29 June 2007

An area of urban depravity

I recently enjoyed a stint house-sitting for Steve and Fiona in their apartment at Deptford Bridge while they were away for a fortnight or so seeing Scandinavia. After the experience, I can report that the idea of apartment dwelling is definitely appealing. The apartment is a fourth-floor, one-bedroom affair, and while it's not large, it's just the right size for one or two. It's located in a precinct of about ten other modern apartment blocks, but the overall design has craftily placed the buildings and their balconies and windows to ensure that there's no feeling of living cheek-by-jowl with one's neighbours. And I particularly enjoyed having the Docklands Light Rail station only a few minutes walk away, even if the DLR line did pass only about 25m from the apartment's bedroom window, which meant the loud train rattling seeped through the double glazing in the early morning and late at night. I got used to it pretty quickly.

One unusual aspect of the apartment precinct and the closeness of the DLR station is that the area in which it resides is not what you'd call salubrious. (Perhaps it's labelled an 'area of urban deprivation'. I've always thought there should be an associated category for 'areas of urban depravity'. Just so upright types would know to avoid or bring their blinkers to avoid seeing anything corrupt). Just one stop up the DLR is posh Greenwich with its boutiques and cafes, but Deptford Bridge is closer to grimy New Cross in style and outlook. But the size of the apartment precinct means it's hard to imagine what the area was like before the development occurred.

I was also very impressed with the soundproofing of the double-glazing and the walls. There wasn't a peep out of the neighbours. The only real negative was the faulty fire alarm that went off for an hour or so in one of the neighbouring buildings at 5am on a Friday morning. Any alarm that goes off at that hour had better be real! After ensuring that the apartment wasn't wreathed in flickering flames and full of billowing grey smoke, I just popped my earplugs in and went back to sleep.


23 June 2007

Summer flight details

To Iceland:
Monday 2 July 
Depart Gatwick 0730
Arrive Reykjavik 0945
Sunday 8 July
Depart Reykjavik 1045
Arrive Gatwick 1450
To America:
Sat 25 August
Depart Gatwick 1030
Arrive Newark, NJ 1320
Sat 25 August
Depart Newark, NJ 1710
Arrive Raleigh, NC 1855
(overland to Washington & NYC)
Sat 8 Sept
Depart Newark, NJ 1850
Arrive Gatwick 0655 (+1 day)

12 June 2007

Womble hunting

Yesterday I took advantage of the superb weather and went for a wander up on Wimbledon Common. Picked up a bit of a suntan, but didn't manage to run into any wombles. This despite rustling an empty crisp packet as a lure. They can hear potential litter at a hundred metres, scientists say.

Despite the lack of Uncle Bulgaria & co., I did manage to spot a few other beasts, including a squirrel with jolly long nails. Could do with a squirrel nail trimmer service up on the Common, I reckon.

06 June 2007

My littlest flatmate

Baby Otene, aged 3 1/2 weeks

Baby Otene (aged 5 1/2 weeks) & family

01 June 2007

Rising Damp

I was initially planning to call this brief journal entry on my weekend in Cambridge and Ely something like 'The Bridge on the River Cam' - nothing too inventive, but enough to provide a flavour of the place. Instead, I had no choice but to reflect the overwhelmingly dominant feature of the weekend: the rain. This was not just some passing late spring shower or two. No - it rained and rained and rained. It kept going for at least 48 hours. Even on my last day there, when I woke up and looked out the window, I briefly thought it had stopped. But instead of raining, it was spitting. And this spitting was soon replaced with proper rain, just to reinforce the theme. But am I a defeatist, able to be battered down by a vista of permanent lachrymosity? Have I not put up with everything Wellington had to throw at me for seven whole years? Several of which were spent in Karori, where it's even worse than average? Too right I have.

It was a bank holiday weekend, and as luck would have it, I also had a spare day from work, making it a splendid four-day affair. Staying in London for Saturday so as to take in the performance of Called To Account, I took the train up to Cambridge from Liverpool Street station on Sunday. The train eased out through East London brick valleys punctuated with gasometers and barbed-wire ringed electricity substations, and was soon knifing its way through the countryside, rattling and squeaking on its old suspension. It overtook huge banks of slate-grey rainclouds too - an ominous portent.

The YHA is located only a few hundred metres from the railway station, so I checked in right away and dropped my backpack to explore the town. Like Canterbury, which I visited a month or so ago, I've visited Cambridge before - ten years ago - but I remember very little of it, fresh as I was into the world of backpacking in 1997. Now that I'm a hardened old lag, I knew to head straight for the closest, dryest, cheapest attraction. This is the Fitzwilliam Museum, a splendid archaeological collection located in an imposing neo-classical structure slightly to the south of the centre of town. Highlights for me included the collection of Egyptian grave-goods in remarkable condition, like the wicker pot-lid that had been preserved in the bone-dry desert climate for a full five thousand years. And from a later period, there was an example of the impressive innovative spirit of the Roman Army - a well-preserved multi-tool eating utensil from the 3rd century AD, featuring a folding spoon, fork and knife, with not one but two fold-out toothpicks.

Upstairs in the art collections there was an entertaining collection of English and French caricatures from the Revolutionary period in the 1790s, which provided an appealing contrast between the English and French attitudes to the Terror and cross-Channel relations. The English, led by the devastating wit of the leading satirist, Gillray, at first lampooned the French peasant rabble, then grew increasingly strident in their depictions of fearsome sans culottes and toothless revolutionary harridans. The French, on the other hand, enjoyed poking fun at peculiar English habits, such as the foolish passtime of walking carrying gigantic umbrellas, and the curious habit of Englishmen to spend their after-dinner time getting rolling drunk, while English women spent their time sitting together without saying a word. (No Frankish prolixity here)

As luck would have it, St John's College was holding a screening of the English cop comedy film Hot Fuzz, so that evening I was able to saunter through the grand porticos and ivy-fringed quadrangles of the college, crossing the little Cam by the college's own replica (1831) of Venice's Bridge of Sighs. The modern theatre inside the college boasted its own guardian black cat who asked me politely to open a door that proved to be locked. I got a miffed catty stare for my efforts. The film itself was reasonably entertaining, but the jokes didn't live up to the quality of those in its predecessor, Shaun of the Dead.

Taking advantage of the fulsome breakfast available in the YHA basement, I fortified myself for a damp day, and donned an extra layer of clothes. Setting off for a wander along The Backs, the fields to the west of the Cam, I quickly encountered pelting rain that rendered most sightseeing largely pointless. It also helped to get me a little bit lost, as I was reluctant to get my map soaked through repeated open-air consultation. No matter - after half an hour of trudging I ended up back in the town centre's market square. Cyclists darted from every direction, and bikes were padlocked to any stationary object, often two or three deep. Almost no-one wears cycle helmets, preferring the rain in their hair, although two dem fain gels from Queens College did sport matching chandelier earrings to augment their cycling tracksuits.

The many colleges dominate the town, and from a tourist's perspective most are pay-to-enter or don't permit visitors at all. But plenty can be seen from the street, including the famous carved statue of Henry VIII that used to hold the sceptre of office, but who now grasps an ordinary table-leg, the original sceptre having been stolen many years ago. Traces of medieval architecture remain too - the famous Round Church (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) was built by the Knights Templar in 1130 to honour its namesake in Jerusalem. Everywhere there are shops selling Cambridge University regalia and touristwear (see below). One exception is the boutique on the corner of Trinity Street and Trinity Lane (yes, both lead to Trinity College) - the shop is called Sweaty Betty, which amused me for some reason.

To thaw myself out around lunchtime I ventured into a Starbucks and consumed a warm liquid with a taste strangely reminiscent of - but not remotely like - coffee. After that revivification, I plodded out to another college building in which the Museum of Classical Archaeology was located. The museum only contains sculpture casts: no originals. And yet it was an intriguing place, with dozens of statues and friezes crowded here and there. The copies were of the highest quality, particularly the massive Zeus, Athena and Hercules statues (pic, pic). And it was easy to see, as the curators point out, how the decidedly average Venus di Milo was more of a triumph for savvy French promotion than for classical sculpture. (Insert your own 'armless' joke here)

After lunch I wandered back to the train station and took a local service 15 or 20 minutes north to the small town of Ely, to visit its impressive cathedral. En route, I managed to warm my left trouser leg on the carriage heater, so at least half of my jeans were reasonably dry. Aside from its impressive vintage, work having been started on it originally in 1080, Ely Cathedral also benefits from a superb location, perched atop a gentle ridge and garlanded by pretty English meadowland. Its superb nave is bracketed by Norman arches (pic), and enjoys a rich array of exterior light. Off to one side, the Prior's Door is ringed with 12th-century stone carvings, but along the walls of the nave itself there are comparatively few of the memorial tablets and statues that cluster in the much wealthier Canterbury Cathedral. Its elegant presbytery (pic) was built in the 13th century to house the remains of St Ethedreda, the Saxon princess who founded a monastery on the site in 673. And lurking in Bishop Alcock's Chapel in the eastern extremity of the cathedral, I spotted a prime example of 17th-century vandalism - the scrawl of James Pepall (pic), who made his mark in 1667.

Returning to the Ely train station, pausing only to ponder a child's cryptic artwork in a house's window (see below) and steer clear of the feral ducks outside the local supermarket, I headed back to Cambridge. That evening I chatted to some of my hostel roommates, who turned out to be three lads from Washington who worked in the defence sector, over for a conference in Blighty. When I told them I had recently worked in that area, they probably thought I was a spy, although most decent spies would probably shun my earplugs and eye-mask overnight ensemble.

On my last morning in town I did yet more walking in the rain, ensuring that my lasting souvenir of my visit to Cambridge will be sore feet. Then I headed back to London for some much-needed rest and recuperation!

Called To Account

'This isn't a matter of fact, it's a matter of law'. So declaims the lawyer defending the reputation of Prime Minister Tony Blair in the dramatised account of the hearings conducted by lawyers in early 2007, which investigated whether or not Blair was guilty of the crime of aggression as a result of his decision to take the United Kingdom into the 2003 war against Iraq, alongside the United States. The resulting play is entitled 'Called To Account: The indictment of Anthony Charles Lynton Blair for the crime of aggression against Iraq - a Hearing', and while that may be a mouthful, the play itself is an intriguing journey into the complicated but fascinating world of international law.

The hearings obtained, which are edited by Richard Norton-Taylor, reveal testimonies from well-connected and eloquent figures from both the UK and the US - diplomats, legal experts and politicians. Despite the highly-charged political angle of the play, it is not a witch-hunt. Blair's defending advocate is as lucid and persuasive as his prosecuting adversary. The play is more a contest of ideas and insightful observation than an opportunity for cheap political point-scoring. Certainly, Blair's Labour Party dissidents are there, notably former Cabinet rebel Clare Short, who resigned over the Iraq war. But the play allows plenty of space for the very real questions that all national leaders face when they make the decision to go to war, because one person's victor is another's tyrant, and the history books are generally written by the victors.

After a healthy round of publicity, including articles in the Times and the New York Times, Called To Account earned an extension to its run at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, which allowed us to catch it. For anyone who is interested in the political legacy of the Iraq war, accountability and international law, the play is a welcome examination of a fraught issue that has dominated the British political scene and nearly ruined the premiership of one of its longest-serving Prime Ministers.

Called To Account, at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn, until 9 June

Advanced gap-minding proficiency

It's a long-held cliche of all London diaries that sooner or later there comes a time when the commuter experience must be documented. It's not as if generations of travellers and Londoners alike haven't done the same thing. But it just has to be done. Think of it as a necessary rite of passage, if you like. So here's my brief collection of tales from the rush-hour wilderness, illustrating the challenges faced by the humble office-worker in their daily quest to journey from pillar to post, courtesy of London Transport.

- I received an early reminder of the real pressures faced by commuters when travelling south on the DLR at 5pm one weekday. The train paused at Canary Wharf to let on dozens and dozens of banking industry office-workers, filling the carriages to bursting point. Suits pressed against suits, all seeking a handhold to maintain their vertical dignity. As I leaned back against the glass partition, a woman clambered into the small space beside me, with her cellphone clamped against her ear. The train doors slid shut and the train accelerated out of the station, and the woman's telephone conversation continued on regardless. It wasn't a particularly personal conversation - she was talking to her mother about some household disagreement. And it wasn't one of those noisy blaring phonecalls that often disrupt the solace of a calm, quiet train carriage journey. She was speaking at a very polite volume, almost a whisper. This made the conversation even more peculiar, because the whispering conversation to which I was privy was being conducted 10 or 15 centimetres from my face. It's hard to mind your own business when the cellphone microphone could probably pick up the sound of your own breathing.

- Another example of the close quarters that commuters are required to coexist in is the inevitable physical clashes that result when Tube trains clatter around bends or change speed. Normally despite the close quarters of crowded carriages, there's surprisingly few problems of personal space infringement. Everyone knows the social codes that have developed, and usually a simple turn 15 degrees left or right will help to retore the illusion that every passenger has their own little empire of solitude. But on the morning rush to the office the weary commuter brain sometimes allows small glitches to creep in. One morning on the Central line, it was shoulder-to-shoulder as usual and I was standing perhaps 30cm from a fellow of about the same height. In that elegant Underground ettiquette that has evolved over decades, we studiously ignored each other, despite almost being close enough to each other to execute a swift foxtrot - if there hadn't been ten other people crammed all around, that is. Strap-hanging in a sleepy haze, neither of us were ready for a slight jolt as the Tube took a bend at pace or crossed a set of points. Our heads moved independently into an impressive commuter head-butt, which made an impressively hollow ringing sound. Luckily, we both saw the funny side…

- Entering a packed Central line train at Oxford Circus, a young woman flung herself into the last available space just inside the sliding doors. Unfortunately she hadn’t paid sufficient attention to her accessories – while she was inside the carriage, the doors closed leaving her handbag outside, halfway up the doors, held in place by the strap around her shoulder. The train started to move off as we all tried to wrest the bag in through the doors, but they were jammed tight. After travelling a few metres the train shuddered to a halt and the platform flunky strode up and attempted to force the bag through the door. When this failed, he swore several times under his breath and began to pull instead. The bag strap zipped off the woman’s shoulder, and the attendant stalked off with it. Her mobile phone even fell out of the handbag, and if a lady on the platform hadn’t picked it up and chased after the attendant, it would’ve disappeared forever. Still the train doors didn’t open; in fact the train moved off, and a stern announcement instructed the woman to alight at the next station, and retrace her journey to Oxford Circus to reclaim her handbag, presumably after a stern talking-to and finger-wagging.

- On the same day as the handbag incident I was sitting on an overland train to Croydon after work opposite a suit-wearing gent aged around 30, probably of Indian extraction. As many people do, he was conducting a business telephone call while everyone seated around him studiously pretended to ignore him. I had my book, so I could pay attention to that, but as the conversation went on it proved harder to avoid. By the sound of it, he was discussing an ‘international transaction’ in which two gentlemen with Indian names were flying in on separate flights from an unnamed international destination, bringing in high-value ‘goods’ for sale in the UK. Apparently the separate flights were required because insurance wouldn’t cover ‘the goods’ if they were both on the same flight. My fellow passenger was careful not to name ‘the goods’ or their point of origin. But later in the conversation he let slip ‘the jewellery’ instead of saying ‘the goods’. So, there you have it. I was sitting opposite a (possible, hypothetical, probably not really) diamond smuggler. Not bad for a train to leafy Surrey.

- Returning from Camden Markets on the Tube a few weekends ago I sat down next to a couple who had their dog with them in the carriage. This in itself is not that unusual – dogs are allowed on UK public transport, strange as it may seem. They’re not allowed to sit on the seats, and they must be carried up the escalators, as far as I can tell. Normally dogs on the Tube are small lapdog-type creatures, but this canine was a mature Labrador of a decent size. But she was the perfect passenger, not making a single sound. She was obviously used to this mode of transit. She sat fully-stretched on her female owner, legs unfurled as if on a human armchair – perfectly relaxed and serene, and not moving a whisker. It was beautifully surreal.

- Now all I need to do is work on my phobia of standing too close to the platform edge during rush-hour and worrying that I might lose my glasses or have my nose nicked by a hurtling Tube carriage door as it rushes past. I know it's physically impossible, but it doesn't stop you thinking about it... But as for the businessmen who stoop to pick up their briefcases just as the train is arriving at the platform - well, I'm sure one of them is going to end up a few inches shorter one of these days.

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Transport For London
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