Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Working 9 to 5: the daily grind in London

Almost four years ago [Ed: written back in 2011, it's been seven years now!] I moved to London in search of a job.  It seemed like the most sensible thing to do, given the somewhat limited employment options of the village in which I grew up, and my desire for an exciting career with a decent salary, development prospects and international travel.  Most of my friends made the same decision.  And so within a year of graduating from university we found ourselves in the London rat-race, working 9 to 5.  Or actually rarely working 9 to 5, as the average workday seems considerably longer here.

Friday, 19 August 2011

"Create your Take" - An exciting competition to celebrate the opening of Westfield Stratford City

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last year or so you probably know that London is hosting the Olympics next year.  The area of Stratford, out in East London, is undergoing extensive redevelopment in preparation for the descent of the world's athletics fans.  Currently in construction are numerous stadia for swimming, cycling, leaping, hurling things and sprinting.  A recent amble I took down the canal towards the site was curtailed by massive amounts of hoarding and wire fencing, but the tops of the shiny new buildings could just about be spotted high above the security fences.
But fortunately for the less sporty amongst us the site developers are also preparing lots of restaurants and bars, lovely green spaces and what will be the UK's largest shopping centre.  The new Westfield Stratford City is due to open in just under a month and to celebrate its birth, a rather London-y competition has been launched.  "Create your Take", launched this week on Facebook, encourages people to respond photographically to 8 East London classic concept challenges; from Market Day to the Hoxton Fin.  
Once you've uploaded your photo, other Facebook users will be able to vote for their favourite 'takes', and they could pick yours.  The photo which receives the most votes over the competition will win the grand cash prize, which could total up to £10,000. Not bad eh? For every person on Facebook who "likes" the site's page the prize money will increase.  Local London bloggers will also be acting as guest judges each week, to choose their personal favourite (in their concept category) to receive some amazing spot prizes.  

The Accidental Londoner is thrilled to have been asked to act as a guest judge for the 'Landmark' concept challenge, and will be awarding a super spot prize to the best entry in that category.  As Anish Kapoor's "Orbit" takes its place in the iconic skyline of our city, the 'Landmark' category wants you to share your landmarks - from your cities, your streets, even your own backyard.  Take a photo, upload it to the site and you're in with a chance of winning.  Fancy a private tour of the new Stratford development?  In a helicopter?!  Well, this is the prize that I'll be awarding in my week as guest judge, and there are plenty more brilliant prizes to be won under the other categories too.

Visit Facebook and Create your Take for a chance to win up to £10,000 or a number of amazing spot prizes, including free hairdressing for a year at Toni & Guy, £200 to spend and the advice of a stylist at Reiss and a day at the Waitrose Cookery School for you and a friend. 

Get snapping and lots of Accidental luck!


Sunday, 14 August 2011

Brunching at The Breakfast Club, Soho

Sunday mornings in the city are all about breakfast.  No rushed slice of toast as you dash out of the door to work, no hastily munched bowl of cereal eaten standing up as you do your make-up.  At the weekends we have time to sit and drink decent coffee and eat full plates of breakfasty goodness.  But after a hard week at work we sometimes can't be bothered to do the percolating and frying ourselves, so we go out to breakfast (or if we're sleepy, maybe a later brunch.)
Whilst mediocre cafes are two-a-penny and can be found in pretty much any area of London, with their greasy table tops and burnt coffee, a good venue for breakfast is far harder to find.  You need somewhere with enough space to seat more than two very closely acquainted people, decent coffee, decent juice, tasty breakfast (anywhere with plentiful pancakes wins my undying patronage) and speedy service.  Nothing makes you want to eat your copy of The Sunday Times sports section like an hour-long wait for a bowl of muesli and yogurt. 

On the hunt for the perfect venue, I had heard wonderful things about a place called "The Breakfast Club".  Now with four branches across the capital, the original cafe sits cheerily on D'Arblay Street in Soho, painted bright sunflower yellow. However every time I had attempted to breakfast there I and my breakfasting companions had been met by a lengthy, slow-moving queue of people with a similar idea, and we had given up and headed elsewhere.  But this morning I finally stuck out the queue long enough to earn at table at D'Arblay Street, and it was definitely worth it.
Inside the vibe of the 1985 film of the same name (which I may be one of the only people in the world to have hated with a passion) filters through the cafe.  Americana is affixed to a bare brick wall that runs along one side of the cafe.  Chic mismatched chairs and wooden tables crowd a fairly small space, which made maneuvering into our table something of a limbo challenge.  But once seated we were swiftly provided with menus groaning with breakfast options.  You want eggs?  They do them any way you could possibly imagine eating them.  You want pancakes?  Just say what you'd like inside them, alongside plenty of maple syrup obviously.  The cafe serves lunch and dinner too, but rather nicely given its name, breakfasts are the speciality of this eatery.
The Accidental pal I ate with and I both chose pancakes; hers were topped with berries and a wonderful dollop of vanilla cream, whilst mine sandwiched perfectly crispy streaky bacon.  As they should be, all their pancakes are doused in maple syrup, but not too much to saturate the fluffy pancakes.  The coffee was excellent (Antipodeans can delight in the fact that The Breakfast Club even knows what a Flat White is), and the service was with a genuine smile (and an unexpected kilt!).  Aware of the hungry queue outside the door we did not linger overly long once we were finished, but were not exactly chased away by the wait-staff who seemed capable and unfazed by the popularity of their little place.  As we left, an hour or so after we arrived, those in search of eggs, sausage, hash browns et al were still arriving in D'Arblay Street.  Long may the queue continue to grow.  Except when I am in urgent need of breakfast.

Breakfast Club on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London's burning...and rioting and looting

The sound of an emergency services siren is the audible calling-card of any major modern city.  In North London it is merely the usual soundtrack to real life; a traffic accident, a burst appendix, a rambunctious disagreement between football fans.  But at the moment in London this familiar noise is signalling far more sinister events.  Like most of the city I awoke on Sunday morning to reports and startling images of public rioting in the north London area of Tottenham.  Buildings had been burnt, cars had been smashed up, police officers had been hurt and looters arrested.  A peaceful protest begun earlier on Saturday night, in response to the shooting of Mark Duggan, a suspected local criminal, by police had been hijacked by, well...what to call them?  Thugs, criminals, looters, opportunists?  Mostly young people, many with covered faces, under cover of protest had perpetrated horrendous crimes which have caused millions of pounds of damage already.
A masked looter strolls in front of blazing cars - (taken from the cover of today's Guardian newspaper)

Seeing these scenes in Tottenham brought back unpleasant memories for London.  The clashes with police were scarily reminiscent of the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots that left a policeman dead, hacked brutally to death by an angry mob.  Was history repeating itself?  As the same footage was replayed again and again, and a second and third night of looting, arson attacks and fear followed, London became a city on edge.  Travelling home has become an expedition, checking routes, ensuring stations are still open and hoping that you won't encounter marauders as trouble flares up in random areas across the city.  From Croydon to Hackney, and Clapham to Ealing, it seems as if no neighbourhood (however supposedly middle-class and safe) is immune to the invasion of these louts.   

The former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone was yesterday criticised for blaming the riots on social deprivation, and current mayor Boris Johnson (who swiftly reappeared from his holiday to reassure us all - thanks, Boris, we feel so much better now you and your silly hair are here!) has just declared we've heard quite enough about the socio-economic factors in play.  But there are obviously some far greater social issues which need serious attention.  There must be something driving these wanton acts of destruction and pillaging more than a lust for iPads.  The use of the word 'senseless' in reference to recent events speaks more of our own shock and incredulity than of the motivations of the looters and rioters.  Numerous issues have already been blamed for the events, from the economic crisis to a disgruntled and frustrated youth, from long-standing antagonistic relations between civil society and the police to poor and irresponsible parenting.  I am sure each proposed cause hold grains of truth and that these riots are the product of a complex set of influencing factors we cannot begin to untangle yet.

The texts and phonecalls began last night, from concerned friends outside the city and within.  Was I ok?  Was my flat safe?  What was happening where I work and live?  Twitter has been abuzz with a mixture of helpful and terrifying rumours; inspiring fear and panic from misinformation and those seeing the opportunity to make a lot of deeply unfunny jokes about tigers loose from London Zoo.  Strangers helped one another plan routes home, and urged each other to stay safe.  And then today they united again, to deal with clearing up the mess.  However many destructive thugs there were tearing apart areas of the city, there were more people this morning brandishing brooms and demanding to clean their streets.  And say what you like about social exclusion and societal breakdown but I think that the staggering number of people who quickly organised themselves, and without expecting a thing in return, set about putting our city back together again says far more about British society today. 

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Down Street Tube Station - the ghost station under Mayfair

A couple of years ago I was tasked with an event management challenge at work.  I was asked to create a day-long tour of London's most exciting hidden locations.  The event itself was created for attendees of the TEDGlobal conference, so I needed to find sufficiently varied sites which would appeal to a vast range of people; from designers to poets, and e-commerce entrepreneurs to artists.  Using numerous contacts kindly provided by colleagues we secured access to go backstage at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and even right up to the top of the BT Tower.  But our very first site of the tour was the one which the attendees were still talking about by the end of the day.  

We kicked off our day of exploration by going underground, and visiting one of the city's fabled 'ghost stations'.  After James Bond met his boss, 'M', in one of these disused Tube stations underneath the city in the film 'Die Another Day' the profile of these secret stations had risen.  As you travel through London on the Underground system you may well pass through a ghost station or two, only visible to the keenest of eyes which can spot a sign flashing by or an unexpected light in a dark tunnel.  Once built to serve particularly busy areas of the city some hundred or so years ago, as commuter patterns and centres of employment changed certain stations became underused and were finally taken out of service.  But the station which we went to visit, the now disused Down Street station, had found a new purpose once it had finished transporting Londoners to and from Mayfair.  It became a secure meeting venue for first the members of the Emergency Railway Committee (for when you've just got to have a new train track right away!), and later for Winston Churchill's War Cabinet during the Second World War.
From the outside the station is almost invisible now.  Who knows if the man in the photo above has any idea what he is sitting on top of.  After descending ancient clanging metal stairs (the Emergency Railway Committee apparently insisted on a lift as they were not of a physique to clomp up and down endless stairs) we walked along eerily empty passenger tunnels, lined in the ceramic tiles which still cover many of the city's Underground stations today.  As the tunnels widened we learnt that this was not merely a thoroughfare during the station's wartime use but a typing pool.  Whilst the desks and chairs are now gone I could easily imagine rows of girls of a similar age to me down here in this odd, underground, echoey tunnel tapping away on their typewriters.  But where did they make a cup of tea or take a break from their secretive toils?  Further  along the tunnel the space opens out onto the old platforms.  Heading right we followed a wall which blocks off the tracks from tiny bunk-rooms, bathrooms and kitchens.  People lived down here during World War Two, a secret community of decision-makers and their administrative staff.  As we peered through the gloom at now filthy sinks, under decades of dust, a roar ripped through the station.  The lights of an approaching train briefly illuminated the bricks, tiles and metal furniture, as the train vibrated the platform and metal grille which now cuts off the station from the carriages whirling by.  We cut our flashlights to avoid alarming the train driver.  Sat behind the beams of their headlights, Tube drivers are some of the privileged few who ever get to see inside these empty stations that have served multiple purposes across our city's history.

If you stand on Down Street itself today and look to the left of a small news-agent you can see where the entrance once stood.  The wide arch now sealed up, with only a small metal door providing access to the station beneath.  And look very closely as you speed along the Piccadilly Line between Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly Circus, and you might just spy a flash of the ghost station.  Look for the pale bricks that now block off the platform that served commuters in the early 1900s and that kept Winston Churchill safe as he worked to keep an entire country secure.
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