Friday, 28 January 2011

Unsung London

A British musician died recently who was remembered for one song above all his many other works.  Despite his years in a popular 1970s band, it is this single song, with its famous saxophone solo, by which Gerry Rafferty will be forever remembered.  "Baker Street" has reputedly been played well over 5 million times across the world.  The royalties from this song command around £80,000 a year, but it never made No. 1 in the UK charts.  In the US it climbed to No. 2, and only in Australia did it finally reach the top of the charts.  Yet the song's subject is deeply British, and deeply London.  The title name-checks not only a physical street but a tube stop and a tourist hot-spot.  It's not the cheeriest of songs, lyricswise, but the saxophone solo is something else.  As a 10 year old at a new, very musical school I was asked what instrument I wanted to learn to play.  I looked around at a sea of clarinets and violins and I knew I wanted something different.  One day I heard "Baker Street" and I was sold; I would play the saxophone, and I would get good enough to play that solo one day.  And I did.  But now, as my saxophone lies unplayed back at the Accidental parents' house in the Midlands, I am closer to that song than ever.


Baker Street lies a fifteen minute walk from my office, and when I lived in South-West London it was on one of my many commute-routes home.  Weirdly, now I think about it, I don't think I have ever thought of the song while I have traversed Baker Street's pavements.  Maybe it is that I find it hard to believe that such a staggeringly beautiful song could have been written about this actually pretty unremarkable street.  And this brings me to a long-time wondering of mine.  Why aren't there more popular songs about London?  New York has inspired many a chart-topper or classic tune beloved by many far too young to remember its original release.  From AC/DC to Armand Van Helden, and Sinatra to Sting, musicians throughout history have found inspiration in NYC.    

So why not London?  Why has no one sung a song about an American in London?  (All we have had is a song about being a Werewolf in London - hardly an ode to anyone as fascinating as Quentin Crisp)  Or proclaimed the joy of being a Native Londoner?  (a la Odyssey's disco classic "Native New Yorker')  After the terror attacks of 9/11 The Beastie Boys recorded "An Open Letter to NYC" - a hip-hop love-letter to an adored city struggling to return to its confident former self.  Not even Bono, usually keen to make music in the name of drawing peoples' attention to misery, could be bothered to cover a song in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks in London.

I trawled my iPod in search of music dedicated to and inspired by London. I find a ballad named after an unprepossessing tube station ("Warwick Avenue" by Duffy), and the mockney, jaunty little number that launched Lily Allen's career, "LDN".  Merrily singing about drugs and hookers however does not exactly showcase London's finest attributes.  I find the soundtrack to the musical Me & My Girl, and "The Lambeth Walk"; yet more fake cockney accents over a bouncy melody.  Is there not more to London than this?  The Kinks dedicated a dirge to the sky around one of the city's busiest railway stations ("Waterloo Sunset").  The Pet Shop Boys tackled a slightly deeper topic, the city's East-West cultural divide, in their classic "West End Girls"; yet the underlying synthesised disco melody did little to establish the tune as a credible urban anthem of which the city could be proud.

However there is one song which crashes and rages as only the stormy city of London can.  No surprise then that the Time Out list of top 50 London songs names The Clash's "London Calling" as its #1.  This is certainly the first song I associated with the city when I began thinking about this.  The punk anthem was a political rant which epitomised the late 1970s in which it was written.  Yet as the streets of London once again fill with clamouring protestors and the city finds itself in deeply uncertain times, the words ring true once more:

"London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared, and battle come down
London calling to the underground
Come out of the cupboard you boys and you girls..."

The song rallies a resistance to the threats of war, terror and even environmental hazard.  It portrays London as a stronghold for righteous anger and desire for change.  The Clash had faith in London, seeing it as far more than the tourist pastiche created by numerous other artists.  They capture its strength, its love of a good fight, and finally even the Londoner's ability to summon up half-hearted humour in even the darkest of hours:

"London calling, yeah I was there too
And you know what they said?  Well some of it was true
London calling at the top of the dial
After all this won't you give it a smile?"

Friday, 21 January 2011

iLondon - our virtual city

Finally I have succumbed. After months of lusting after the iPhones of my friends, and feeling as if technological advancement were passing me by, I have taken delivery of my very own iPhone. And I love it. The ability to check one's emails and even do a little internet research from the bus has given me a tiny fraction of extra time in each day.  And, who am I kidding, it just looks so pretty!

I am not the only Londoner under the spell of a smartphone. (As I type I can hear a constant pinging from the iPhone belonging to the kind man who has come to fit my new oven. The noise is a price worth paying however; he reckons that the oven he is ripping out has probably been here since the original conversion of my building into flats, i.e. since 1983.  It was older than me!  But I digress...)  The streets are full of iPhones, Blackberries and HTC handsets. They are clutched in hands, and sandwiched between ear and chin.  And their shiny faces are so beguiling that Londoners seem unable to tear their eyes away from them. Smartphone-users walk the streets of London, eyes down, and index finger trailing across the screen. They weave slowly through the more alert pavement users, phones held out before them as they were using them yas some sort of water-divining device.

But the numerous inbuilt features of Smartphones indicate that they were made for cities.  You've got your GPS (in case you can't remember where you are).  You've got your compass (in case knowing which way is North is any help when you can't remember where you are).  You've got your internet access (in case you need to check when the last tube is running or when the Waitrose on Holloway Road shuts, once you've worked out where you are).  However all this useful information is usually displayed so tiny on one's screen that, although knowledgable, one looks a bit of an idiot squinting at a map with one's eye an inch from one's phone. Plus due to the handy accelerometer in many of these Smartphones, your map is likely to spin round if you tilt your screen by accident. And you end up confused and lost again!

If all those treats, besides the ability to actually make a phone call, were not enough, there is more city-living help to be found in the shape of the plentiful downloadable apps that you can festoon across the menu of your phone. You can arrange for yourself a virtual smorgasbord of maps, service locators and even perfectly pointless games to while away the hours of tedium spent on TfL's miserable tube trains and buses. London's Time Out magazine provides an app version of its handy "what's on" service.  You can download location services which point you to the nearest public loo (the delightfully named "Toiluxe" app), or cup of decent, non-Starbucks coffee. The Museum of the City of London has a fascinating app which, using your inbuilt GPS, shows you historic photographs of the street or park in which you are currently standing.

Gone are the days of the A-Z book; papery maps across a hundred pages replaced by the neverending pixels of its electronic cousin. Smartphones may teach us much about our city's history and open our eyes to its vast wealth of opportunities and excitments. Yet with our faces glued to our tiny luminescent screens we miss much of the city we pass through. We are not looking at the people, or at the architecture. We are ignoring the exciting street drama which unfolds around us. Eyes down, are we really immersed in our real urban world? Or are we living in a parallel world, lived through our technology? Are we living in London...or iLondon?

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Tell no-one...

Ok, I can finally talk about this.  The ban of silence laid over this event a couple of months ago is now lifted.  From the moment I bought my ticket I was instructed to "tell no-one".  I could divulge no details about what I was to do, and where I was to do it.  And frankly I couldn't even if I wanted to - I had very little idea what it was I would really be doing one grey evening in November.

The email confirming the booking for myself and three others to attend "the New Wellbeing Foundation", besides giving us a time to meet at the not-so-clandestine Ladbroke Grove tube station, requested that all  attendees bring certain items with them.  We needed to pack a dressing gown (which we should put on as soon as we got to Ladbroke Grove), slippers, a stamp, a toothbrush, and a photo of something or someone we loved.  We were also instructed that "you will need to bring cash to pay for prescription medication and if you are not on a nil by mouth instruction you will be able to buy food from the foundation's canteen. Unless you have booked an overnight stay you will be discharged before midnight."  Curiouser and curiouser...

The event we were attending was one of a series of filmic experiences produced by the clever and shadowy Secret Cinema.  Subscribers to their programme receive emails inviting them to sign up for a screening of a classic and, at its time of release, ground-breaking film each month, but you never know when you buy your ticket what that film will be.  These screenings however are not exactly a trip to the Odeon.  They are elaborate and surreal events which place the watcher deep within the film itself, before a film projector even begins to whirr.  In anticipation we began a process of  filmic sleuthing and clue-deciphering, and I and my fellow attendees tried to identify potential films which featured people who wore dressing gowns, and wrote letters, and brushed their teeth.  We narrowed it down to a range of films set in hospitals and asylums, with "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" a strong contender. 

The night of our booking we turned up as directed, donned a dressing gown (amusing the commuters at the tube station) and followed a trail of actors throught the streets of West London.  The guidance of porters clad in white and nurses in sharp caps clutching clipboards directed us to an old, disused hospital.  Here, we were handed surgical gowns to don over our dressing gowns (which were actually being much appreciated in the November cold), and had plastic patient bracelets attached to our wrists.  We entered "The Oregon State Hospital", and began to explore.  The stage was, as we suspected, set for "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest".
Actors roamed the halls as the hospital's patients, ranting, screaming and interacting with the slightly scared-looking event attendees.  One old man desperately tried to wrestle my "painkiller" (a bottle of beer served in a paper bag with a prescription label attached) from my hands, claiming it was his medicine and I had stolen it.  He finally shuffled off, threatening to tell the nurse.  We explored the long dark hallways, poking our heads into doors everywhere when we felt brave enough.  Some rooms were empty apart from lone items of terrifying-looking medical equipment.  Some held patients, lobotomised and staring, or wild and raving.  Others held doctors waiting to psychoanalyse anyone who made the mistake of peering inside.  One room (not so far from an ice-house morgue we found, complete with dead bodies) held a violinist and 3 huge papier mache duck heads.  Bunny rabbits slept in wooden cages just outside an electric shock therapy suite, and a real cat strolled casually along the hatch of a "dispensary"; where one could purchase alcoholic drinks, purely for medicinal purposes obviously!

After a couple of hours exploring this eerie place, we took our seats in a room earlier used to host a yoga class and some art therapy, and the opening credits rolled.  We watched the story of new patient Randle McMurphy and his admission to a mental institute ruled by an ominous nurse unfold,  with occasional appearances from McMurphy himself (an actor not without a passing resemblance to Jack Nicholson). He even appeared brandishing a bucket of fish during the film scene in which the patients steal a boat and go for a day trip.  One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest marked a groundbreaking era in the portrayal of mental illness by the media industry, and watching it surrounded by tortured artwork and dangling ceiling tiles highlighted its eerie sadness perfectly.  One could all too easily imagine this gloomy place being a prison for the mentally ill and those whom society simply struggled to understand.

As we filed out of the screening rooms, the front door of the hospital was wide open.  The faint figure of "The Chief" could be glimpsed making his break for freedom down the road outside. We too made out own break for it, and wandered out into the night.  In the courtyard we were disrobed of our surgical gowns, and discharged for the night.  Unlike poor McMurphy, doomed to remain there indefinitely.  Or at least until Secret Cinema put on their next great show somewhere else... 

Friday, 7 January 2011

Play as you go

I have not been gripped by a game since I was a child.  Yet here I am, edging towards late-twenties, and I am caught up in a game being played the length and breath of London; Chromaroma.  The London Underground map is an icon of this city, and is featured on everything from postcards to umbrellas to tasteless underwear for the most tasteless of tourists.  Now its real-life counterpart has become the board for a game making commuting fun, involving hundreds, and no doubt soon thousands, of competing Londoners.  Using data gathered from Oystercard swipes (an Oystercard being a London travel card used to pay for transport on buses and tubes across the city) Chromaroma maps your commuting patterns, and awards you points for visiting certain stations and completing missions; missions like collecting all the stations in the city named for monarchs, or visiting a particular obscure station at a specified time of day.  Boris' bikes, and tube trains and buses are the game tokens.  Yet instead of being moved around a board by the players, they move the players around the city board.  The Oystercard readers keep score.

Of course I am paying for the privilege of playing this game.  TFL must be laughing, as the development company Mudlark have created a way to induce Oystercard holders to travel more, and donate more of their hard-earned cash to the London Underground and Boris' Bikes.  I now use the tube more than I usually would, aware of the extra points I will earn.  I have even started taking unnecessarily circuitous routes around the city to accomplish obscure missions.  Chromaroma ensures that you only earn your points for truly visiting the areas where you swipe your Oystercard.  You cannot simply swipe in then out a minute later to obtain points - you have to leave the station and potter around and explore the area for a bit before re-swiping.  Maybe even pottering as far as the next station to gain even more points.
Coloured teams (you select one when you start playing; pick a colour, any colour!) compete to capture stations, by having the most team members swipe in and out of a station.  (I am proud to say only a couple of days ago I took one of my local tube stations for my team; a one-time Red team stronghold now claimed for the Greens!)
Chromaroma's online visualisations show me exactly where I have been, how many bus rides I have taken that week, and just how far east or west I have ventured.  Being presented with a pretty, coloured map of one's commute certainly jollies it up, and also provides one with a fascinating insight into urban transport systems.  In accepting missions one is instructed about the city's architecture, its history and development; where London's ancient wall once ran, and upon which underground stations architecture Henry Beck left his stylistic stamp.  Puzzle missions provide you simply with an anagram of a station, which you have to unscramble before accepting the mission and setting off for "Swearword & Ethanol" or "Flesh Studio" to claim your points.

One of the greatest things about living in a city is exploring its hidden corners.  You discover the history of former inhabitants, and the ancient patterns of life which underlie your own today.  Chromaroma encourages this wider knowledge of one's city, inducing one to learn and explore with all the fun of a treasure hunt.  And it certainly livens up the tedium of urban commuting.  Let this extraordinary game begin!
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