27 April 2007
23 April 2007
What I can report is that one of the last things a chap wants to occur on a Tube train when he’s rushing to make a job interview appointment in Canary Wharf is for a chap in his carriage to keel over and faint in mid-tunnel en route. It wasn’t too hot in the carriage, so I’m guessing it was some minor medical thing. Someone pulled the emergency cord and the train put out its anchors and ground to a halt. A woman who evidently had a nursing background was sitting nearby, and she took control instantly, instructing the driver to move along to the next station so the passenger could be evacuated and given some fresh air. Good thing she didn’t decide to conduct impromptu open-heart surgery with a Swiss Army knife, because bloodstains on my suit would’ve seriously undermined my chances at the subsequent interview. “It’s alright, I was just knocked down by an offal cart” just doesn’t cut it with potential employers these days. (As it happens, I still managed to make the interview with a few minutes to spare).
On Friday morning, after my last interview of the week, I experienced what I hope was an excellent omen. On the way back to my temp job at the BOA, people were giving out free Kit Kat bars outside Holborn station. What greater mark of a robust and healthy society is there than the free dispensation of chocolate to the needy? It’s the modern-day version of Roman emperors scattering sestertii to the plebs. After I’d been handed mine, I noticed that one of the other Kit Kat girls was busy responding to a text message, and so was neglecting to hand out chocolate bars to passing pedestrians. Londoners being Londoners, people were thrusting their hands into her open Kit Kat satchels and rummaging around for dairy milk booty while she studiously ignored them and continued texting. It reminded me of those nature programmes where a sow is suckling fourteen piglets at once, and just sits back and thinks of England.
After work on Friday I had a proper social night on the town. First I met Craig Penn at his regular haunt, The Champion pub on Wells Street, just off Oxford Street. It was nice to catch up with Craig and meet some of his animation industry buddies. Then I legged it to a Japanese restaurant called Ribon on Holborn Viaduct near St Paul’s, where Felix’s mate Hannah was having a karaoke birthday celebration. I performed a show-stopping rendition of Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That A Kick In The Head”. Show-stopping in the sense that it was half decent, not that it caused the venue to be evacuated due to my strangulated howling, that is. A very successful evening out.
On Saturday morning, Richard, Sam and I flitted into town on the train to browse at the Borough Market, which is a collection of dozens of food and produce stalls arrayed about the fantastically-named Green Dragon Square near the southern end of London Bridge on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The tower of brownies was a highlight for me. Obviously has stronger foundations than the one in Pisa.
Afterwards we walked along the sunny South Bank past the Globe, where a policeman was regaling tourists with Shakespearean sonnets (see below), then crossed the Millennium Bridge and had a nose around the shops at Covent Garden, where a brass band was playing as flags of St George fluttered in the breeze, and the officially posted market regulations state that ‘no person shall shell Peas or Beans, trim Vegetables, shake Nuts, peel Walnuts or sort Fruit, in, on or over, and of the Footpaths’, with a potential penalty of ten shillings to transgressors.
After R & S departed for other engagements, I took in Little Miss Sunshine at the Prince Charles. Its strong cast and good indie cinema appeal at the Oscars had raised my expectations, and it proved to be as appealing as everyone says it is. Naturally, the genuine sweetness of tiny Abigail Breslin is a proper delight – yes, Dakota Fanning, this is how not to be an annoying little girl in a movie! – but the other cast-members, particularly Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear, also pitch their performances just right. And the film’s ending at the child beauty pageant in California, which I won’t give away in case you’ve not seen it, is a real comedy treat.
On the train home my carriage contained numerous suburban football supporters on their way home from seeing Tottenham’s 2-2 draw with Arsenal. As neither team had won, it meant neither team had superior bragging rights, so their post-game bluster and bravado led to a certain degree of ritualistic shouting and chanting. And – cover your ears vicar! – quite a bit of blue language too. Lucky the trip to Croydon doesn’t take too long…
Sunday was even busier than Saturday. Richard & I went to Tower Bridge to enjoy the cheering crowds encouraging the London Marathon runners onwards. Then we stopped at Southwark Cathedral briefly to see the start of a Venetian-style masque parade from the churchyard to the Globe in honour of Shakespeare’s birthday. And as the morning turned into a sultry afternoon, we joined the crowds outside Buckingham Palace to watch the end of the men’s marathon. A tight parcel of male runners rounded the corner in the distance and sprinted for the line while the crowd whooped and cheered them on, making it an exciting and dramatic finish. (Pics are on Flickr).
After some lunch and a philosophical discussion of the English national psyche at a pub in Carnaby Street, I showed Richard the myriad electronics emporiums of Tottenham Court Road, where he was absolutely in his element.
Book of the week: Big Money, written by P.G. Wodehouse in 1931. A recitation of the plot in this case seems rather superfluous (although I’ll shortly do so anyway). It’s a Wodehouse plot exactly like omnibus-loads of other Wodehouse plots, and excellent for it. Mistaken identity, posh scroungers, irascible millionaires, double-dealing lawyers, suburban blackguards, American heiresses, false beards, and a fail-safe get-rich-quick scheme to rescue the woeful finances of our worthy heroes, Berry and The Biscuit (aka Lord Biskerton), who find themselves accidentally courting each other’s fiancées. What more could a chap want in a page-turning paperback b.?
DVD of the week: Although I’ll probably wait until I can watch it on a proper TV screen, I’m indebted to the kindly soul who ordered me a history DVD on Alexander the Great for my birthday. Unfortunately there wasn’t a From address, so I don’t know who to thank. So, if you’re reading this, do make yourself known and I’ll bestow my proper thankyous!
And happy St George's Day to you all...
17 April 2007
Most of you will be aware that the London Underground is not the cleanest place on earth. Although contrary to some reports it's not as bad as, say, the Black Hole of Calcutta. But an incident I witnessed on the Piccadilly Line at the weekend reminded me of the need for eternal vigilance.
In a crowded eastbound Tube train near Gloucester Road, a man was transporting his pram-dwelling son, a tot of perhaps 12 to 18 months. Said scion was well-behaved, perhaps in part because of the rubber dummy in his mouth, which he was avidly savouring in a contemplative fashion. But at one point the small sir plucked the dummy from his mouth, waved it about a bit in the manner of many pushchair generals, and then flung it onto the ancient lino floor of the tube carriage. A floor that had seen decades of grimy shoe heels and probably boasts umpteen encrusted layers of discarded chewing-gum.
Quick-thinking Pater scooped up the dummy as it rolled on the well-trodden floor. Not wanting to deprive his son and heir of his favourite accessory, and as there was no Mater in sight, he quickly popped the dummy in his own mouth and twizzled it around to 'clean' it. And then he promptly reinserted the dummy into his son's welcoming gob.
Whatever happened to the good old dab of spit on a hanky, is what I want to know?
16 April 2007
You can't hide, run with the dogs tonight
12 April 2007
Here's a picture to prove to a doubting public that it all really happened.
Left to right: Richard, Fiona, Steve, Felix, Gavin and me.
The station in Portsmouth is right by the harbour. The appearance of the immediate vicinity is not particularly encouraging, and the bus interchange is rather decrepit in a post-war slapdash concrete sort of way. Across the way, the fading sign for the Lady Hamilton Hotel is missing a large proportion of its letters (“THE ADY HAM”) as it peeps over the drab concrete of the bus station.
Before my journey I had noted the minor hubbub caused by Tory MP and media personality Boris Johnson, who recently said of Portsmouth:
"Here we are, in one of the most depressed towns in Southern England, a place that is arguably too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs."
As I eagerly scanned the denizens, I concluded that he just might’ve had a point, as there seemed to be a larger than usual proportion of more amply-girthed individuals. But then again, Boris Johnson is in no position to point the finger in that regard. And I wasn’t too fussed about wilful displays of drugs, underachievement and Labour MPs either – after all, I’ve seen plenty of that in Parliament. (Boom boom!) Even less flattering was the analysis of English website Chavtowns.co.uk, which details the naffest of the UK’s boroughs. But none of it’s that repeatable.
Anyway. Eager to get rid of my backpack, I took a bus to Southsea, where Portsmouth’s only hostel is located. It’s about 2.75km back to the centre of town, so I did a fair bit of walking. Portsmouth is a round peninsula, and if you imagine it shaped like a clock-face, the base of the peninsula is at 12 o’clock, the main port and historic docklands are at 9 o’clock, and Southsea is located at 6 o’clock.
The hostel itself is a modest but reasonable affair – nothing flash, but seemingly well-run by the Chinese couple in charge of things. It was quite nostalgic to return to an independent hostel for the first time in a couple of years. Hectoring notices tacked to every spare surface issued firm edicts about acceptable behaviour. (But when I remembered certain types of backpackers, I guess a little clear explanation of civil behaviour doesn’t go amiss). Here's a shot of the kitchen wall to bring back fond memories of hostelling:
Eager to acclimatise and take the airs on a sunny afternoon, I walked along the seafront promenade, past the squat defences of Southsea Castle (built 1544). Further towards the harbour, the path passes through Clarence Pier’s boldly-lit funfair, where the locals can ride a mini-rollercoaster or lurk in darkened halls to shell their coins into umpteen flashing slot machines. Not my cup of tea, but I have to admit being intrigued by the faded banner outside one establishment that read, “American Simulator – It’s Great!” I wondered if it simulated places in America, or if it actually simulated the condition of being an American. It’d certainly wreak havoc with my diet, for one thing.
In the centre of town on the site of an old naval wharf, Portsmouth now sports the shiny new development of outlet stores, restaurants and marina facilities known as Gunwharf Quays. (One of the shops is called ‘Fat Face’: have they been talking to Boris Johnson?). The centrepiece of the precinct is the striking Spinnaker Tower (pic), a 170m sail-shaped structure with glass-enclosed viewing decks near its summit.
In the evening I took the chance to see A Prairie Home Companion at a local cinema. Director Robert Altman’s last feature film, the movie is a warm and funny snapshot of a real (and barely-disguised) radio variety programme. While it’s likely to appeal most to people like me, who have enjoyed the radio show for years, APHC also features a quality supporting cast (Streep, Tomlin, Harrelson, Kline, and yes, even Lohan) to work with the genial host, the writer and performer Garrison Keillor. And the top-notch musical numbers are a real treat too.
The next morning I set off along the waterfront again with the aim of reaching the Portsmouth Historic Dockyards, the main objective of my visit, by the 10am opening time. As I legged it to the middle of town, squadrons of ferries roared out into the even waters of the Solent, bound for the Isle of Wight or the nearby ports of France, and a heavy naval support vessel, HMS Cardigan Bay, edged its way to the docks with the help of two tenders.
The dockyards proved to be every bit as interesting as I’d hoped, and by the time I’d finished seeing everything it was nearly 4.30pm. (It was expensive, mind – I wanted to get my money’s worth!).
It was a real highlight to finally tread the boards on HMS Victory, Lord Nelson’s famous flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The spot he was fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet is marked with a small plaque. Down below decks the ceiling timbers and crossbeams make for a lot of stooping, but it’s all fitted out in an authentic recreation of its appearance during the Napoleonic Wars, 24-pounder guns and all.
In a part of the Navy Museum devoted to Nelson, I noticed an eerie plaster cast that initially appeared to be Nelson’s deathmask from 1805 (pic). Recent research has revealed that it’s more likely to be a mask taken from Nelson’s features during his lifetime, probably in Vienna in 1800.
In a giant climate-controlled shed nearby I saw the remains of the Mary Rose (pic), the massive galleon that was the pride of Henry VIII’s navy until it capsized and sank with great loss of life in 1545, not far from Southsea Castle. Since the remains of the hull and decks were raised from the Solent silt in 1982, scientists have been endeavouring to restore the ship to something of its former glory. For the past several years the hull has been living behind glass in a strange, Venusian mist, as it's being sprayed with a waxy solution to thicken the fragile timbers. After several more years of this procedure, the vessel will be able to withstand normal air and temperature conditions, and will emerge from its murky holding pen. A nearby museum holds many relics found onboard or nearby the wreck, including cannons, dozens of longbows, and even a crewman’s backgammon set.
A 40-minute harbour cruise was included as part of the ticket, which took in all of the Royal Navy warships in port that day. All three of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers were in port: HMS Ark Royal, HMS Illustrious, and the reserve carrier HMS Invincible. Amongst the smaller vessels present was the destroyer HMS Nottingham, which notoriously ran aground near Lord Howe Island in 2002 and caused the Navy no end of embarrassment.
Back on dry land, the last stop in the docklands visit was HMS Warrior, the world's first ocean-going iron-hulled armoured battleship. Built in 1860, Warrior was only in service for 14 years, and later acted as a reserve vessel, storage hulk, depot ship and oil jetty until it was rescued from scrapping in 1979. Its clean lines and spacious decks are an interesting counterpoint to the cramped conditions aboard the historic Victory, and its brass-plated ship's wheel bore the pleasingly peculiar inscription 'Princess Is Much Pleased'.
Later that evening in the hostel I heard some backpackers talking about a football match that day, and then I realised why I’d heard so many TVs tuned to football while I walked through town. Portsmouth FC was playing a home game at Fratton Park against the evil behemoth Manchester United, and against all odds pulled off a stunning 2-1 win. Aside from listening to the backpackers (including one genuinely named Waverley) rabbit on about New Zealand all the time, and wondering if I’d been as much of a bore about it when I first started traveling, I devoted my evening to starting Nevil Shute’s chilling nuclear war potboiler from 1957, On The Beach.
Having seen the docklands, I decided to head back to London in the morning, to get back in time for lunch. As the 0932 service to Waterloo sped back through Hampshire to the big city, passing through thin woodlands and gentle streams, the only distractions from the view were the exploits of Noisy Crisp Man behind me (chew with your mouth closed please, you’re not four years old) and Sniff Kid who joined us at Woking. Handkerchiefs are obviously not mandatory equipment these days. He’ll regret not bringing one when he gets the Black Death, won’t he now?
10 April 2007
Tierney Clark's bridge was replaced in 1887 by Joseph Bazalgette's bridge, which remains in place and in use today. Resting on the same piers constructed for the original bridge, Bazalgette's bridge is an ornate affair, its two pairs of towers decorated with the gilded coats of arms of the Metropolitan Board of Works and of Middlesex, Kent and Guildford. Critics were divided on its architectural merit, according to Barbara Denny in her 1995 book, Hammersmith & Shepherd's Bush Past:
Thomas Faulkner considered the 1827 bridge to be 'one of the most magnificent works of art that modern ingenuity and skill have produced'. On the other hand, the architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, condemned Bazalgette's bridge for its 'atrocious, portly gilt pylons crowned by little Frenchy pavilion tops with elephantine ornaments on its approaches'.
Today the bridge is a busy thoroughfare linking the heart of central Hammersmith with the affluent suburbs of Barnes and Richmond. But the history of the second bridge has also involved two noteworthy acts of heroism that few modern-day users are aware of.
Lt Charles Campbell Wood
Two days after Christmas in 1919, Lt Charles Campbell Wood of the Royal Air Force earned a small place in history, but he earned it the hard way. One of an estimated 3000 South Africans who served as airmen for the British cause during World War I, young Campbell Wood was a native of Bloemfontein in the Free State.
Near midnight on a cold London winter evening Campbell Wood heard a call for help from the Thames. Rushing onto the western, upriver side of the Hammersmith Bridge, he saw a woman in peril, caught in the river's flow and in dire danger of expiring. Diving into the river to rescue her, Campbell Wood saved the woman's life. But in so doing, he also severely injured his head, and this eventually brought about his death in hospital from tetanus.
Today the only reminder of his story is a small brass plaque on a handrail, which marks the spot on the bridge where Campbell Wood dived into the Thames to risk his life to save the life of a complete stranger.
The second hero of the bridge was Chiswick hairdresser Maurice Childs, who was using the bridge to walk home early on the morning of 29 March 1939. The Irish Republican Army had chosen Hammersmith Bridge as a target for a campaign of bombing on the British mainland, and that morning two explosive devices with timers had been planted to damage or destroy the structure. Childs’ account reports that he spotted an abandoned suitcase on the bridge, emitting smoke and sparks. The curious hairdresser opened the mysterious suitcase to find a bomb within. He flung the suitcase into the river, whereupon it exploded, sending up a plume of water. Shortly afterwards the second bomb exploded, knocking down some bridge girders and breaking some windows in nearby buildings.
The bridge was only superficially damaged, and Mr Childs was later awarded an MBE for his actions. The two IRA bombers were captured, and received jail sentences of 20 and 10 years respectively.
Below: Bomb damage to Hammersmith Bridge, March 1939. Photo from Denny, 1995.
02 April 2007
One evening I caught an excellent documentary on the UK History channel. The Meet The Ancestors programme sent an expedition to the West African Sahara Desert to try to excavate the remains of a BOAC Handley-Page Hermes turboprop airliner (G-ALDN) that crashed in May 1952 due to a navigation error. After suffering relatively minor injuries in the forced landing, the passengers and crew, including a mother with a young baby, had to walk 15 miles in the midst of a fierce sandstorm to rendezvous with a French rescue party. Although they reached their destination, sadly the First Officer died of exhaustion before he could be evacuated to a hospital.
The programme's excavators failed to find the aircraft fuselage, because a local Bedouin merchant had hauled it away for scrap metal resale only a few years before. But in two moving scenes that closed the programme, the widow of the dead First Officer was brought from England to see his simple but well-kept grave in a lush desert oasis for one last time. And it was also revealed that one of the expedition crew, who had done a few interviews to camera during the programme, had actually been the baby involved in the crash. His mother died in a road accident in 1953, so for both the widow and the grown son, the trip to the desert was one last opportunity to connect with their lost family members.
After work on Thursday I headed over to Deptford Bridge to watch the cricket with Steve & Fiona, and enjoy some decent fish & chips from their local shop. Decent fish & chips are hard to track down in London, and even a good shop bears little relation to those in New Zealand in terms of quality and taste. But this one on the Greenwich High Road is pretty good - and of course New Zealand's seven-wicket victory over the West Indies helped to set the seal on a good evening.
It's been a reasonably busy weekend too. Richard & Sam have secured their flat, so I look forward to seeing that soon. Will probably move there in the next couple of weeks until I secure a full-time job with a decent salary. But of course there's the small issue of the Oakley-Ngatai offspring on the way, so that should keep things interesting!
On Saturday I had to thread my way over the Hammersmith Bridge through a mass of milling posh people who crowded the narrow pedestrian lanes to cheer on the Oxford Boat Race rowing crew, which was practicing for the big race. The whole bridge was lined with well-bred young supporters, many of whom had flowed bibulously from The Old City Arms pub at the north end of the bridge, with their pint glasses in hand. I think the race itself is on 7 April, so I might be out of town for that one.
In town that evening I signed up as a member of the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, so I can now get £3 movie tickets. This might not sound too impressive until you consider that an ordinary ticket at the Odeon nearby costs £12.50, which is the equivalent of NZ$34.40. The PCC is a funny old 'grindhouse' - the cinema floor slopes up rather than down to the screen, so watching a film there can feel as if you're in a rollercoaster seat. And the screen's not that big. And people light up their mobile phone screens during the movie to check their text messages. (Don't get me started on mobile phone etiquette!). But hey, it's affordable and has some interesting stuff on, and that's the main thing.
My first Prince Charles film was the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film Babel. There are four intersecting dramas played out in the film, and while the overall effect was a little uneven - the Moroccan Perils of Pauline-style woes of Pitt and Blanchett were probably the weakest element of the film, despite the star power - but there were some powerful images and soundscapes to absorb. The Mexican sub-story rings truest, which is unsurprising given the origins of the director, and it packs a real punch in its depiction of the harshness with which Mexicans are treated by US border officials. While the Japanese sub-story is relatively simplistic and naive, it's redeemed by the nightclub scene in which the audience hears the booming bass of the disco music just as deaf-mute schoolgirl Chieko would: everything is stripped away from the track (a remix of Earth, Wind and Fire's 'September') until all that remains is the pile-driver bass earthquakes that pound the entire room. I'll definitely be on the lookout for the film soundtrack - aside from the club music and Ryuchi Sakamoto's stylings in the Japanese scenes, there's also uplifting mariachi pop from the Mexican wedding scene, and eerie North African drones from Morocco to complement the harsh desert light. It's not hard to see why Babel won Best Original Score at the Oscars.
Today I ventured into the thick of it at the Camden Markets, which is particularly brave on a sunny Sunday, because everyone else has the same idea. It's still a teeming mass of humanity (pic), and there's a lot of gawpers and gawpees on display, but the goods on offer remain appealing and there's a huge variety of stalls and shops to browse, if you can reach them through the torrent of people.
As the afternoon ebbed into a golden-hued dusk I explored the north bank of the Thames near Hammersmith. I followed the Thames Path, which wends its way along the riverside past houseboat moorings ringed with paddling swans and ducks. The journey was punctuated by several upmarket pubs and restaurants that were heavily patronised by the immaculately-clad scions of noble and well-moneyed houses, who had come to bask in the sunshine and consume a beer or two with their chums. Further westwards, the Thames disappears for a time behind the iron railings and high hedges of private gardens belonging to the residents of the imposing riverside mansions on the town side of the path. One building of dark bricks had not one but two plaques adorning it - proclaiming that not only was it the home of the first electric telegraph, constructed by Sir Francis Ronalds in 1816, but that it was also the site of the lecture-room of the Hammersmith Socialists in later years.
Book of the week: Pompeii by Robert Harris. Having read and enjoyed Harris's Fatherland a few years ago, I spotted this in the library last week. While Harris will never stun the world with legendary prose, his books are good solid tales a grade or two above the average airport thriller. This one concerns Attilius, a young engineer from Rome, who is sent to Pompeii to run the town's aqueduct, because the previous engineer has mysteriously disappeared. Naturally, given that it's called 'Pompeii', Vesuvius and Pliny the Elder make an appearance, as does the good old pyroclastic eruption, which is the best possible excuse to get out of spring-cleaning your Roman villa. One to read if, like me, you're planning to visit the ruins at some stage.
This week I'll be sorting out my plans for Easter, trying to arrange somewhere fun to go. I've yet to venture out of London, so I'm really looking forward to a bit of a tiki-tour. Hope you all have a good Easter break too!