Thursday, 28 July 2011

Another Accidental outlet

This blog was started for me to record the words, events and phenomena that mattered to me, and that I wanted to remember.  Then slowly other people started reading my writing, and bless you, even responding.  And so I kept writing, for me and you.  And the pleasure it gives me gets greater and greater with every post and comment.  Every so often I'm fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to write pieces for other websites too, often by people who have found my blog.  And such opportunities I love to seize! 

For the last few months I have been contributing as an occasional travel writer to the Travelbite website, (a great place to find holiday inspiration by the way!), as and when my busy work and uni schedule allow. So here is a link to my latest piece for Travelbite which suggests a few things to do in a weekend in London.  It was a pretty tough challenge to fit all the top attractions and activities into 48 hours, and also to balance the typical tourist musts (which as a Londoner I try and avoid!), such as Buckingham Palace, with the things I'd love to do (as a local) with a free weekend, like potter round the Brick Lane markets on a Sunday morning.
It turns out London is a pretty fun place to be!  And there's so much more I have yet to explore...

(The above photo was taken from the Thames Clipper river boat, which shuttles commuters, tourists and the average Londoner along the Thames between the South Bank and Greenwich - a lovely way to see the city.)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Biking with Boris - London's bikes for hire

Finally I have achieved a London goal - I recently took my first Boris Bike ride. The Barclays-sponsored bicycle hire scheme has been in action across the city since the middle of 2010, and championed by our city mayor Boris Johnson, they have rapidly become known as "Boris bikes".  After the scheme's introduction, bright blue stands (in sponsor Barclays' bright hue) popped up across town; on pavements, beside parks, on quiet side streets, outside stations. Often you see tourists staring at them in bewilderment. Ranks of bikes are held hostage in locked docks, beneath a short blue tower with an electronic panel.  To borrow a bike on a pay-as-you-go basis, you have to insert a credit or debit card into these tower-like stands, buy your hire time, and receive an activation code that you punch into the panel on the dock of the bike that takes your fancy.  Regular users can obtain a handy tag, for which they pay an annual subscription, and they simply insert this directly into the bike dock, without having to faff around with credit cards and codes.  
Currently the 6000 bikes are distributed across docks in the more central areas on London, which is part of the reason I have not sampled a Boris bike before; there are simply no docking stations near my flat.  Mornington Crescent is as far north as they seem to go.  But an Accidental pal (who is spoilt for choice of docking stations where he lives) is a Boris biking pro, so he gamely offered to instruct me in the ways of these cycles. Our first attempt was in Hyde Park a couple of months ago.  It was a total failure. Neither station we tried would accept my debit card to pay my single Great British Pound for access for 24 hrs, so that I could take a quick 20 minute spin around the park.

We abandoned that abortive expedition and tried again a few weeks later. Thwarted again. Finally hefting a bike from its docking point (actually the Accidental pal did that bit, I was too weedy) we discovered it had a flat tyre and a mangled front end. We attempted to return the bike but it wouldn't dock. We made the first of several calls to the bike office. My activation code would not be valid for another five minutes - we were advised to walk to the next docking station and try to use the code to extract another bike. As we approached the dock looked empty but we spied three bikes available. All had their red broken lights on. Grrrr.  We were by now only a ten minute walk from our destination so just gave up on our plan. But after a wander around Kennington, and its surprising village fete, we tried again for the return trip.

I obtained a new access code, punched it into a bike dock, then watched as a mysterious flashing amber light blinked unhelpfully at me.  Does this system ever work as it should?!  Another call to the helpline, my third access code of the day and our fourth docking station, finally I obtained my bike.  After fiddling around with my saddle, I took a short test-ride up and down the pavement and discovered the gears were a bit, well, shaky. Nevertheless with two bikes in our possession, we strapped our luggage onto the front of the bike with its peculiar elastic strap (wouldn't a basket have been more use?) and set off. Whilst the Accidental pal wore his cycle helmet (which I'd badgered him to buy when he started biking), here it seems the scheme is missing a crucial feature.  Why encourage those unaccustomed to cycling to go wobbling off into the busy London traffic if you are not going to ensure they protect their delicate heads?  I felt somewhat exposed as I followed the Accidental pal through Vauxhall's traffic.  I had to pedal like a maniac to get the heavy bike to lurch into action lest I get swallowed up beneath the wheels of a van every time we stopped at red light.  A few minutes after we set off we were back north of the river, and docking our bikes once more.  My first trip was over.

So that was Boris biking.  And whilst the scheme is a super idea, and should be an affordable and convenient way for Londoners to travel around the city, it has a few design flaws.  Its limited geographical reach makes it less useful for travelling longer distances - or even shorter distances which extend beyond Zone 1.  I would love to be able to hop on a Boris bike near my flat and cycle to the docking stations behind my office.  But by the time I reach the nearest dock to pick up a bike I am practically at work already.  Plus there's my inability (unless I get down the gym and start pumping some serious iron) to heft one of the heavy bikes out of the dock.  I hate to play the 'poor little woman' card, but a quick survey of other girls who've tried to use the bikes reveals a common complaint that they are too heavy to use; this being a problem not only releasing and replacing the bikes from the docks, but also when steering and getting the bikes moving quickly at junctions.  These bikes were designed to be a certain weight to discourage their being stolen, but you'd have to be a weightlifter to make off with one of these.  I fear I need some more practice to try and master Boris' bikes.  And I may need to put in some time in the gym to build up my biceps too... 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Lost in the library

I adore libraries, I really do.  The British Library (oh ok, its Peyton & Byrne Cafe in particular) is what is making my dissertation anywhere remotely bearable.  But many of the university libraries I have encountered down in London have been downright awful.  When I did my first degree up in Durham I spent hours in a concrete termite mound of a library, grim from the outside but one could always find something useful inside.  Everything from the computer rooms to the African Socialism section was where it said it was on the handy maps.  It was designed for students and run for them, with a hopeful sense that it was all worth doing if at least one of them does something amazing in the future.  
London university libraries however are designed as if to test whether you really want, or intellectually merit, your degree at all.  Higher education facilities are apparently one of the city's biggest expenditures - so why are their libraries so poor?  (And I mean in a non-financial sense here.)  I remember fondly the helpful people who staffed Durham's libraries, many of them bright postgrad students themselves.  The staff I have met down here are the complete opposite.  They are unhelpful, lazy, and far more interested in their own conversations than the stressed cries for help of a struggling part-time postgrad, enquiring why they can't find a particular book where THE BLOODY CATALOGUE SAYS IT SHOULD BE.  At the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and I kid you not, I have queued for a total time approaching two hours simply to get an external reader card to access their books.  The queue of fed-up sighs moved painfully slowly as the three, yes three, librarians processed each request as a team effort, as if competing in some sort of reader-registering relay.

I could, of course, just sit tight in the small, cosy library at my own college, Birkbeck, but we have been urged, nay, instructed, that to do full justice to a post-graduate dissertation we must find resources beyond our own college's walls.  So from time to time I brave SOAS, which has just completed a complex rennovation, complete with an odd interior decor scheme that looks like the building work has only just begun in some places.  It is full of students that make me feel very old (I, at the grand old age of 26) as they slouch around clutching pristine books on Asian art, with huge hair and lots of eye-makeup, comparing hangovers.  I left university to get away from these people, I have no desire to spend my evenings and weekends with them.  Where are all the grown-up students?  Senate House, the main library for the University of London is located a stone's throw away, so I thought I'd give that a try.  

What an error that decision was.  Imposing from the outside (legend has it that Hitler was a huge admirer of the place) inside the art deco building looks, at first glance, equally striking.  Lots of brass and parquet flooring and luxuriant carpet stretch up to the grand Chancellors Hall.  But it seems that those glossier areas are just for show.  I had done a little online research to save myself time on arrival so I knew which books I needed and where they should be.  But could I find even a sign to the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (or ICOMMS) library where they supposedly resided?  Could I hell.  When I enquired at a reception desk I was told, laughingly, I was in completely the wrong place.  I was directed away by a lady with an almost unintelligible accent, and soon found myself woefully lost heading for Russell Square.  After being collared to sign some petition on cleaning staff average pay (pay them the minimum London wage, you administrative scumbags!), and being sent up in a lift then along a squiggly corridor by the second person I asked for directions, I found myself back at the start.
I tried again.  The third directee totally failed to judge my pissed off mood and made some joke about catching a bus to another city for several minutes, which he thought was hilarious and I imagined being heard again in court as I stood trial for braining him with the brass (and oh so unhelpful) "you are here" sign beside the desk.  He escorted me back down a hall, and pointed me to a tiny lift.  Inside the brass plaque showed several options of floor choices: G, 2, 3, 4, Slavic Studies.  Emerging on the 2nd floor (despite the options the lift was basically a shuttle between here and the ground floor), I almost lost it at the fourth person who informed me I was in the wrong place.  His directions (back down in the rickety lift again) at last directed me to the Small Hall, which ICOMMS library was.

And my, but it was, er, Small - so Small I could cross it in two seconds and see this was evidently not where I should be.  Two lugubrious souls were turning vast pages of paleography tomes, overseen by a silent librarian with drawn-on eyebrows.  I quickly scuttled through the room, emerging into a deserted corridor, along which doors stood open at odd intervals.  Codes and topics on a printed sheet of A4 blue-tac-ed to each gave an approximate description of the contents.  It was the bleakest place in which I have ever seen books.  Books usually brighten up a place, but here...here was were they put the books no one cared about.  After two hours down there I had not seen, or heard, another soul.
And this is what it looks like.  (Oddly my camera has also managed to make the place look a lot brighter than it is in real life - don't let it fool you.)  It is a book-lined dungeon.  And it really is that narrow.  The window at the end, looks UP at the ground above.  Everything is made of heavy clunking metal - shelves, doors, chairs.  Now when one is writing a dissertation on the subject of civil war and thinking about the most vile things a human is capable of doing to another, this is not the sort of environment guaranteed to lighten the mood.  Yet here is where they keep the books on this topic that I need to read, banished as if their subject matter is too depressing to be stored in more pleasurable surrounds.  And so here it seems is where you will find me this summer, down in the depths of gloom and doom.  If I'm not there, I have probably fled to the delightful un-university-affiliated British Library, where they have sunlight and comfy chairs.  And, most importantly, decent cake.  Remind me what I'm paying all these expensive university tuition fees for?

Saturday, 9 July 2011

London style

Numerous fashion journalists, models and designers often subscribe to a similar opinion - that London, as a city, is unique when it comes to style. It is very edgy and adventurous, not afraid to define its own take on a current global trend. In London anything goes when it comes to fashion.  The French may be classically stylish, the Italians sharply tailored but here in London we are style chameleons, hopping schizophrenically from trend to trend, dictated by catwalks.  There is no classic London look.  Ecclecticism is what floats our fashion boat.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Life in the London housing sandwich

Here in London, space at such a premium that any old building will do to live in.  Warehouses, factories, and most commonly large old Victorian terraces are frequently chopped up and turned into flats.  The majority of us live with a neighbour above and below, like we're residing in some sort of house sandwich.  (Unless you are a Russian oligarch with an entire Belgravia mansion to yourself which you visit but once a year.  I do resent the buying up of potential full-time homes by those who intend on using them rarely, while so many Londoners struggle to find somewhere to live.)  Inevitably when you live in quite such proximity with your neighbours the sounds from their flats drift up or down into your own, and with those sounds drifts also some eye-opening insights into their lives.  With only one potential noisy neighbour down below, and no one above, top floor flats are thus highly prized in London.  
At my first London address (the flat I shared with uni friends in Putney) we were the top-floor neighbours, and yes, we may have been those neighbours; the ones with the oversensitive smoke alarm and an inability to close a door quietly, who hosted endless parties of a slightly rowdy nature.  Our downstairs neighbours were not our biggest fans.  (Even less so after one housemate popped a note under their door at 1am one night, profusely apologising for the noise and signing off with much drunken, over-friendly love.)  When I left Putney I lived for a few months above a restaurant, the trials of which I have documented in an earlier post.  It was pretty noisy at times, and for several weeks the restaurant had a hazardous wiring problem which made our flat's lights flicker wildly as if we were on a sinking ship.  But to some extent that is what one expects.  If you move in between homes you would be a fool to imagine you will live in undisturbed, blissful silence.  In fact, if that's what you're after, I'd suggest a nice, single-storey stone croft somewhere in the isolated highlands of Scotland.

Recently my downstairs neighbour moved out.  From the first week I moved in, she had complained endlessly about the noises she could hear from my flat - music playing at 9pm on a Sunday (playing mind, not playing loudly), the television, the radio, people laughing.  I learnt the former owners of my flat had been forced to lay down carpet to muffle the sounds of their feet on the beautiful (but now hidden) floorboards beneath, after her complaints.  Sure, I heard her yelling at her son from time to time, and her neurotic dog barked through the night at random foxes, but not once did I complain to her about it.  One day I bumped into this Accidental neighbour in the street and she began to deeply apologise for my being disturbed the other night by her houseguest playing loud music; she hoped I'd not been too bothered.   Having actually not been at home that night, I had not been remotely bothered but seizing my opportunity for some moral highground points I fixed her with a long-suffering stare and said "Well, it's just what you expect if you choose to live in a flat, isn't it?"  She never complained to me again.

I did sympathise slightly, for I too hear the muffled actions of the person who lives above me.  My upstairs neighbour, who I have seen but once in the year I have lived beneath him, returns home pretty late every evening (I gather from other neighbours he works in the theatre) and proceeds to crash around a bit.  One becomes inured to such noises however if they are regular, but at first they can be quite alarming.  Three weeks into my new occupancy, as I lay in my brand new bed in my empty flat in this big, old house, I was awoken at 2am by a series of peculiar sounds overhead.  Paralysed by fear I lay corpse-still in my bed, listening to the anguished grunts, dragging noises and occasional entreaties to God from above.  My overactive imagination convinced me that a gang of burglars had broken in, tied up my neighbour and were right now ransacking his home, occasionally pausing in their thievery to beat him up a bit.  For 45 minutes I panicked, unsure what to do, terrified that they would come crashing down the stairs and start on my flat next.  Should I call the police?  Or the Accidental mother? (She always knows what to do, although at 2am, miles away in the Midlands, with nothing but my paranoid mind to confirm what was happening her ability might be diminished somewhat.)  Eventually after securing all entrances to my flat and leaving my neighbour to his fate, I fell back asleep, worn out by my own fears.  Only in the cold light of day did I realise that the noises I had heard corresponded to those of someone frustratedly playing a computer game (probably one of those move-around-the-room-with-a-controller-attached-to-you kind of things).  Now when my neighbour is busy killing zombies or playing championship tennis I never waken.
Part of being a true Londoner is the ability to sleep through anything, from the sounds of sirens to drunken youths carousing beneath one's bedroom window.  But even harder to block out are the noises which come from within one's own house - the consequences of living in the London housing sandwich.  
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