Sunday, 29 April 2012

An irregular Friday afternoon: The Tottenham Court Road siege

Friday afternoons in the office usually go one of two ways I find.  They are either a frantic flurry of task-finishing before the week ends or a desperately dull drag until the start of the weekend.  Last Friday, 27th April, in my office was a little bit unusual however.  Shortly before lunch, just before the standard lunchtime exodus began, I glanced at Twitter to see a number of reports of some sort of disturbance on Tottenham Court Road.  I work two streets west of Tottenham Court Road and it's the standard lunching destination of choice for most of my firm.  This 'disturbance' was likely to make several hundred trips to Pret and Eat a little tricky.  

Keen to see what was going on, I headed out with a couple of colleagues, but before we made it to Tottenham Court Road we were halted by a police cordon, manned by a uniformed officer, who politely told us we couldn't access the road, but should use the side streets to move through the area.  Over his shoulder, the road was uncharacteristically stationary, littered with parked police vehicles and the odd ambulance.  A couple of waiters were sat smoking outside their deserted cafe, a plastic 'Do Not Cross' cordon fluttering in front of them.  'What's going on?' I asked the officer, who was not looking particularly concerned about the roadblock.  'We've got someone threatening a gas explosion in an office down the road.' he said, 'We're evacuating all the nearby buildings as a safety precaution.'  His details were vague but freely offered up, and given his calm demeanour, I didn't feel particularly alarmed by the situation.  Making the most of my lunch-break I headed down towards Oxford Street to run some errands, and hoped by the time I returned to Fitzrovia I would still be able to get into the office.  

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Addison Lee: mini-cab heroes or bike-hating villains?

Leaving the underground taxi rank of Euston station in a black cab recently, I spied a hand-written sign attached to the wall urging 'Addy Lee' drivers to 'defy the ban and use bus lanes'.  Whilst London cabs can use bus lanes across the city, their mini-cab rivals are not permitted the same luxury.  I have waxed lyrical about London's black cabs more than once on this blog.  For me, there is no finer way to travel through the city than in the back of a London taxi, usually with a running commentary from the driver.  Cabbies are some of the most knowledgeable Londoners - they've seen it all in this city.  But over the last few years their role in the city has been challenged by a worthy competitor: mini-cab firm par excellence, Addison Lee.  Granted, Addison Lee drivers lack 'the knowledge' of London cabbies, and are heavily reliant on the SatNav systems that are affixed to their windscreens, but this firm now completes over 20,000 jobs a day across the city; Addison Lee is a significant challenger to the throne of the London taxi kingdom.

Addison Lee runs a fleet of black vehicles, the same hue as the original Hackney cabs, although unlike London cabs Addison Lee's motors come in all shapes and sizes; from Mercedes saloons to executive mini-buses.  And size does matter, as I discovered two years ago when I had my first encounter with the firm.  Having purchased a lovely new clothes rail (yes, I was too poor for a wardrobe!) for my new flat at John Lewis on Oxford Street I was aghast to learn that it came packed in an unwieldy two metre long box.  How the hell was I going to get that home on a bus or the Tube?  Would it even fit in a cab?!  A kind woman in the pick-up queue behind me heard my dilemma unfolding (I may have been being a little tetchy with the sales-person) and suggested I ring Addison Lee and order a people-carrier.  So I did, and a short while later I and my enormous package made it safely home, escorted by a charming driver, smartly attired in a suit and tie (Addison Lee's standard uniform), who even helped me wrestle my enormous box into his spotless car.
Now, love them though I do, London cabbies rarely have helped me with luggage.  Besides keeping a cautious eye on their mirrors to check I'm not scratching their paintwork with my man-size suitcase, they offer little help to a fare getting in and out of their cabs.  From time to time I have need of a taxi when travelling with what is usually a very angry cat and all its acoutrements.  Addison Lee has become my taxi of choice for such journeys after another mini-cab company in the North London area refused to transport a cat, claiming that all its drivers had allergies and thus would not be able to chauffeur me and my feline friend.  Fancy that! A cab firm staffed entirely by people allergic to cats; how niche!  Numerous Addison Lee drivers, when faced with a traumatised cat and a stressed-looking girl, have been nothing but delightful.  (One driver even offered me a 15 minute thesis - delivered with a broad Jamaican accent at ear-splitting volume - on how cats were just like women.  I sensed he'd not been particularly lucky in love...)

Last week however, Addison Lee, once universally beloved, was hit by a scandal of its own creation.  Writing in 'Add Lib', the company magazine, the firm's chairman - echoing the sign I saw at Euston station - has urged his drivers to illegally use the city's bus lanes, alongside the traditional black cabs.  He promised that the firm would compensate any driver fined for thus breaking the law.  More controversially however, John Griffin's comments have outraged the city's cyclists, another group of legitimate bus-lane user, as he called for them to 'get trained and pay up' like the rest of those on the roads.  He also made rather a blatant suggestion that road accidents involving cyclists and motorised vehicles were more likely to be the fault of the cyclists than the drivers.

These words have whipped up numerous calls for boycotts of the company by outraged cycling groups and the anti-congestion campaigners.  Whilst Griffin has acknowledged that his article was intentionally inflammatory and meant to spark debate, the recent Addison Lee backlash has been surprisingly brutal.  Alongside the individuals and companies vowing to boycott the firm, a petition has begun gathering thousands of signatures, calling for the revoking of Addison Lee's taxi licence.  Even the tech geeks have taken to iTunes to rubbish the firm's smartphone application, awarding it one star as a middle-finger to the company.  I must admit that this particular app is installed on my own iPhone (and very handy it is too), and that I will probably still continue to patronise Addison Lee, despite the current furore.  Whilst the firm's leadership may take a dim view of cyclists (and certainly cycling has its dangers in the city), on average its drivers, and the telephonists who man its ever-busy switchboards, are polite, helpful and professional.  And they make challenging jobs like lugging a cumbersome parcel across London a little less stressful.  So should the 3,500 hard-working drivers and numerous support staff suffer for the foolish words of their boss?  Or will John Griffin's words encourage his drivers to break the law and conduct their vehicles through the streets with less care?  Where should a Londoner's cab-riding loyalties lie?

UPDATE: David D'Arcy of Cabbieblog left a fascinating comment on this post which I'm reproducing below - it's worth a read and comes from someone inside the London taxi industry, hence is far more reliable than my ramblings on the matter above!

'You ask where should a Londoner's cab-riding loyalties lie. Well as any service industry, it should be with one that provides the service you require at a price you are willing to pay, and in this John Griffin has a good business model.

By taking on low skilled drivers, with many who are recent arrivals to our shores, and providing a complete package: vehicle, uniform, SatNav and phone, he has no shortage of takers. But many find working the long hours needed to make a decent living too much and leave after the first year.

Their enthusiasm sometimes stems from the novelty of having a job. A lady once told me of an African Addison Lee driver carrying her suitcase full of books up six flights of stairs balanced on his head.

Griffin has form when encouraging his gullible drivers to break the law. He declared that they should drive up the M4 bus lane. As traffic enforcement on motorways is the responsibility of the police, quite naturally they had more important things to do than catch Griffin's miscreants. Eventually the bus lane was scrapped and Addison Lee got their way. The same seems to apply to Paddington Station's new entrance. The signage clearly states no vehicles except taxis - and yes you've guessed it - Addison Lee seem to be exempt while all other private hire vehicles are excluded.

As a London Black Cab driver of 16 years I've seen our customer base diminish year on year.

When our only competition was a rusty Datsun with an aerial affixed to the roof by means of a magnet, drivers would frequently decline jobs. "It's not on my way home", "I'm not going South of The River", "Sorry Luv, I'm not going there", "That suitcase looks heavy". The excuses were endless.

It's hardly surprising then that London Cab usage has declined when some of my colleagues felt their wishes came before their customer's reasonable requests.

The younger London cabbies are more professional, with newer vehicles on the road and with a plethora of apps available from established radio circuits as well as independent developers we are starting to take back work.

You might not want John Griffin to run TfL but it has taken a maverick like him to shake the cab trade out of its complacency.

Where should a Londoner's cab-riding loyalties lie? I would suggest dear punter that it's you who is in the driving seat and not the other way round.'

Thanks, David!

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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Made in Chelsea: a guilty televisual pleasure

This month has seen the return of my guiltiest of guilty pleasures; Made in Chelsea.  Fresh off the back of numerous reality 'docu-dramas' set in shiny Los Angeles and New York City, a British TV producer obviously thought that the UK was in dire need of its own series following nobodies as they did nothing.  And so The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE) was born.  The perma-tanned, bleached-blonde beauty stylists and nightclub events organisers clattered round Essex, camera crew in tow, and then the rest of the British Public watches their tedious efforts on television a couple of months later.  The 'stars' of the show were chavvy, tacky, brash and at times incomprehensible, speaking in accents and phrases all of their own.  But people watched it, and the programme even garnered television awards for its viewing popularity.

Whilst the citizens of Chingford were all well and good, the British public wanted something a bit different.  Everyone knew someone who could be in TOWIE.  But then along came Made in Chelsea, a programme featuring people far more alien to the average viewer.  Here were the twenty-something heirs to biscuit and chocolate empires (I know, wild!) and horrifyingly young diamond company owners, and, of course, the obligatory pouting wannabe singer.  In a typical episode the 'cast' go shopping, get their hair done, drink cocktails, go for dinner, lounge around in ludicrous outfits (often heavily featuring tweed and fur), and have some more cocktails.  Sometimes they just awkwardly grin at one another, as music from slightly outside of the mainstream plays in the background.  They go to 'pardeees', thrown for tenuous reasons such as a recent breast-reduction or a self-congratulatory pamphlet launch.  They NEVER go to work, and on the rare occasion that they do one of their jobless friends rocks up with a bottle of champagne and drags them out to lunch; I don't imagine this puts them up for any employee of the month awards.
The latest season's gorgeous line-up of moneyed, jobless wonders (Photo: Channel 4)

Only free to fraternise before the cameras with their socially engineered group of 'friends', i.e. the rest of the cast, the potential for partner-swapping is high, and thus, so is the potential for staged confrontation.  Cocktails are thrown, impeccably-waxed eyebrows are raised, plummy insults are hurled, and perfectly blow-dried curls are tossed.  It is undeniably entertaining, regardless of the fact that the anger feels almost entirely scripted.  Except that no one would write dialogue as nonsensical or just plain boring as that spouted by Hugo, Millie, Francis et al.  Yet somehow the inherent awkwardness of these engineered situations makes the programme as watchable as if the action was real. 

And all the non-action is set against a backdrop of some of the city's most exclusive venues in Chelsea, along the Kings Road, around Knightsbridge and Kensington.  From pricey boutiques to mysteriously empty nightclubs (rumour has it much of the filming of riotous nights out actually occurs during the day to avoid disrupting the paying punters), the cast teeter in their Louboutin heels or are chauffeured in shiny Bentleys. Their houses are vast stucco mansions, complete with roof-terraces on which Binky and Cheska lounge in sunglasses reliving the proceeding night out in mind-numbingly tedious detail.  Mark Francis, a smoking-jacket afficionado, even has a long-suffering, uniformed Italian house-keeper who brings him champagne as he lolls on his silk-covered sofas.  Occasionally the cast jets off on a whim, 'to Cannes, sweeedie!' or Morocco. One charming bimbo's geographical knowledge was stretched during that particular trip however when she was pressed to reveal the capital of 'Africa' (yes, the continent), and she finally hazarded a guess at 'erm, South Africa?'. No, dear...Beautiful these young things are, bright they are not.  But hey, at least one can have a good old giggle at their dimness - the same individual with the hazy grasp on geography also claimed in an opening episode that Charles Dickens wrote Winnie the Pooh.

Yet despite the fact that nothing happens, and the cast is a clutch of perfectly primped, vapid and dull lovelies, this programme grips me.  I smile on seeing the backdrop of Chelsea, a place I lived for several months, a royal and ancient borough, nobly providing the glorious playground for all this contrived frivolity and melodrama.  I love to laugh at their ridiculous statements; so too do the producers it seems, as each episode is titled for the week's standout quote of ridiculousness.  Maybe this level of mindless, non-drama is all my poor tired brain can handle at 10pm on a Monday night.  So shall we?  A new episode...? Oh, go on then!

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Sunday, 15 April 2012

Boris vs. Ken: London's 2012 Mayoral Elections

In two weeks, Londoners will vote in its new Mayor.  In fact, the front runners are currently two people (two men at that) who have already held this title, so there's a strong likelihood the next Mayor won't be so 'new' at all.  I was living in London at the time of the last election but had barely got my electoral roll act together so I don't remember voting, but the city spoke, and decided that it wanted a floppy-haired bicycle afficionado with a potentially embarrassing personal life and old school Tory political sensibilities.  After weeks of gimicks and larks about wouldn't it be funny if 'Boris' got in, given how he seemed to be treating this thing as a bit of a joke, and how he probably had no idea what the role really involved, Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London and we were all a tiny bit stunned.  So, from the initial press shots, was he!

But he knuckled down and gave this whole 'being Mayor' thing a shot.  And in the past 4 years I think it is fair to say that Boris Johnson has surprised everyone by actually doing things within the city.  Sure, we all set the expectation bar pretty low, and sure, he's done plenty of things which have enraged the populace too.  But banishing the vile bendy buses, formerly introduced by his predecessor Ken Livingstone, got him at least one brownie point in my book.  His bike hire scheme too - despite featuring enormously cumbersome bikes which cluster only in the centre of town - was a surprisingly imaginative move, and has been very popular.  But public transport fares have shot up criminally, and the ridiculousness of the Olympics has taken over every inch of the city.  And don't even get me started on the proposed 'Boris Island' airport...

And now we have to vote again.  Will Boris have a second term, or will his Labour predecessor Ken Livingstone reclaim his title for a third term.  Sadly, none of the other candidates have much of a chance of defeating either of this pair.  (For proper run-downs of the candidates, I can highly recommend Dave Hill and London blogger Diamond Geezer's thoughts on the matter here.)  Both Boris and Ken unveiled 'battle buses' from which to mount their city-wide campaigns; both campaign teams had embarrassingly chosen the same slogan - 'Better off with [insert name of candidate here]'.  But who would London really be better off with?
Credit: This Is London

Whilst current MORI polls declare the battle for Mayor a two-horse race (sorry Lib Dems, sorry Greens, sorry everyone else), Londoners are still somewhat divided over which candidate knows more about particular issues or who can actually deliver on their campaign promises.  Whilst Boris wins on likeability he is only 1% more trusted than Ken.  Ken is deemed more useful in a crisis and is seen to have a far better grip on detail.  Whilst Boris fights back as a better ambassador for the city and is also cited as being more likely to get the best deal for Londoners from the government, only 26% of those polled thought he had the best understanding of the concerns of ordinary Londoners; almost 50% of voters thought that Ken had a better grasp on this.  (Although a recent farce involving a contrived video and some unconvincing tears may have undone Ken's credibility in this department.)  Possibly the most telling figures however indicate that voters simply do not know who has the better policies on matters such as crime, jobs and growth and housing.  What both candidates clearly need to do is communicate better.

Usually as local elections gather speed my letter-box is rammed with leaflets and pamphlets, pushing voters to make 'the right choice'.  But two weeks until poll day and I've received nothing from the front-runners, encouraging me to vote for them or even telling me what they're standing for.  I have had a four-pager from the Lib Dems promoting their candidate, Brian Paddick (well tried, guys, but we know how voting for you turned out last time), but nothing from Boris or Ken.  Have they forgotten North London or are they too busy arguing over who swore at who in a lift?  Should we really take seriously this pair who would rather score points over each other than win over the citizens whose interests they claim to represent?  With the Olympics looming and a atmosphere of financial gloom still plaguing the city London needs a solid leader who will propel the place back to productivity, prosperity and positivity.  So come on, boys.  Stop messing around and step up!  London needs you, whichever one of you it elects.      

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Bishop's Avenue: London's Millionaire's Row

Whilst Chelsea, Kensington, Belgravia and Mayfair boast the vast majority of the city's richest inhabitants, North London also claims its fair share.  Up in the north of the city they cluster in vast mansions ringing Regents Park and Hampstead Heath, and lining the city's very own 'Millionaire's Row'; The Bishop's Avenue.  This prestigious place - a residential address so exclusive it merits a 'The' in its name - skirts the northern edge of Hampstead Heath, taking its name from the nearby Bishops Wood.  One can walk from Hampstead to East Finchley along its length, and what a peculiar walk it is.
At the East Finchley end are identikit McMansions, blank and thoroughly unremarkable - in fact the only thing notable about these houses is their sheer size.  Set back from the road the houses sit, sometimes almost entirely obscurred from view by high fences and thick hedges, behind paved driveways covered in Porsches and Range Rovers.  Some of these new houses pretend to be old, sporting fake wooden beams and solely decorative chimney-stacks, whilst others are just unashamedly modern, with their plastic window frames and high-tech entry systems gleaming on their iron gates.  The occasional house has two sets of gates, labelled somewhat ostentatiously 'In' and 'Out'.  More than one set of pillars by the entrance bears Arabic script, and much of the decoration around the perimeter of the plots is distinctly 'UAE bling'; acres of marble, inlaid gold lettering, showy fountains spurting perfectly aquamarine water.

This is not particularly surprising however when you learn who earns these palaces; and it's not hard to work out who it is likely to be when you recall who has come out of the recession better than most.  Many of the owners of the houses on Millionaire's Row (often even referred to as 'Billionaire's Row' as prices have spiralled upward, despite the recent global financial downturn) are owned by, what an estate agent responsible for many sales here described as, 'international ultra-high-net-worth individuals'.  And yes, we're talking Middle East businessmen and Russian oligarchs here; the Sultan of Brunei and the House of Saud are noted property-owners on The Bishop's Avenue.  However, as the financial crisis has bit in the UK many of the British residents have fled (Heather Mills, formerly McCartney, to name but one former British inhabitant), downsizing to more manageable mansions elsewhere.  Many houses were put up for sale, but when your home costs 30 or 40 million pounds the buyers are few and far between during a recession.  Some have remained on the estate agents' books unsold.     

Moving further towards the Heath the plots grow in size, but many of houses built on them do not appear to be inhabited - are these the unwanted, unsold casualties of the recession?  Maybe leaving a property empty is cheaper than attempting to sell it.  Besides the ubiquitous security signs, warning of round the clock surveillance of these properties, enormous gates are padlocked shut, take-away menus spill out of over-full post-boxes and overgrown weeds cover the driveways in place of the shiny sports-cars further down the road.  I wonder how often the owners of 'Summer Palace' actually stay there.  Just for the summer if the name of the place is anything to go by - but then why on earth would you choose to spend summer in London, where it will likely rain solidly for three months?  
At least two large houses are in the process of being demolished; one obviously so, an incomplete skeleton, another more discretely, with the frame of someone's onetime home still in tact. Wallpaper that someone (or their costly interior designer) had probably spent hours choosing hangs on an exposed wall, windows are propped ajar, now letting in a little more than a bit of fresh air.  There is something rather sad about a house that no one wants anymore; all those memories it once contained abandoned along with the rooms inside. Once well-tended lawns colonised by weeds are patrolled by German Shepherds and uniformed guards, but no one would even bother squatting here.

Where the extremely wealthy once lived are now empty spaces and the damp, discarded remnants of palatial estates.  This aspect of The Bishop's Avenue suggested sad things about London's claim to be the global financial capital; does the city not possess the money to rebuild or maintain such extraordinary houses any longer?  Maybe it simply suggests that North London is no longer where the city's rich and fabulous want to live.  Or perhaps the owners of these places have so much cash that, rather than redecorate, they prefer to tear down an unsatisfying kitchen or a disliked private gym and to rebuild the house of their dreams from scratch, splashing their cash and perpetuating The Bishop's Avenue as London's 'Millionaire's Row'.

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Friday, 6 April 2012

Rules for life in London, courtesy of Rudyard Kipling

Moving to live in a city like London is a constant learning process.  Learning the fastest routes from A to B, learning where to buy the perfect take-away coffee, learning how to avoid the tourists and which local pub is best for a date, a girly catch-up or a Sunday roast.  Whilst a favourite catchphrase of the Accidental Father's is 'You can't pass on experience', such key knowledge of a place is highly influential in determining the sort of experience you have there.  Whenever I meet someone from out of town, or people ask for recommendations and advice on London, I pass on my experience freely. Who knows how useful restaurant and entertainment recommendations are to visitors or the details of the locations of bus stops and major stations.  Maybe the smaller things I have learnt, but now take for granted as tacit knowledge, would be more helpful; like avoid the Jubilee Line at weekends (it'll probably be shut) or Boris Bikes are not worth the hassle - walk everywhere instead. 
The wonderful 'Letters of Note' recently featured a letter from the writer Rudyard Kipling, to his young daughter, Elsie (nicknamed 'Bird'), as she prepared for a visit to London; in it he proposes 7 rules for life in London.  Many of his tips are as relevant today as they were in 1908, when he originally transcribed them.  Many are applicable to life in any big city or even life in general.  They are all so sweetly charming that I just had to share them.

'Dear Bird,

[...]

I send you a few simple rules for Life in London.

1. Wash early and often with soap and hot water.

2. Do not roll on the grass of the parks. It will come off black on your dress.

3. Never eat penny buns, oysters, periwinkles or peppermints on the top of a bus. It annoys the passengers.

4. Be kind to policemen. You never know when you may be taken up.

5. Never stop a motor bus with your foot. It is not a croquet ball.

6. Do not attempt to take pictures off the wall of the National Gallery or to remove cases of butterflies from the National History Museum. You will be noticed if you do.

7. Avoid late hours, pickled salmon, public meetings, crowded crossings, gutters, water-carts and over-eating.

Ever your
Daddo'

(Source: O Beloved Kids: Rudyard Kipling's Letters to His Children; Image: Rudyard Kipling, via Wikimedia and Letters of Note.)

Now I think everyone would agree that old Rudyard was pretty wise, and I hope little Elsie/Bird took his words to heart.  I would abide by most of those rules, excepting the avoidance of late hours and over-eating; London has way too many fun places to boogie of a late night or early morning, and too many tasty treats for abstemious consumption.  As for the grass-rolling, well, advances in stain-removal would probably make this less of an issue today.  Crisp packets were probably less of a problem in 1908, but I would certainly add them to the list of things not to eat on buses.  I cannot fault R.K.'s advise on motor buses however.  Maybe all us Londoners today should listen to Mr Kipling, adhering to the underlying sentiments of his letter; take care of yourself, be good, and avoid the crowds.  Rules to live by, my friends.

Monday, 2 April 2012

An Accidental Londoner Abroad for the Australian Times: A visit to an old slave fort in Ghana

In the absence of proper London-y writing recently, here is my latest piece in the 'An Accidental Londoner Abroad' series.  Written about Ghana for the Australian Times (by a Brit - how's that for a wonderful national melange?), it's an account of my visit to an old slave fort in Cape Coast, on my fabulous Ghanaian trip last year.  It was one of the highlights of my trips to Ghana, utterly fascinating despite forcing me to confront a particularly uncomfortable feature of European and African history.
So read on, on the Australian Times website here, for tales of castles, dungeons, an awkward fainting incident, and a triumphant return.

http://www.australiantimes.co.uk/travel/travel-inspiration/down-a-deep-dark-african-dungeon.htm
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