the Accidental Ex escorted my starving self to Franco Manca, in Brixton Market.  Whilst the rest of the market was all closed up, metal shutters padlocked down, and shop or stall lights all extinguished, a couple of small restaurants were still doing business as we wandered through the darkened, chilly space.  A tiny pizza place straddled the walkway through the market, with half its serving space and half its seating on either side, and a flurry of waitstaff hurtling between clusters of munching patrons.

We both ordered the special meat pizza of the day, which came loaded with pancetta and aubergines and perfectly salty mozarella.  Franco Manca's legendary sourdough base, which is much raved about among the London pizzeratti, was, I am happy to report, spectacularly tasty.  Service was speedy and efficient, and we were brought a wonderfully fresh and interesting salad to accompany our pizzas - no pre-packaged leaves here.  I ordered a homemade lemonade and was brought a large stoppered glass bottle full of cloudy, citrussy goodness, all to myself.  I was instantly restored by food (I am like a small child when it comes to feeding times - liable to sulk or strop if they do not happen regularly), and very content to sit outside in the eerie, empty market under the gratifyingly cosy heaters.  Franco Manca was the perfect post-cinema pizza place; although its not open every evening so check in advance or swing by for lunch rather than dinner.  If you ever find yourself peckish in Brixton, go!  (I'm afraid I was too hungry to spend time taking a photo of my delicious supper, so you'll just have to go and see what it looks like for yourself...)

Franco Manca
Unit 4, Market Row, Brixton, London, SW9 8LD

Franco Manca on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Accidental Visits: The Grant Museum of Zoology

I had a rare afternoon off work a week or two ago.  The weather was grey and grizzly otherwise I might have been tempted to stroll across town and do some damage to my bank account with a shopping spree.  Instead my desires leaned toward sitting on my sofa, with the central heating on, watching an undemanding film.  But no, I told myself, I should make more of this city in which I reside, and spend my spare time exploring its delights.  And so I seized upon the opportunity to do something I could never do at any other time.  As I had trudged to and fro from my college in Bloomsbury over the past two years in pursuit of my Masters I had noticed an enticing sign: Grant Museum of Zoology, open weekdays between 1 and 5pm.  I had longed for those two years to visit, but the opening hours were totally useless for anyone with a job.  But why my desperation to look at pickled things in jars?  

Between finishing at school and starting my undergraduate degree I took a gap year, like many of my friends.  But I eschewed the typical option of working in an orphanage or teaching English as a foreign language somewhere.  Full moon parties on the beaches of Thailand or backpacking across Europe held no appeal for me either.  Instead I headed for a large island in the Indian Ocean, to work as a research assistant on a species survey expedition, in a large forest along a river in southwest Madagascar.  Out there we were taught how to set traps, how to check them and how to identify and classify the creatures we found within them.  We were informed of the importance of taking specimens (one male and female from each species that we discovered), and thus taking two lives to be able to save hundreds or thousands more.  Even with the knowledge that we were acting for the greater good, taking specimens was not a comfortable experience.  Yet with practice it became easier and by the time we returned to the UK we had filled and meticulously labelled numerous jars of formalin with lizards, chameleons, mice, snakes and frogs.  We also had a bloody good laugh and my months spent in the forest hold many happy memories for me, yet it made me something of a specimen geek, hence my fascination for zoology museums.

So off I went, that grey afternoon.  The museum itself - with wonderful free admission - is housed in a single large room, and I initially thought I would probably be in and out within 20 minutes or so.  Yet once inside, and engaged in peering into the glass cabinets and surveying the exhibits within, I realised that one could easily lose oneself for quite some time in this place.  Behind the desk at the entrance a woman sketched a stuffed owl whilst, without looking up, she clicked in each visitor who arrived, counting those who had come to wander round this extraordinary place.
The museum - originally founded in 1827 by Robert Grant, a teacher of Charles Darwin - was recently relocated to its current spot, at 21 University Street, where it is now housed in a former medical library.  Many fixtures of the old library still remain, the shelves and cabinets provide wonderful storage facilities for the thousands of specimens in their glass jars and pots.  The library stretches over two floors as well - although the museum is only held on the ground floor - and the second floor is still lined with bookshelves, filled with bound books, and from whence a jaunty collection of large skeletons (one human) peer down on the visitors below.  In one corner, hidden behind the display cases, a small staff sits tapping away at computers, identifying, cataloguing and curating the collection.

The museum holds around 67,000 specimens from the many phyla of the animal kingdom.  There are fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and even corals.  An enormous rhinoceros skeleton may be the largest exhibit on display but in contrast on tiny glass slides you can also spy minute jellyfish the size of a newborn baby's little fingernail.  Some jars contain multiple specimens, like a large pot of starfish or a bottle of pickled pig embryos.  The shelves look like a peculiar sweet-shop, with the most grisly and intriguing of confectionery for sale.  I was particularly fascinated by a cross-section of a shark egg, with a tiny baby shark curled up inside, and a Suriname toad preserved in the process of giving birth to its babies, which peculiarly burst forth from its back and swim straight off into the water in which it chooses to spawn.  There were some slightly disturbing pickled cross-sections of the much loved family pets, Felis catus and Canis familiaris, and a sweet little otter whose silky fur floated around him as he snoozed in his glass jar.  There were plenty of taxidermy specimens alongside the pickled ones, my favourite being a rather over-stuffed platypus who was balding in patches like a much-loved soft toy. 
Above are a small sample from some of the marine and river-dweller cupboards.  On the left you have sea-mice (actually a kind of segmented worm, known as an annelid) with wonderful holographic bristles, which really do glow and shine as the photo suggests.  And you can, as the label on top of their jar indicates, adopt your favourite pickled friends.  It would make quite a Christmas present: "Oh, a preserved jar of sea cucumbers, just what I always wanted!"  Over on the right is a fishy fellow, who is either very jaunty and friendly-looking or deeply creepy; I'm not quite sure, but I think maybe creepy with that single scary, preserved beedy eye watching you.
Many of the specimens seem somewhat muted in colour as they float in pickled suspension.  Others have been treated with an alizarin preparation which renders soft tissue clear and stains hard organs red; examining these specimens of frogs or fish is like looking at them in an x-ray machine.  The museum also boasts a rare collection of glass models of snails and fish and other animals, which date back to the nineteenth century.  Anatomically accurate as well as rather pretty they are a nice reminder of the close relationship between science and art.  

I passed a happy hour marvelling at the wonders of our natural world, and I wondered where the specimens that I helped gather had ended up.  Our work in Madagascar was undertaken for several zoological partners, including the WWF, and many specimens may have ended up in sealed systems hidden miles away from the general public, but maybe a rare tuft-tailed mouse or a particularly fine skink might grace these wonderful shelves one day and inspire a new generation to spend their gap year living in a forest in the middle of nowhere gathering specimens to identify a new creature or two and to save many thousands more.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Wear and tear: London's appetite for my wardrobe

When I moved to London I anticipated I might have to make some sacrifices.  There would be no more driving around in my beloved car, no more living rent-free in my parents' large, comfortable house with its lovely, green garden.  Work hours would probably be longer and places I wanted to visit would be busier.  I would have to give up fresh air and clear skin, and make my peace with a string of colds (ooh and Swine Flu) caught on unhygienic public transport.  What I had not been prepared to sacrifice were my clothes.  

London is quite literally destroying my wardrobe.  Since I have lived in this city my poor clothes are being damaged, eaten up and worn out at a surprising speed.  No items are safe - tights, coats, jackets, jumpers, skirts.  This city, aided by some of its inhabitants, is slowly devouring them all. London's streets, buses and tubes, even bars and clubs, are site of sartorial sabotage. I know that one should expect a little wear and tear over time but it is not unknown for a brand new item of clothing to not even pass a single day unscathed in this city.
Hosiery has been my most vulnerable clothing category, and buses have been their Waterloo. Random screws sticking out of seats, the zips of other commuters' jackets, and worse of all exposed velcro have all claimed fresh deniers mere minutes after they had been worn out the front door. Wet, dripping, unfurled umbrellas are my poor leg-cladding's nemesis; so many spikey spokes.

Jackets and coats too have been similarly harassed by other people's errant accessories. I recently seethed for an entire afternoon, cursing the woman who could not be bothered to do up the flapping metal buckle on her handbag that caught my beloved boucle jacket, and pulled out a large woolly knot. I have stared down mothers of flailing children, cringeing away from their sticky fingers and carelessly flamboyant colouring-in (felt-tip pens have no place on a bus!) to protect my beloved black wool coat, purchased at mind-bending expense from Ted Baker with the express purpose of making me look well-groomed and sophisticated, not well-thumbed by jammy-fingered sprogs.

I cannot count the pairs of shoes which have succumbed to the city, soles worn through by the harsh, abrasive pavements. I have become intimately acquainted with an excellent cobbler who patiently repairs worn heels and scuffed toes. He is a resurrecting shoe-doctor, coaxing a few extra weeks or months of life out of my dying footwear.

Even at home, where due to my ongoing flat decoration scheme (current end-date expected: 2020), most of my clothes reside on a large, ugly metal frame rack, they are not safe. Lepidoptera are out to get my wardrobe too. A gorgeous Diane von Furstenburg jumper I picked up for a song at Bloomingdale's in New York was the one thing in my chest of drawers that moths munched their way through.  Expensive tastes, these moths.  Actually that's not quite true; they also seem to like the taste of my tea towels, but as I don't tend to wear those out and about very often this bothers me less.

Somedays - on the rare days I leave the house feeling rather well-dressed as opposed to not caring what I look like as I am late, late, late - I wish I could travel through the streets of the city in a protective bubble, bouncing away those people and items of street furniture which threaten my look.  A simple, private chaufer-driven car would be bliss...

Should I give in and succumb to a wardrobe of stains, tears and holes in beautiful clothing, or should I begin to shop with an eye for the functional and damage-proof?  Heart-breaking though it is to witness one's much loved items become eaten up by the city, I still cannot bring myself to give in and buy clothes that are so sensible and ugly that I don't even care whether they are destroyed or not.  But I must not to get too sentimental.  Clothes are of course just material things.  These days, with fast fashion, eBay and chain stores everywhere, even if a much-loved item is damaged you can usually find a replacement somewhere.  And that means an excuse to go shopping - every cloud has a silver lining! 

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Occupy London, St Paul's

There's a lot of occupying going on at the moment.  First Wall Street in Manhattan was invaded by those protesting at the staggeringly unequal societal distribution of wealth.  They identified themselves as 'the 99%', in contrast to the richest 1% of the American population who have continued to profit whilst the economic downturn has affected the majority of the nation.  The location of the first 'Occupy' site was chosen for its proximity to one of the global powerhouses of wealth generation, albeit for a handful of individuals.  Wall Street has been an icon of money and Western capitalism for years, and now has taken on a new symbolism as a site of resistance.

Watching the USA's protest, London (and many other locations across the world) desired to get in on the act, and on 15th October 2011, Occupy London was born.  The London movement claims it is protesting against the bank bail-out, ongoing cuts to government spending in the name of austerity, social inequality and unemployment.  Unable to camp directly on the doorsteps of the City offices in which work those whose economic activity so angers the protesters, tents were flung up on the square in front of St Paul's Cathedral, surprising tourists on holiday and bankers on their way to work alike.
And so they remain currently.  However, due to the lack of soft ground to peg the tents in to - concrete paving slabs must be mighty uncomfortable to sleep or sit on too - some of the tents have a slight list to them; rather as if they've passed a week anchored to a blowy mountainside, and a passing sheep has made off with the odd peg and guy-rope.

The Occupy protesters seemed to be mostly within their tents when an Accidental chum and I visited their encampment one evening after work.  We both instantly felt rather self-conscious in our work clothes, afraid our smart attire might suggest our sympathies lay with the loathed 1%.  Typical attire of the protesters was, appropriately, camping gear.  Those we could see were clad in fleeces, cagoules, walking boots and woolly hats.  On a plaintive sign asking for donations of camp supplies 'thick socks' featured near the top of the wanted items list.

Within seconds of our arrival at the site, both the Accidental chum and I were struck by how organised the whole exercise was.  This was not a campsite run by amateurs, but by those who were well-schooled and practiced in the art of demonstration.  (In fact I had a distinct feeling of being back on a school camping trip in the rainy Forest of Dean aged 13 as I looked around.  Now, where does one sign up for rock-climbing?)  There were posters tacked to huge stone pillars explaining why the occupiers were there; other hand-written treatises were strung on ropes fluttering above the camp, like angry, wordy washing on a line.  There were schedules for what was going on that day; meetings, talks, discussions and even music sessions.  A particularly roomy tent housed an upright piano around which protestors were jiggling up and down to a jolly sing-a-long.  There were signs on particular tents designating them as having a particular purpose within the camp.  There was a medical tent, a counseling and therapy tent, a general information tent, even a library tent jokingly named 'Starbooks', as a nod towards one of the evil multinational organisations against which protests in the face of capitalism and globalisation are constantly being held.  Starbucks however, a branch of which sits opposite the site, has taken the higher moral ground in allowing the earliest protestors to use its cafe's lavatories until a couple of blue and white portaloos were established among the tents.

One of the greatest controversies surrounding the Occupy protest has been the manner in which St Paul's Cathedral has become so much more than simply a backdrop to the camp.  As the number of tents and protestors grew they began to present an obstacle for tourists keen to visit the cathedral.  After a few days the decision was taken to close the doors of the cathedral, sealing it up against the encampment, and the tourists' entry fees, outside.  The response of the Church of England's clerics has been heavily scrutinised and criticised, despite many of them extending a thoroughly Christian hand towards those protesting, even sympathising with their struggle.  Senior Church of England clerics, including the Dean of St Paul's, have felt under pressure to resign their posts, which has created much debate amongst religious leaders, politicians, protestors and the public.  Whether this protest is really a matter in which religion should have become involved, by its choice of location St Paul's has been unwittingly dragged into a complex social debate.  And, even closed, this building - an icon of the city - looms strong and proud above the camp.  In the years since it was built, this cathedral has seen it all.  It can be closed and darkened, the people can be removed from within, yet, like the protestors beneath, it will not be moved.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

St Pancras International: A station reborn

When the Accidental Father was a small boy, many moons ago, he and a similarly be-shorted school-friend used to pass many happy days hopping between Kings Cross and St Pancras rail stations, trainspotting.  The two train stations are united by a common underground stop, with subways facilitating the transfer from one to another; providing a highspeed trainspotting transfer route, if you will.  However after the recent heavy redevelopment of both stations, trainspotters have become lesser spotted.  St Pancras station, redeveloped first, has becoming a surprising icon of the city, or if that's taking it too far, a rather popular location in the city, given that it is 'just' a train station.  A train station which has risen from the ashes more than once, avoiding demolition in the 1960s, and decrepitude in the years that followed.

On the completion of its £800 million refurbishment in 2007, St Pancras became home to the Eurostar train service, making it an international station, and allowing passage from London to the rest of Europe on a single train.  The new station is undeniably majestic.  A stunning, high barrel roof with hundreds of glass panes, allows in swathes of sunshine (when the city's weather sportingly obliges).  Two layers of trains contribute to the bustle and activity within the terminus. Were it not for the quiet and unsatisfyingly steam-free trains one could easily imagine billowing smoke, and glamorous strangers in trench coats and homburg hats with a folded newspaper tucked under their arms meeting for assignations and affairs.
The lower concourse of the station contains the sorts of shopping and eating venues that make you long for a delayed train, so that you have time to browse and graze.  There are civilised and charming (rather than simply the bland and ubiquitous Costa and Starbucks) places to drink coffee and eat cake.  Lunch need not be a limp sandwich and a bag of Walkers crisps here.  There are freshly-made salads and tartines to munch, or, if you're feeling flush, even oysters at the station's own champagne bar.  You can pick up the perfect gift for whoever you may be travelling to see, or re-buy whatever crucial piece of luggage you have left behind.  

The station is home to several pieces of artwork, some of which were loathed instantly on installation.  Paul Day's 9 foot high, bronze sculpture of an embracing couple was criticised endlessly, famously by Antony Gormley. It is not the most subtle of art pieces, and sadly it just does not do justice to this beautiful old space, which has otherwise effected its rebirth with great style. Less offensive is the bronze of Sir John Betjeman, who stands marvelling at the station's staggering roof. Suspended high above the station's trains, in anticipation of next year's sporting festival, currently dangles an enormous set of Olympic rings.  (At least they're better than the awful logo.)

And there is now of course also a suitably glamorous hotel for the secret assignations of the homburg hat-wearers, or just an excellent cocktail for the weary Londoner.  I took the Accidental Father here for supper one evening when he was in town, and lost him to his younger self.  I finally found him, snapping away with his camera-phone, at a series of brass plaques on the roof supports.  Forty or so years on he could tell me the date they bore without looking.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Drinks and drama at The W Hotel and the Harold Pinter Theatre

A serious joy of living in London is that there are so many utterly fabulous places a mere over-stuffed tube ride away from you.  One vows to spend evenings in glamourous bars and days pottering around educative art galleries, or take spontaeous trips to festivals or feted restaurants.  But then one gets a mortgage, faints on checking one's bank statement and never leaves the house.  I wander past gorgeous twinkly-lit windows inside which beautiful people sup champagne and think, I must go there some day.  Rarely do I ever get round to it.  Rarely, but not never.

The other night the Accidental Ally (remember her? She keeps me sane at work and is wonderfully up for accompanying me on many mad adventures...) and I went to the theatre, as we are occasionally wont to do.  We started out theatre-going with a trip to see 'The Little Dog Laughed' one night when there was nothing on at the cinema we fancied seeing.  (Bloody hilarious, Tamsin Greig was outstanding - a real show-stealer.)  And driven by a deep respect and awe for the utterly stylish and fabulous Kristen Scott-Thomas, we recently saw Betrayal which was also excellent.  Although on that occasion our last-minute sprint through Leicester Square, scattering gormless tourists, to make the first act did not ensure a particularly decorous start to that evening.

The other night however we had learnt our lesson, and thus pitched up with three-quarters of an hour to spare at the Harold Pinter Theatre.  The HPT was until recently called the Comedy Theatre, which we thought was a little prescriptive; probably wise to change the name to allow them to stage some totally unamusing plays as well.  As we skirted the eye-searingly bright M&M World (just what on earth can they cover 5 floors with?  And don't say M&Ms - I simply don't believe you can get that much mileage out of a tiny chocolate pebble), we caught sight of a large letter 'W' picked out in fat light bulbs which were slowly shifting colour.
'Ah, so that's where the W Hotel is.' said the Accidental Ally, 'Doesn't it look  pretty?'.  I murmured an assent before suggesting we add it to our ever-extending list of Things We Must Do.  'Well, do we have time to go now?  Quick glass of vino pre-theatre?'.  I needed no further encouragement.  We swept past the security guards - who actually smiled as they welcomed us, rather than curling their lip in the standard doorman reception - and entered a black, shiny lobby.  Save a sign towards a function room and a bank of lifts there was absolutely nothing in the hall.  No reception desk, no receptionist behind it, no 'How can I help you?'.  Apart from those which slide open to reveal a lift that looked like the inside of a padded cell decorated by Liberace, there were not even any discernible doors in the lobby.  We headed for a lift and rode up to the first floor, startled when the our elevator car shook, juddered, stalled then heaved itself upwards.  We were glad to emerge out into a silvery space, so mirrored it was hard to tell where the room actually ended.  A waterfall of disco-balls cascaded down from the ceiling directly in front of us.  We looked around ourselves and spotted an end to the mirrors.  Passing along a corridor with yet more mirrors on one side and low tables and chairs in front of shelves stuffed with pristine hardback books and plates with odd-looking faces on the other, we found ourselves in a glittering bar.

The clientele was decidedly moneyed, many of them of the Euro-smoothie persuasion.  Both business and pleasure seemed to be in full swing.  A thirty-something guy playing with his iPhone swivelled on a high stool up at the bar, a bottle of champagne and a single glass in front of him.  Suits clinked glasses of red wine, and tourists in jeans and jackets nudged their backpacks under their tables as their eyes scanned around the room.  The Ally and I took our own glasses of wine to one of the low tables and watched the black-clad wait-staff slide up and down the sleek corridors.  We gossiped about a certain A-list actor whom the Accidental Ally knew back in drama school, and she regaled me with tales from her own days of treading the boards.  When curtain up at the Harold Pinter Theatre was only ten minutes away we drained our glasses and I had a brief terrifying moment in the toilets, as the omnipresent mirrors struck yet again, transforming the washroom into a fun fair's House of Mirrors ride, trapping me within.  Fortunately the lift behaved itself on the way down, and we were soon back out in the whirl of Leicester Square, wishing our whistle-stop wine stop could have been longer.   

And then we went to the theatre to see 'Death And The Maiden'.  The play itself is a thought-provoking effort - a tale of human rights abuse in an anonymous Latin American country - and I left endlessly turning over what had really happened in my head.  The two male actors were splendid, even if I spent a large portion of the play trying to work out where I recognised them from (Doctor Who and Midsomer Murders apparently).  But Thandie Newton, making her West End debut...oh dear.  There were moments during the performance when I had to poke the Accidental Ally as Ms Newton's am-dram melodrama induced in her endless fits of inappropriate giggles.  Reviews have expressed a hope that Newton will grow into the role she plays as the performance continues its run, and maybe she will.  The disappointed (but much amused) Ally summed up as we headed home: "Tis a shame.  I was ready to be blown away by old Thandie but my own brother managed a better performance as a Scottish housewife in a school play aged 9."  We vowed that on our next theatre trip we would avoid the Hollywood A-listers...unless they happened to be hanging out in the W Hotel bar.  

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Up on the roof

Whilst London may not have the skyscrapers of New York or many newer Asian cities, its skyline is still rather a striking thing to behold.  And despite not having vast towers to climb for the perfect vista out over the city, one can still find a satisfying viewpoint in many places.  Roof terraces and gardens perched atop clubs, bars and restaurants, even occasionally above office buildings, will do the job perfectly.  Sometimes even a glass-walled meeting room can supply a panorama.  From a height several floors above the ground one can see iconic buildings like the Shard, which although not yet finished is already dominating many of the city's views.  The one feature of this city you can see wherever you are however is roofs; terracotta tiles, sheet metal, slate, chrome and glass.  Some are simple flat rooflines, while others are heavily detailed with ornate adornments - a grimacing gargoyle here, a swinging weather-vane there.
Some of the rooftops are famed landmarks; churches, museums, government buildings.  The roofs of Big Ben and the House of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey can all be spied from the panoramic restaurant of the National Portrait Gallery.  Against a backdrop of swirling, yellow-grey snow they are at their most dramatic.  Thanks to the dome of the National Gallery, this London looks oddly Parisian, excepting Nelson and his column, of course.  Roofs are icons.
Other roofs rest atop houses, rather than large offices or heritage buildings.  These roofs form less dramatic shapes, instead tessellating with those either side of them in a jigsaw of slate tiles and pitched angles.  Skylights and dormer windows break up the swathes of grey and orange, adding to the irregular pattern of the roofline.  And of course the omni-present aerial adds further ugly accessories, clustering around chimney pots, snaking up into the sky in search of channel reception; and providing the occasional perch for the equally ubiquitous London pigeon.  Roofs serve man and beast.  
Newer areas of London are still shaping their rooftops.  Cranes shift girders and trusses before metal sheets are slid into place or asphalt is poured.  Industrial roofs which have slowly disintegrated over time are carefully replaced or repaired in trendy Shoreditch, as derelict warehouses become glitzy bars and clubs.  High, high up on a flat roof marked with the letter 'H', a helicopter lands, sits and then later flies away.  Roofs are jumping off points.
Rooftops of old warehouses and factories out in Hackney are a stark contrast to the shiny new stadium of the Olympic Park that emerges behind them; a spiky white skeleton being fitted with its new skin by lanky cranes.  Instead of a single pitching angle this new roof is multiple sharp points like an enlarged lizard's plated collar.  Roofs are organic.
Out here roofs do not merely exist to keep the rain off a building.  They are also artists' canvases, tagged with signatures and skulls wearing party-hats.  Spray-painting onto a roof not only guarantees that the artist's design is seen for miles around, but it serves as a lasting reminder of how fearless the graffiti artists was.  Roofs are art collections.

Yet the most beautiful roofs have to be the uniform rows that cover London's terraces.  I have lived among three such lines of perfect, matching houses since I have lived down here.  Neat batches of chimney pots, an aerial or two per roof and the odd Sky dish perch on these rooftops.  Roofs are home.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Serendipity or the law of averages?

On a recent trip to New York I was casually wandering down a street (on the hunt of the city's best donuts for breakfast) when a vaguely familiar chap cycled towards me.  I dismissed the likelihood I really knew him, given the fact that I was in New York City; bar my family I don't know many people in this densely populated city.  Yet a few metres behind me the bike stopped and the rider called my name.  Peculiarly I had indeed bumped into a former work colleague who had worked for the same company as I but who had been based in its San Francisco office. He was on his daily cycle route to university (he evidently no longer lived in San Francisco) and I was on holiday, visiting family and seeking donuts. Small world eh? I relayed this story to a native New Yorker who responded with a smile; 'That could only have happened in New York', she said. But I'm not sure that's true.

I've had plenty of similar experiences in London. In the last week alone I have bumped into two people I went to school with, one of whom I probably haven't seen in the nine or so years since we left school. I have bumped into colleagues in restaurants, old university mates in bars and had the odd awkward run in with an ex or two in the street.  Just last night the former Accidental flatmate was making me squirm with a tale of an afternoon spent dodging her old boyfriend's flatmate.  One is just as likely to bump into someone random in London as you are New York, and I'll wager Paris, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro...ok, maybe less in Rio, but you get my point.
One isn't even safe from the surprise encounter in one's own bathroom!

So why are we surprised when it happens?  Surely it is less remarkable to bump into someone you do not expect to see in a big city than in a smaller place. Why is it that therefore, despite knowing vaguely that someone lives in the same place as us, we will still produce that high, shrieky 'Oh hi! How weird seeing you here!' when we bump into them in the street?  In a vast population there must be a higher statistical likelihood that we may know our fellow pavement-pounders, gig-goers and frantic post-work beer imbibers.  Maybe we are so wrapped up in our personal networks of people and socialising, which takes complex scheduling and juggling to maintain, busy as we are, that anyone we have not prepared ourselves to see appears as an irregular and surprising interruption.  But in the past a couple of surprise meetings in an unexpected place in this city have led to exciting opportunities, like a spontaneous dinner or a night out.  Those are the sorts of happy encounters which one doesn't mind.  But I wonder how many other chance meetings we narrowly miss, simply by taking a different route to work or going to the supermarket at a particular time.  If we had spent a little more time at home putting on make-up and removing our ugly but oh-so-comfy jumper with the hole in it would we have avoided the excrutiating moment when we bumped into our ex-boyfriend?  Should we, as dwellers who share our city with hundreds and thousands of others, start to expect the unexpected?

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Blog Action Day 2011: Food - Allotment gardening in London

Every year, in an attempt to use our blogging power for good rather than filling the internet with drivel on what we bought at the supermarket/the amusing thing our cat just did, Blog Action Day suggests that bloggers the world over all write a post on the same day inspired by a common issue of global significance.  This year, as Blog Action Day coincides with World Food Day, that theme is food.  So here comes my take on food, with a suitable London slant...

When one thinks of cities and the industries and economic activities that take place within them, agriculture and food production does not leap instantly to mind.  The cultivation of crops is the concern of rural areas, the land of fields and tractors and tiny villages where everyone knows everyone else's business.  Yet plenty of cities, and London is no exception, have urban farms.  From Hounslow to Romford, London's farms vary in size and charm, and given their lack of space tending towards small livestock holdings rather than many acres of cereal crops or large orchards and polytunnels of soft fruit.  These farms therefore do not provide much food for London's inhabitants, although they do offer hours of entertainment for small children and the odd Accidental Londoner with a fondness for fat, furry donkeys missing a bit of rural home.

Yet within the city there are several acres of land which are dedicated to food production, cultivated by Londoners themselves - London's allotments.  Nearly all London's boroughs - bar the most central, densely inhabited areas like Westminster - contain small patches of green land, divided into plots or 'allotments', which can be leased by borough residents via allotment or leisure garden associations.  (Although the councils are the official landlords, they commonly palm off the administrative and operational responsibility onto these associations, run by a voluntary committee.)  Some new housing developments now include allotment space within their designs and plans; this added feature hugely increases their popularity.  With obscene property prices, and the cost of a garden adding many thousands of pounds to a flat or house's price tag, Londoners are keener than ever to obtain coveted leases on allotments to have their own bit of garden somewhere in the city.  Scurrilous rumours abound that obtaining a plot is a cut-throat process of endless waiting lists and suspicious queue-jumping tactics; in my own borough interest is so huge that the waiting list for a local allotment has now been closed due to the ridiculous amount of names already on it.  Yet I have it on good authority, from one involved in overseeing one of these waiting lists, that the system is actually rigorously and fairly adjudicated and no one is allowed access to a plot without undergoing a strict vetting.

But once you have your allotment you can get to work.  These allotments are not the sorts of gardens that one uses simply to sit in and read the paper or to host barbecues in the summer; these are working plots for growing flowers, fruit and vegetables.
A bumper crop of onions grown by a legendary allotment-holder in West London

I remember visiting the Accidental grandparents in London as a child, and finding large canvas bags of dirty potatoes and bright red tomatoes on the end of the kitchen table.  The Accidental Grandfather was a keen allotment-gardener for six decades, renting patches in Ealing and Wimbledon.  He grew violet radishes and salad peppers and peculiar cucumbers that looked like yellow tomatoes, walking-stick cabbages and various frilly or sprouty herbs.  Each season he recorded his planting in a notebook which bulges fat, full of old seed packets and newspaper cuttings on how best to trap disruptive moles.  In the allotment produce show he was the undefeated grower of the allotment's ugliest root vegetable, a proud horticultural title he held for three years, winning each time with the same sinister looking 'thing' which was reburied and dug up each year specially to make its hideous appearance at the show.  What species of vegetable (and I use that term in its loosest sense) the thing actually was remains a mystery of allotment folklore.  

The Accidental Grandfather hugely approves of the allotment system, seeing it as 'a true manifestation of British spirit and optimism in a climate not always the kindest of growing conditions.'  The allotment community he describes sounds wonderfully varied and fascinating.  His fellow allotment holders included a BBC poet with an unruly plot that frequently earned him Council reprimands, a vine-growing, wine-making British army cook from Cyprus, and the heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub, who built a huge and expensive greenhouse on his patch to house his collection of exotic orchids.  The relinquishing of the Accidental Grandfather's final allotment was done sadly a few years ago, when 30 years of rugby and a wartime leaping out of airplanes caught up with him, preventing him from kneeling in the earth to dig his plot.

A work chum (let's call him the Accidental Allotmenteer) currently tends a particularly fine allotment out in West London, from which he and his family produce a fair crop of food, that, weather permitting (this summer has not been kind to many allotment cultivators), can happily satisfy their greengrocery needs.  Many of us Londoners can only dream of this level of self-sufficiency, and the ability to eat our supper safe in the knowledge of exactly where its ingredients came from, and that no horrid chemicals had been used to make them look rounder, fatter, or shinier.  I know from my own minimal attempts to grow carrots and tomatoes on the windowsill of my garden-free flat how satisfying it is to eat something that you have cultivated and tended yourself.  Nothing tastes better than your own invested time and energy.
Alongside (and within) the raised beds, the grow-bags and the trellises, allotments provide habitats for animal as well as vegetable organisms.  Where concrete cities can be inhospitable environments for animal life, expanses of green space can be welcoming havens for insects, amphibians, birds and even small mammals. Some allotments allow the hosting of bee-hives on plots, recognising the reciprocal relationship that animals and plants have had for thousands of years.

The Accidental Allotmenteer, similarly to the Accidental Grandfather, reports a wonderful diversity in his fellow gardeners.  The ages of allotment-renters on his gardens range from twenty-something to eighty.  And he reports an increase in the number of younger people interested in allotment-ing over the past few years, amid the general rise in demand for allotments.  I had assumed the rise in demand for a space to grow food had been linked to the economic crisis and people seeking cheaper food sourcing, however the Accidental Allotmenteer assures me it is actually due to media coverage of allotments, to television programmes proposing them as the hot, must-have urban accessory.  Has growing one's own food become sexy once more?  Is The Good Life becoming popular again?  Or are we returning to a way of life that places value on individual and household sustainability and self-sufficiency in an age of increasing globalisation?  Maybe cities like London, and its allotments, can lead the way in showing other places how to do it.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Oxford Street: Where not to shop in London

I just spent the pricely sum of £3.95 on something I could have had for free, and I am not pleased about it.  Yesterday I pottered down to a branch of a well-known high street brand (*ahem, Zara*) on Oxford Street to visit a gorgeous pair of shoes I had been lusting after for some time. My will-power gave way and I attempted to obtain a pair in the correct size. It went frustratingly badly. I struggled with a shop assistant with a grasp of English which would be classified as basic-to-intermediate at best and a can't-do attitude, and finally left the shop without making my purchase (in the irritating knowledge that somewhere in the shop's understaffed stockroom were my beloved shoes). I then flounced back to the office and purchased said shoes online. The postage and packaging to have them sent to me would cost £3.95. I resolved to abandon my purchase, man up and head back to Oxford Street the next day to buy them directly from the shop. And then I thought, no!  Life is just too short for that sort of frustration.

The sad things is that Oxford Street ('the famous shopping haven' according to the Street's website) has become my least favourite place to shop in the city.  The word 'haven' invokes a relaxing retreat, of calm, pleasure and cocktails being sipped beneath palm-trees.  Not an image that springs to mind as one enters Zara, Topshop or M&S on Oxford Street.  No one who has recently visited the scrum of consumptive lust that is this place could honestly imagine it to be a haven.  From my experience it is only vaguely bearable first thing on a Saturday morning when everyone else is still sleeping off Friday night.  Here 'retail therapy' is a terrifying group session of humiliation and vulnerability held in a dank community centre basement, rather than a peaceful one-on-one consultation on a leather couch in Harley Street.
The home of the flagship stores of numerous British, American and European brands is now geared towards the tourist or professional shopper, not the average Londoner.  Indeed, at any given time the average shopper is likely to be a holiday-maker or, for some reason, endless school-age children ('Why are they not in school?' my inner schoolmarm wonders).  Maybe a desire to cater for the needs of the tourist shoppers is the reason so many Oxford Street shop assistants appear to hail from continental Europe rather than the UK.  For who else, except those on holiday, without work hours prescribing their shopping activities, has the time to commit to the hunt for that dress in that elusive size?  For thousands of shoppers before you will have already emptied the shop of its most common sizes, before there is time for a restock.  You're a dress-size 10/12 with size 6 feet? Forget it! You'll have to go on a tour of nearby French Connections/Warehouses to track down a garment that fits. And if you decide to summon a shop assistant to have them check a stockroom, good luck in trying to identify one, clad as they usually are either all in black or in the very clothes you seek; blending perfectly in with the displays and mannequins.  

Should you bail on a particular shop and attempt to tackle another, you may find the street itself equally angering.  It is simply too full of people, traffic and roadworks; traversing Oxford Street is like wading through treacle. (Even the street's website is a slow, unnavigable headache.) Pavements are clogged with people, with those who've been persistent and lucky enough to actually make a purchase brandishing their shopping bags at ankle injury-inducing level.  The road itself is usually stationary or slow-moving at best.  Taking a bus down Oxford Street is a thoroughly unrewarding experience; snails move faster.  And everyone is all too aware of this fact, hence I was not entirely surprised when I unearthered the following depressing fact: 280 buses go down Oxford Street per hour but only 10% are full to capacity.  What a waste of energy.  Transport for London seems keen to make things worse and is usually digging up some crucial portion of tarmac necessitating temporary traffic lights and single-file flows of vehicles.  

Clearly, there's a reason that the retail development trend is swinging towards the pedestrianised, covered mall or shopping centre, like London's own vast Westfields.  Who knows what will become of Oxford Street as London's shoppers head to these retail meccas instead.  Daunting though these malls can be, with their endless square feet of hangers and racks and rails, at least one isn't likely to be crushed beneath the wheels of an errant bike courier or a number 88 bus, or get stuck behind lost tourists unable to even reach the front door of a shop 20 metres away.  And I shall happily pay the extra transport costs to get out to Westfield if it means a successful shopping trip.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Doth the Londoner protest too much?

The British are not well known for their political protests.  Globally we are better recognised for being polite (although alas this is something of a matter for individual opinion) and self-effacing, for knowing how to stand quietly and tidily in queues.  An inquiry about how someone is (particularly up North) will often be met with 'Mustn't grumble' or 'I can't complain', rather than 'Bloody awful actually', when that might be a more accurate response.  Our default setting is apology.  It's why things take so long to happen here.  It's why simple conversations last hours rather than minutes; it's the 'no, no, after you, please, I insist' effect.

Here in London this pattern breaks down somewhat.  Maybe it is the metropolitan nature of our urban community, the mixture of cultural norms and individual characters, which dilutes our national unwillingness to rock the boat.  Maybe it is simply due to the capital being where politicians and industry leaders, i.e. the source of many political grievances, reside.  In London political protest occurs everyday, both in the form of noisy event-based demonstrations and quieter, although not necessarily any less forceful, permanent resistance efforts. 

This year the student protest against the government's proposed hike in university fees left millions of pound of damage in the city, and alarmed businesses along the protest march route.  My own company now sends emails to all staff alerting them to any expected marches or protests, and alters security arrangements accordingly.  (I don't qualify the recent riots as political protest however; they were more of an illegal citywide supermarket sweep.)  Protests in earlier years, like the G20 march which turned sadly rather nasty, demonstrated the 'fairy ring-like' nature of political action in the city.  Springing up overnight the city is suddenly engulfed in protest for a day or so.  Chaos ensues as roads are blocked, public transport disrupted and police forces appear in force.  And then within 24-48 hours, life goes back to normal.  And the clean-up operation begins.  Then there is no trace of the protest, save newspaper cuttings and film footage.
A news van monitors the start of a student protest in Bloomsbury

Usually marches or protests take place around Westminster in Central London, however they often start at a particular organisations HQ; on university campuses, for example, or the administrative offices of trade unions.  I was recently surprised to encounter a hundred or so protesting students (and one raucous but unmusical trumpeter) in the British Museum.  Who, they thought, would be supportive of their protest in there is beyond me.  The milling tourists who were there to look at ancient tablets and artifacts simply looked rather confused.

Less disruptive to everyday life however are the quieter forms of protest which do not revolve around a particular event.  Numerous groups take a public stand to protest against ongoing wrongs they perceive in our country, from military intervention to trade standards.  Some even protest about political actions by foreign governments, such as the constant, yet silent, demonstration against the persecution of those who practice Falun Gong (a spiritual movement), by the Chinese government, outside the Chinese Embassy.  (Although their site is actually slap-bang on the doorstep of the Royal Institute of British Architects, so I'm not sure if the true source of the grievance is feeling the force of the protest.  It may be being wasted on a bunch of building professionals.)  A fearsome bunch of ladies surrounds a memorial opposite the National Portrait Gallery, declaring themselves as members of Women in Black, a global movement that renounces violence and recognises the deeply gendered experience of conflict.  They keep a weekly vigil near St Martin in the Fields Church, each week with a different theme, and circulate information to anyone who will take their fliers or stop and talk to them.

Every tourist who visits Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament will have noticed an encampment of raggedy tents and signs around Parliament Square.  This is all that remains of 'Democracy Village' (most inhabitants of which were finally evicted last year), established primarily in response to the UK armed forces' involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.  People lived here for years, using megaphones to broadcast their cause and leafletting passersby (often again, somewhat bemused tourists).  One particularly fervent anti-war campaigner spent over 10 years living in Parliament Square, and became an icon of protest in London.  Sadly, this man, Brian Haw, died earlier this year and the erection of a blue plaque on the square has been called for in his honour.  Boris Johnson, London's mayor, paid a rather lovely tribute to him which also sums up why people do protest, as reported in The Guardian: "Brian Haw, the father of seven, anti-war loony who used to bellow at me on my bicycle...I thought his posters and general gubbins were a disgrace and spoiled the look of the place; and yet he...represented something dementedly British...Across the world, Britain still stands for a certain idea of liberty, a particular concept of the relationship between the citizen and the state."  This relationship and this liberty must surely be what is worth protesting about.
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