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!)
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