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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