About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Monday, 23 April 2018

Caught short in the city of steel bladders

It is always wonderful to find a public loo that's
well maintained and free. Thanks and praise be to
Westminster City Council for keeping this one at
the north end of Queensway open.
You only get to know the true meaning of "desperate" when you're an old bloke with limited cash and a weak bladder looking for somewhere to relieve yourself in London.

It happens so often that you begin almost unconsciously to limit your excursions and explorations to areas where you know you can get to a toilet easily and quickly.

Last week, doing what used to be a quite frequent stroll around the Dalston and Hoxton area, I quickly realised I no longer knew where to go.

No doubt apps exist which direct you straight to the nearest urinal....but ancient phone can only run a couple of apps at any given moment.

You could ask a policeman? Don't think so, especially now so many cops look like intergalactic stormtroopers with their big guns and armour.

So, what happens most often these days, you're forced to go into a pub, see if it's possible to slink into their loos without anyone noticing....and if not, buying a half of something. In my case, embarrassment prohibits the most obvious behaviour - asking the bar staff if they'd mind...in case they did.

So you end up temporarily relieved, but 20 minutes later that half of nasty lager is already tickling the nerve ends of your confused and inefficient bladder.

You could try a café, but be warned quite a few of the big-name chains keep their bogs locked; you have to beg for a key, which in the case of one such bar near St James Piccadilly, was attached to a massive chunk of heavy timber. Honestly, it is outrageous: charge £2.50 for maybe 20p worth of coffee, then don't make allowance for the highly diuretic effects of caffeine.

And whatever happened to those much-heralded scheme to pay private businesses (pubs, cafés etc) to allow the general public to use their loos? If anyone ever actually had satisfaction from one of these schemes, which were in the news about 15 years ago, do let us know.

When all else fails we often end up doing what an increasing number of desperate humans do in this city which no longer recognises any duty of care to the public - we find a dark, quiet (and usually very stinky) corner.

What's going on there? What is it with this crazy city, where even the most basic, pitiable needs of the elderly and weak-bladdered are turned into an opportunity to torment and humiliate, then part them from their cash?

London was one of the first big cities to introduce public toilets back in the mid-19th century, but then as now it was seen by many as an opportunity to turn a profit. Hence the phrase "to spend a penny". Mind you, in those days they did give their clients a superior piddling experience for their pennies.

It was still a penny when I was a kid - one of those big pre-decimal pennies that you dropped through a slot in the lock of the heavy green door to give you access to the WC. Urinals were usually free.

Now you're lucky to get a wee for less than 50p - although the recent brilliant decision to liberate toilets at the railway termini was a massive victory for common sense, health and decency.

Are we at last waking up from a 50 year slumber in which we allowed councils to close dozens of magnificent old loos, with their beautiful tiles and mosaic floors and brass fittings and stained glass?

These underground temples to the gods of excretion were a product of the Victorians' new found understanding of the importance of public hygiene; and also a desire to avoid, at all costs, the horror of men - and yes, women too -  pissing in the street. But, as so often, their efforts went way beyond the purely functional:  many of the public toilets built in the late 19th century were ridiculously ornate, expensively decorated with beautiful tiled floors, solid brass fittings, stained glass light-panes and mature oak seats.

There is a wonderful website - one of the absolute best - called Derelict London.
One of its most fascinating and indeed thrilling sections is devoted to derelict public conveniences.
They are exhaustively catalogued, with hi-res photos showing the extent of the vandalism which has been sanctioned for so long.

And yet, these places survive. They were built to last and last they did - through two wars and bombing raids - until in the 60s and 70s they were left to rot, and went into a rapid decline.

Councils no longer thought it necessary to employ attendants for every loo; rather than repair damage to the beautiful craftsmanship, the old tiles were often covered with cladding. In some men's loos, sheets of metal were erected between stalls, to discourage cottaging (See Broadwick Street gents, in Soho).

In some but not all cases, the underground loos were they replaced by those ugly and scary dalek-shaped  huts - self-cleaning loos, they were supposed to be. If you had the 20 or 50p required to use them, you then took a gamble on whether the sliding door would work, or decide to slide open mid-performance.

More recently, some of these subterranean caves of delightful convenience have been sold off, privatised to re-open as - believe it - bars and restaurants.

One of the first to do so was outside the Hawksmoor church in Spitalifields. Another was the stinky gents at Clapham Common underground station, now just another eating and drinking place  called, amusingly, Joe Public ( so presumably they kept some of the loos working).

Another old convenience had a different fate - the toilets at Kennington Cross in Lambeth famously became the  Artslav exhibition space in 2005. But that seems to have gone now too.

On a recent visit to Portobello Road, it was a really surprising delight to find that the Talbot Road conveniences were once again open and free to use. This is quite a gem in its way, with lovely tiled floors: the real joy (apart from the obvious physical relief) felt on using these loos was that they seemed just the same as they had about 20 years ago: no charge, no annoying notices, no bragging from any council or charity; no welded steel sheets; no turnstiles.

It's obviously a great asset for the the market, which welcomes thousands of tourists from all over every weekend. OPen up and liberate all those other locked and chained public loos across the city still in public ownership - can't the Mayor add this to his list of responsibilities? It would surely be a massive vote winner for Sadiq, as well as providing endless opportunities for witty pre-election sloganeering.

Meanwhile, like many thousands of other London street-crawlers, I will continue to rely on building my own mental map of free pee-ing places. They include, of course, public libraries (but even these are not always a good bet in these days of PFI-style operations); museums and art galleries (but it is such a shame that you might be forced to walk into the National Gallery with the sole genuine purpose of needing to take a leak, rather than wanting to check out a Holbein or a Vermeer); and, if you have the nerve and the swagger, any one of London's multitude of posh west-end hotel lobbies.

It is still shocking that some of the loos in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens charge for use; but the ones by the Serpentine Lido do not. Veteran Covent Garden frequenters might remember the wonderful and entertaining free public toilets neside St Paul's Church in the Piazza; memories of cheerful attendants and operatic music as you went about your business. Now, you have to pay - and on weekends, queue and then pay.

There's no doubt the trend is once again towards

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Things about 2018 I am already sick of....

2018, like every year since about 1986, is dumping even bigger, even uglier, even more arrogant-looking SUVs on our narrow streets. What is the enduring appeal of these ghastly, gurning thug-mobiles? And why are they nearly all black, with tinted passenger windows?
I confess: all the things about 2018 that are already getting on my wick are exactly the same ones that were doing it back in 2017, and long before that.

Restricting it to the bad things about London life, they are things that became noticeably worse in 2017 and show every sign of continuing in that direction - because nothing really goes in discrete years, does it? Apart from calendars and academics, perhaps.

There are the obvious exceptions: things we did not expect to have to put up with. Like the new £10 notes, which pull off the impressive feat of being both slippery and sticky at the same time.

These apologies for currency are the perfect embodiment of everything that is wrong with the UK - perhaps the whole western world - in 2018. They're meant to represent progress, to be "greener" and cleaner and more efficient. But everybody hates them (and not just the vegans).

I've already lost at least one new tenner, handing over two stuck together. Whether the shopkeeper knew or not I don't know - but all the checkout staff I've talked to say they hate the new notes, for similar reasons.

This nasty plasticky stuff is no longer real f-f-folding money. Try and crunch one up into a little ball and it gradually unfurls itself. Horrible, horrible things, like the nastiest shrink-wrap packaging on the nastiest foodstuffs.

Trouble is I dislike them so much that I have an urge to spend them quickly just to get them out of sight, i.e I am wasting a lot more money. Doing just what the Treasury wants, spending with the new notes. Is this really a government scheme to kill off cash completely?

That was a long digression! And not a London story, but affecting every poor cash-user in this crackpot country. But, as I am no longer a journalist (never really was, in truth), and do not need to care about the attention span of readers, I'm going to write as much as I like about whatever I like.

Roving which range, exactly? All those big black shiny new SUVs with
their dark tinted windows are making suburban streets look like the overflow
 parking lot for a convention of undertakers
Groan: more bloody SUV stuff

All the other complaints are carried over from previous years, previous decades. Have already moaned endlessly about the curse of ever-more-bloated four wheel drive cars cramming the tight suburban backstreets of south London.

I'm going to keep on moanin', lord yes. Much more, louder moaning for 2018.

These fat bastard vehicles are killing us in so many ways. Go down to Northcote Road ("Nappy Valley") on any weekend and watch the latest Mercedes, Audi, Rover, BMW, Volvo and Porsche versions of these hearse-like conveyances lumbering up and down this little road, jousting for access into the small side-streets and limited parking places. If you're not inside one, watch out for your life. The drivers do not always deign to look down their elegant noses at us mortals on the streets beneath them.

There's another, linked phenomenon which is quite hard to understand: the majority of the newest, biggest, shiniest SUVs in the poshest streets around here are jet black. The bigger and newer the SUV, the blacker  and shinier it seems. One street in particular seems to have become a sort Mafia parking lot.

All the SUVs are black, and they all have darkly-tinted windows for the passenger area. Often you see big blokes in black suits, white shirts and black ties polishing these vehicles. Who are the owners, are they so famous and important that they are at risk of car-jacking and abduction? Are they frightened the hoi-polloi will throw rotten eggs at them? If only....

While on the subject of automobiles, there is another annoying and dangerous trend - the fondness manufacturers have for LED lights, mainbeams and sidelights alike. They are so bright as to temporarily blind anyone unfortunate enough to be in their glare. The stupid fairy-light adornments, eyebrow shapes over the headlamps, zig-zags around the rear light...are just vulgar and annoying. Adding to the extreme ugliness of so many of these confections of plastic, steel, glass and rubber.

Also they can be extremely dangerous - as, coincidentally, the RAC yet again pointed out the day this entry was posted.


But the next one is linked: the rise of generalised, unfettered, foul-mouthed rage.  Anger, so much anger; impotent rage, cursing, shouting, fists raised and blood-vessels disteneded rage; and then turns to physical violence. Twice in a week I witness this. The bike hits the pedestrian at the Half Moon junction in Herne Hill. Felled cyclist springs up, stares in disbelief at the bits of expensive plastic that have broken off his machine, then takes a groggy swipe at the dusty pedestrian who has only just got on his feet.

And then, at the Brixton Town Hall crossroads, a cyclist stops and raps on the driver's window of an Addison Lee people-carrier. Window winds down, big snarling face stares out, about to mouth obscenities, but the cyclist gets his pre-emptive strike in first - a stream of saliva, spat fast into the driver's cabin.

Cyclist zooms off, Addison Lee in hot pursuit, makes as if to ram bike, then rams on brakes instead. Common sense, perhaps, prevails; the looming court case, the lost job, local news reports ...maybe these flashed through driver's consciousness. Let's just scare the shit out this fucker.

Anger, rage. On trains, buses, in the queues at Sainsburys, at the post office. Parking worst of all.

Worst-case media horror trend of selfish UK public behaviour so far this year - the rude scrawled notes stuck on ambulances parked briefly outside the houses of these angry vehicle-obsessed people, whose anger - once mainly confined to in the forums of certain newspaper websites - now seems to be spilling out all over the shop.

I feel my own anger mounting, as I write. None of us is immune - this is the prevailing psychic environment; anger; fear; it's contagious.

Beep! Beep!

Expressions of anger are all around us at all times in stressed-out, tensed-up London. Again, the worst and most visible is on the roads. The screech of tyres as an over-hasty driver slams on brakes at a junction. Absurd over-revving of expensive but poorly silenced engines: an intimidation by accelerator pedal and exhaust pipe.

The realisation by murderous psychopaths that cars are very effective weapons, especially if you want to kill several people at one fell swoop, and permanently injure many more. A new motor-psycho sickness.

At the merely annoying end of same spectrum:  the inevitable, ever increasing use of the car horn to express rage - the high-powered air-horns, weaponised, enough to make you jump in the air, to make your heart tremble. This topic was covered here before - see "A pox on your blaring horns" from 2013 – and it is worse now.

Time to revive the notion of the Inverse Blare Bill, as recommended on this site all those years ago. The simple idea was to legislate to make sure the most macho and aggressive vehicles emit the feeblest, silliest, most embarrassing noises when the hooter is activated. Only the smallest and sweetest of cars - say a  2CV or Topolino - would be allowed to make a strident beeping sound.

There are many other topics to get het up about - such as the proliferation of dogs and the their doings. Why have so many dog-owners stopped picking up their darling doggies' turds? How many times must we get home, get all the way up the carpeted staircase to the fourth four flat, and only then notice the vile, tell-tale stink.

Fed up with all this food

Then - another cause of mounting Calvinist-style intolerance in this bitter old bastard - there is this constantly increasing London hyper-obsession with food.

So ironic, so typically bonkers British, that at exactly the same time we are told ours is the fattest population in Europe, we are also bombarded day in, day out with editorials heaping praise on obscenely extravagant food-feasting....

Latent annoyance at the gourmet-gastro-masterchef culture burst to the surface when handed a free copy of a fat, luxurious magazine called Foodism.

Yes, Foodism! Here it was, a great beautifully printed wodge of nosh-porn. It didn;t get my juices flowing, I'm afriad - but it did make my blood begin to boil, gently. Trouble is, I love food. Most of us do - and we certainly depend on it for our existence, unless we are vampires. I love what I think is good food; what you can get in a cheap, ordinary restaurant in almost any local bar or cafe or restaurant in France, Italy or SPain, at normal prices.

Because in those and many other countries, good food is nothing to do with "foodism" or gourmet cooking, it is what everyone expects as a right. Decent ingredients, well cooked, in simple, classic styles.

Alas, even these fine countries are being invaded by the Anglo-American industrialisation of food, a phased invasion of fast food and junk food and then - the ultimate paradox, the final insult - selling them back bastardised versions of their own dishes as something healthy and fashionable to aspire to.

That's why it's so annoying to be told that London is now the world's food capital or similar rubbish. London is just the place where there are enough rich and gullible and ignorant and incompetent and fashion-addicted people to allow all manner of tricksters to open stupid ridiculous new on-theme eateries, and to get people queuing in the rain to spend a week's average wage on some sickening variant of a hamburger and chips.

All of this comes wrapped up with another paradox: how can London be a city both of extreme Veganism and extreme carnivores? How many different "gourmet" burger joints does a suburban high street need? The Five Guys/Byron/Haché thing seems to be outstripping Americanised Italian coffee shops in this blighted area.

A few years ago, the fashion was all for "pulled" meats. Even if I ate pork, I can't imagine asking for a pulled-pork bun or whatever. Don't the images this coupling of words evokes put you off these juicy meaty products, as well?

Obviously not.

But these days the food fashions seem to have got even less delectable. Weird rainbow-colored doughnuts; great gloops of stringy cheese in warmed buns; ill-advised hybrids, such as the awful cronut.

Am stopping here before I blow a gasket. Good night!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Extreme ugliness and London's embattled skyline: which new tower is the worst eyesore?

St George Wharf Tower at Vauxhall - is this the nastiest of all the new-ish, tall-ish buildings in London? 

The near-completion of the big tower block with a bulge near Blackfriars adds yet another grotesque silhouette to London's much abused skyline.

For sheer "wtf?" factor, this new building, One Blackfriars,  is not as offensive as the lumbering goon of the Walkie Talkie as it gobbles up air and light over the City of London.

As hideous as these two recent arrivals to London's new skyline may be, there's a third contender for the crown - surely, the most dismal of all the ugly high-rise London brothers.

This third structure is only too well known in the SW postcodes.

Mention a downed helicopter, a rude finger pointing up to the sky, and you all know it -  St George Wharf Tower at Vauxhall.

Look at each tower in a bit more detail.

1. The Walkie Talkie

The Walkie-Talkie - a "lumbering goon" of a building
which blocks light and ruins views in the City of
London – looks just as bad a mile south in Bermondsey.
A 34-storey, 160 m (525 ft) tall office block at 20 Fenchurch Street designed by Rafael Viñoly, completed in January 2015. The tower was originally to be nearly 200 m (656 ft) tall but was scaled down to preserve views of St Paul's Cathedral and the Tower. In 2015 it won the Carbuncle Cup for the worst new building in the UK.

Does anyone love this tower? Well, possibly those making a fortune out of letting it. It still dominates views of the City from the south bank of the river, despite much taller new buildings shooting up behind it. Wide-shouldering its way into a billion tourist photos, this is a true monument to City greed.

2. St George Wharf Tower, Vauxhall (pictured above) is a 180 metres, 52 storey cylindrical tower poking out from a sharp bend of the River Thames. It is one of Europe’s tallest wholly residential buildings and the tallest residential tower in London. 
The tower's "green" credentials, with a wind turbine at the top supposedly generating 27,000 kWh of energy per year, are fine, but hardly make up for the disastrous impact this structure has on views from all over London, and especially from Whitehall, Pimlico and my back yard.

St George Wharf Tower - one of very few
skyscrapers that looks even worse at night.
The word ugly is too good for this rude erection. It is just too nothing at all, to be ugly. It is offensive, though - a straight shiny finger held up to everyone in London. It's saying, buzz off, plebs, this town's for rich bastards only.

Even if it hadn't been the scene of a tragic helicopter crash in 2013, people would still have hated this building.

You know how bad it is because no-one has been able to find a decent nickname for it - one that sticks. I've heard "The Battery" - but the Duracell AA batteries it resembles are much more elegantly styled. Someone else called it "The Plunger" which is nearer the mark.

It's one of very few skyscrapers that actually look worse at night when the lights come on. There are vertical stripes of light going the full height of the tower, then shorter bars of light surrounding the corona-style penthouse at its peak.

The lights have that harsh brightness, reminiscent of DHSS office striplights back in the early 1970s. Maybe the builders got a job of old neon tubes and slapped them on. That's what it looks like: cheap, cold, nasty.

3. One Blackfriars, aka The Vase and The boomerang. Designed by architects SimpsonHaugh and Partners, this 49-storey, 535ft tower at the south-west end of Blackfriars Bridge is a worrying sight. What was supposed to be an elegant tribute to an iconic Scandinavian glass vase now looks like a pot-bellied man (or, according to other observers, a pregnant woman, or a flasher concealing a large erection beneath his raincoat).

From some angles it looks like a the companion of the Walkie Talkie, as they could both be large drunken men bending over in the street to vomit on the pavement.

One Blackfriars is almost 100ft shorter than originally
planned, which might account for its almost comic
and definitely ungainly fat-bloke silhouette.
Ironically, its appearance has been made worse by a decision to reduce its original planned height of 225m to the current pygmy-like sub-200m stump. Result: scaled down it just looks all wrong. The cut also meant the one public benefit the tower was supposed to offer - a free viewing platform at the top - had to go. As they usually do.

Ah, but I hear you shout, there's a fourth and fifth and a sixth contender for this sorry crown.  And of course there are lots of other monsters out there. Just look. For many, the most ridiculous new tower in London is the thing that pokes its Batmobile ears and turbines into the sky above Elephant & Castle, name of "Strata SE1".

The building was famous for the three highly-visible turbines at the summit of the tower which were supposed to supply about eight per cent of all the 400 flats' electricity. Apparently as soon they were switched on the owners of the pricey flats on the upper floors complained of noise, vibrations, heat etc - so they were switched off most of the time.

The pricey blades were soon being mocked as a prime example of developers' favourite past-time, "greenwashing".

This joke of a tower block has since been crowded out by a load of bland high-rise residential towers, so now the silly old Strata - already nearly 10 years old - looks like the one guest at a party who actually bothered to wear fancy dress.

Other people will cite the Cheesegrater at Leadenhall, the Shard, and some of the clumsy towers of Canary Wharf. Personally I think the Shard is beautiful, elegant design; such a shame that it should be the preserve of the rich and the super-rich. What happened to all those democratic ideals that the young architects of the 60s, like Renzo Piano, must have been imbibing at their radical architecture schools?

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Akasha at The Bread and Roses - bringing the love magick back to SW4

For every entry  published on this blog, another 10 or 12 are left to rot in the drafts folder. But I'm going to publish this one, because this semi-local band playing at a local pub gave me more pleasure in one brief free gig than I've had at any music venue in years.

Among dozens of unpublished blog pieces gatheirng dust in the vaults of this site are several about gigs at The Bread and Roses pub in Clapham Manor Street. It sometimes feels like an unappreciated SW4 treasure, this trades-union-run pub.  I've several times been to their free music nights to find the audience almost outnumbered by band members.

But not last Saturday evening, which belonged to a band from the Brixton area named Akasha,  whose performance left me eager for more, buzzing with that strange energy you get from great music - and also kicking myself for not having followed their every gig for the past 20 years or so. There was a good crowd, and at least half were dancing wildly by the end - well, some of us were at least shuffling from foot to foot.

Akasha (a name they share with a few others, being the sanskrit word for "air" or  "aether") started in  1994 as a duo, Charlie Casey and Damian Hand, but have now grown into the seven -piece band which crammed the small pub stage last week.

The band was a pioneer of  jazzy, electronics-infused, spaced-out hip-hop fusion style which was emerging back in the early 1990s, and became the signature sound of the highly influential Wall of Sound label.  Some called it trip-hop...but the music was much too diverse and agile to get trapped in such a name.

The two originals - Casey on guitar, vocals and MacBook Pro,  Damian Hands a sort of new-age Roland Kirk on all manner of reeds and deeds and woodwinds - were backed up by a rock-steady demon of a drummer, a fabulously 70s-looking keyboards player, and solid trumpet, bass and alto sax players.

The sound system wasn't really up to such an adventurous band - and it took about half an hour of the engineer traipsing between stage and mixing desk to get things right. But once they got going, the gates to a new musical heaven opened in the skies over southwest London. Well, that's how it seemed to me, and I wasn't even on anything, apart from Guinness.

Akasha's music is catchy, exciting, incredibly danceable, unpredictable and mind-blowing at times, risk-taking (or so it seems); and it has that magic ingredient - wit. No wonder they were such a big influence on loads of their more commercially-minded label-mates (whatever happened to the Propellerheads?)

No wonder that so many big names wanted to work with them - and many did, notably Neneh Cherry, the true godmother to all this jazz-hip-hop-punk-funk crossover stuff. I've never got over seeing  her fronting Rip Rig & Panic under the Westway back in about 1983. And also Sarah Cracknell of St Etienne and the guy from Faithless - Maxi Jazz - who, coming from a similar milieu, had all the worldly success that eluded this band. But Akasha has the sort of success that others long  for - they're still loved and respected by their original fans, and winning new followers with every set they play, worldwide.

This night, Akasha played plenty of their old favourites, ratching up the involuntary dance factor with each number. I listened very hard when they played a song about their musical influences - but the vocals were drowned a bit by the poor PA. At a guess I'd say they would go for James Brown, Miles Davis, maybe Charlie Parker, Roland Kirk, maybe the Sugarhill Gang, maybe Curtis Mayfield or maybe Stockhausen? Herbie Hancock? Coltrane? Gil Scott Heron?

So, will have to go to next gig and hope they play it again. Also, buy the CDs. Next gig? One of the band said they were playing the Railway Tavern in Tulse Hill sometime soon. I think. Go!

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Farewell old friend: Battersea Power Station disappearing behind more new apartment blocks

A pair of medium-sized apartment blocks have been rising for the past few months just south of Battersea Power Station. Now they've reached the point where they're ruining the view of what had been the best-loved local landmark for thousands of SW11/4/8 residents.

These two new blocks - one of which is still swathed in scaffolding - already appear to be just as dull as most of the other stuff that has risen out of the mud of Nine Elms since 2011. All that most of us will be able to see of the renovated power station are the chimney-tops - and these of course are not the originals! (But - it doesn't do to carp - they'e made a damn fine job of replicating them).

Oddly, very little mention is made of these two new blocks in the flashy online brochure for the Battersea - Nine Elms development.

Those sweeping great aerial views of the whole zone, with their computer-generated impressions of all the new towers, simply don't show anything that far from of the river.

You have to look at their interactive map to find out that this is the so-called Battersea Power Station Development Zone 4a - otherwise known as the Battersea Exchange site. It's separated from the rest of the development by Battersea Park Road, and seems to be the main location for the much reduced number of so-called affordable homes, plus a primary school and a health centre.

It's hardly mentioned on the main glossy marketing sites. But if you look closely at the photo above you can see they've put a great big ad on the side of the bigger block - batterseaexchange.com

Go to this site and you find it's part of the TaylorWimpey firm. You'll also see an impression of the finished buildings - looks like the bigger tower will also be white with those deep fins you can see on the smaller one, making them look a bit like electrical transformers. This might be relevant as there is also a major electricity substation being rebuilt on this site....but probably isn't. Some remarkably similar blocks are going up right now along York Road opposite Waterloo Station as part of the old Shell building redevelopment.

These two blocks in themselves are no worse than any of the rest of the development, and less ghastly than some of them. Looking at the brochure, it looks like these towers will not actually be the "affordable" flats (prices seem to be in the £550k - £1m region) - so they must be in the smaller brown blocks fronting the road?

What is sad is that the mile or more of these stubby towers, strung out along both sides of Nine Elms Lane, simply do not work together; they don't coalesce, they don't complement, they don't form anything like an interesting cluster. Even Canary Wharf is beginning to get that 'Manhattan' effect where the sum of the parts is much better than most of the individual buildings.

Around here, the reverse seems to be true. Perhaps it will be better when the massive new towers  at the Vauxhall end go up. I'm personally hoping they will block out my view of the most-hated tower of the lot - that killer cylinder, I think they call it St Georges Tower - the one that downed a helicopter a few years back.

Longer term of course, all this stuff will return whence it came. Like so many worm-casts thrown up on a mudbank, it will all sink back into mire. Maybe sooner than we all expect.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Open House London weekend celebrates 25 fantastic years: hurray! But what's with this Clapham Old Town walk?

Here we go, into the radical redesign of Clapham Old Town on the new cycle-friendly pathways....sort of.
If you're into London's Open House weekend, then your annual treat is getting very close, and this year's free booklet is packed with even more potential pleasures than ever before.

What's more, this year's weekend - on the 16th - 17th September -  is the 25th anniversary of Open House London, which took a brilliant, simple idea and made it happen: why not open up interesting buildings - however grand or however modest - to the public, just for one weekend in the year?

This year's catalogue includes a great Top 25 of the most popular buildings it has featured over the years - the perfect trigger for debates. It also includes several topical essays on the big issues facing the city now, notably affordable housing, transport and traffic congestion, and accessible open spaces.

As a creature of bad habit I turn immediately to my local borough - Lambeth - and find amidst a well-stocked selection of local treats, this slightly curious entry in the Walks & Tours section:

"Clapham Old Town and Venn Street: This guided walk...looks at a radically redesigned public realm which re-balanced the street environment in favour of the pedestrian and cyclist..."

This refers to the recent tarting up of the old Polygon area which was commented on by this blog back in 2014.
So here you are at the end of Bromells Road. Cars have to turn
left across the pavement. No signs to say what bikes should do,
even though a bike path starts just across the road...

Well, the patch of artfully sown wild flowers at the northern tip of the Polygon (or is it "piazza" now?) is gorgeous. The new public space around the Polygon and Rose & Crown pub is certainly neat and tidy but to be honest it's a bit sterile. Especially now that the old public toilets have disappeared behind hoardings.

There are a few of those metal chairs scattered around, single seaters which look like they were designed to give bankers who have just been told their bonuses are frozen, somewhere to sit and contemplate their futures.

There's a very celebrated upmarket restaurant, a trio of pubs (if you include The Sun and The Prince of Wales across the road)  and...well,  a couple of cafes, also over the road...but not much else.

As for it being more cycle friendly: well, how, exactly?

After a couple of years of trying to get to grips with the remodelled and supposedly bike-friendly traffic flows,  they still seem at best puzzling, often confusing, and in some places downright dangerous to both cyclists and pedestrians.

Here it is - so off you go, heading north against the traffic 
Firstly, far from "reining in" motorists, they have given those coming from the north two separate routes up to the Common and the High Street. They can either be good and follow the B303 past Orlando Road and stop at the junction with the one-way system around Clapham Common.

But if they're in a hurry, or just typical motorists, there's nothing to stop them going the old way, up past The Sun pub and the local Sainsburys and a load of new flats, then pushing their way back onto the one-way system via The Pavement. It's a new rat run beloved of big white vans and equally big black SUVs.

Originally under the new scheme, as I remember, this road was gated at the northern end, and should have been for resident and delivery access only.

A few yards on you get to this bit, but no explanation why
you might want to turn right across the road...nothing!
Most of the pedestrians coming from Orlando Road, The Omnibus Arts Centre and the homes and many businesses on North Side want to get to the tube station. So they continue to cross the road at the point, directly outside the old Library (now The Omnibus) where there used to be a very well-used pedestrian crossing.

Mysteriously they have now moved that crossing just 20 or 30 yards further east, past the Starbucks, and just far enough to make it seem an annoying diversion if you're in a hurry.

The trouble is, this road is now two-way and there is also a bus-stand a few yards to the west. There are almost always a couple of 249 double-decker buses waiting there, which completely block the view, making it impossible to see approaching traffic until it is literally upon you. This is so dangerous for all pedestrians.

As for cyclists, well it seems like the cycle route has been sketched-in by some town planner at the end of  a long liquid lunch; clearly they all forgot that this bit of the scheme was never fully planned.

Not that anyone expects joined-up thinking from a council that has recently shut down one of the finest, best-loved and most-used libraries in London.  (In case you missed the stories, I mean the Carnegie Library in Herne Hill).

But a joined-up cycle route through this complex junction of roads would be good. The route as it stands is, frankly, bonkers.

If you do cross the road, you end up on this scary contra-
flow bike lane where you are glared at by drivers of big
black shiny SUVs (and OK, other vehicles too...)
If you're coming from the Brixton direction, or from Clapham Common tube station, and aiming for Lavender Hill or Wandsworth Road - well, you have to think hard about where to go. Most cyclists just follow the roads. The pavements around the tube station offer no bike routes (although quite a few cyclists use them, to the annoyance of crowds of commuters and school-kids milling around here at the busy times).

There are no signs to encourage cyclists to use, for example, Venn Street - which looks pedestrianised, but is it?

So the bike lane seems to start quite arbitrarily on the edge of the Common, 100 yards further north, opposite the junction with Bromells Road. This is a one way street with no bike lane. Cars and bikes have to cross the wide pavement to rejoin the road (which, confusingly, is called The Pavement at this point).

Cyclists can then cross the road and get onto a little bit of bike lane going north; but a few yards further on it sends them back across the road and onto a contra-flow bike lane which is frankly scary.

If you follow the cycle path past the above-mentioned wild flower patch, it sends you back west towards the Common - and to re-cross the main traffic flow, this time on a zebra crossing - so
As you can see, parked cars and oncoming traffic both
habitually impinge on the so-called cycle lane.
that you've negotiated four of the five sides of the Polygon to get back to a point a few yards from where you were 5 minutes ago.

There's a tiny bit of pavement here which has one of those joint use cyclist/pedestrian symbols in one paving slab - but who notices that? And the path is not wide enough for this dual use.

Like you, I hate seeing cyclists charging around recklessly on footpaths - but around here, it's sometimes almost understandable.

Lambeth Council is still open to changing these arrangements, apparently, so let's hope this Open House Weekend walk makes the crazy layout of these bike lanes clearer to all.

Plenty of really great stuff in the Open House programme, though. In Lambeth, the residents of the threatened Cressingham Gardens Estate have organised a tour, as have the residents of the Central Hill estate in Crystal Palace. Both these estates were built in the 60s and 70s; a Lambeth architect, Ted Hollamby, was involved in both; they are both largely judged to be successful in meeting the need for low-rise, high-density, housing - important in the 70s, absolutely vital now.

In neighbouring Southwark, there's a chance to learn  more about the Dawson Heights Estate, a place that has always caught my imagination. From the distance, say in Brockwell Park,  it has the look of some re-imagined version of a medieval hill-town. Somewhere, in other words, where I always wanted to live!

There's so much to see, and only one short weekend to see it all in! Until 2018.

Meanwhile, September's also the month of the Lambeth Heritage Festival. Plenty of fascinating things are promised: must try to digest all this info, and get along to at least some of these events. Thanks!

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The long and windy road to Woolwich (aka Get your kicks on the A206)

Less time to write this pointless blog as longer and longer journeys are required in search of the few hourly-paid hours of soft labour.

Less time needed, because stupid pointless blog no longer aims to do anything other than satisfy writer's solipsistic urge to see its verbal utterances smeared across a dirty Macbook screen.

Following the migration further out of town, further east, further south - writer finds itself cycling all the way to the Thames Barrier and beyond to what used to be Woolwich Dockyard.

Biggest surprise is actually getting as far as SE18 as there's so much incredibly interesting stuff to see on the way. From the leafy groves of Camberwell to the densely-packed historical delights of Deptford - we have to rush past them all, heading into the wind and the rain and the diesel fumes. And then, we dare not even mention....Greenwich.

All along the route, the sublime is buried under deep layers of ridiculous levels of pollution and aggression. The pollution from nose-to-tail trucks and buses on large sections of the obvious route is appalling.

The aggression, mainly from drivers. All along the Peckham Road, you try to beat the traffic lights and avoid all those huge angry powerful cars trying to push out across your cycle lane from their backstreet turnings. Bad enough even in the dog days of August; so much worse when schools are back.

The congestion reaches a peak in the bottleneck of New Cross Gate, every day, all day.  Hardly surprising, as this unfortunate stretch of what should be a High Street has to double as part of the trunk route out of London to Dover: it's a local, regional, national and international artery and it's about the width of three buses. And the pavements are hardly wide enough for two McLaren pushchairs to pass. It's bonkers!

So, for a superannuated cyclist, each journey involves cheating death many more than nine times.
I've tasted the tarmacadam of Coldharbour Lane too many times: I now have to make eye contact with every driver and every pedestrian before I dare to proceed.

But all the way to Woolwich? Madness. Last time this gormless blogger came this far south-east, it was to visit someone who was starting, and later finishing, an eight-year prison stretch, which began and half-ended at HMP Belmarsh, near Plumstead and Thamesmead.

This fellow always said he preferred the time in this modern high-security prison than the in-between years spent on a low-category wing somewhere near Nottingham, or  later spells in Rochester, Lewes and Brixton.

And now, when you look east down the river  - which is visibly more an estuary at this point - you can see that these areas will soon be as "sought after" as Battersea or Rotherhithe have already become.

Woolwich is here and now, Plumstead is coming soon after. Apparently there's even going to be a Crossrail link at some point.

The good news is that the river itself is so majestic that even the shittiest of new developments on the riverbanks fade into insignificance. There's more river traffic down here, as well: dredgers, sugar boats, the occasional small cruise liner, and lots of those giant steel barges filled with rubbish, or with earth or sand, presumably coming from or going to the high-rise building sites all along the river.

The Camberwell Hokusai: read the fascinating
story of its creation and near-destruction
on the BBC website
So what's so interesting about this ancient west to east run?  Unless, that is, you are a rich property speculator.

To cycle the route from Clapham to Woolwich is to witness the creation of a new seam of property developer gold in the making.

The  newish apartment blocks with their bright green balconies along Coldharbour Lane are just an overture to the really Wagnerian stuff going on around Deptford Creek and all the way up the Greenwich peninsula, and then across the river...and back again into Woolwich itself.

But....but....against all this, there is so much to love on this journey.

There's still the pure joy of passing through Camberwell, one of the few bits that has yet to succumb to the particularly nasty strain of the gentrification virus that has consumed Clapham entirely and is now well ensconced in Brixton.

Camberwell has its long-term affluent enclave, all the way up the Grove and into the hills over to Dulwich. Salute Hokusai as you cross Denmark Hill, cutting through leafy Love Walk and back onto the grinding reality of Peckham Road.

And how, and how. All the way from Camberwell to Deptford, you see it, you feel it, you are crowded off to the curb by the thundering ready-mix trucks and the massive "motorway maintenance" lorries which seem to be more often found on narrow inner London streets.

This great old-school junk shop announces your arrival
in  New Cross Gate
Oh but cheer up - there's still plenty of old school south-east London on this route. Peckham is obviously requires a chapter or two all of its own; you daren't linger here, you'd never get away. Keep on until you get to the historic high street of New Cross Gate, signalled by the wonderful and genuine junk shop just before the railway station.

Amazing how the presence and huge influence of Goldsmiths College has never impacted on this high street in anything but a good way; the students and staff clearly care about their very special bit of urban streetscape.

Then on into Deptford: and this, like Peckham, or perhaps even more so, is such a deep well of history that the best thing is to shut your eyes and cycle on, else you'll be here for weeks. As you cross the Creek, you spot another dumped scooter in the mud.

Then suddenly you are in tourist heaven or Hell, whichever you prefer - and again you must keep the blinkers on, cycle on grimly through all that maritime stuff, the grandiose Wren, of Greenwich; stop if you like in the wonderful park for a sandwich and some water.

Because you're going to need all your strength for the next and final leg of this trip as you plug on east. There's a very distinct change in the atmosphere as you past the dark, almost northern looking chimneys of the big old power station, and as you enter the straggling suburban badlands east of Greenwich.

Cross that major artery, the Blackwall Tunnel Approach, at the nape of the neck of the Greenwich Peninsula - swing hard left onto the Woolwich Road and by God you get your first real sniff of life in outer-SE London.

Beware the stare of the plaster meerkat
The Road to Woolwich is lined with mythical creatures;
leave your best instincts behind, dear traveller, smell
the burning rubber!

 Here you confront a row of small animals, chained to the railings, all staring at you, blank eyed, as if traumatised.

Oh by the way, these animals are made of plaster, and belong to a shop selling mirrors. Nevertheless the way they sit there, tethered, to brave the great surge of traffic, is always impressive. The plaster doggie closest to the junction is a goner.

He's imbibed too much tyre dust, too much distilled diesel, to many hard stares from lads on nicked scooters. Then you see the dead stare of the plaster meerkat,  and you think, that's enough I'm going home.

But it's too late, you are now in fast-moving traffic, it'll take you through Charlton and on, and on... to the next big junction.

A big pub on the righthand, south side of the road catches the attention. It's name seems to be a rallying call to the heavy traffic surging up and down yet another feeder road for the tunnel. It's name - The Antigallican.

In plain, polite English, that pub's name means: "against the French"...

Now, given we're not far from the main A2 road to Dover and Folkestone and thus to Calais, you might be forgiven for thinking this area has it own special take on history.

The old military influence of Greenwich and Deptford, the Woolwich Dockyards and Arsenal - all that stored-up potential violence - prevails, of course it does, it is all relatively recent history.  And of course it all came back home again in 2013 by the murder of the soldier, Lee Rigby.

No coincidence that one of the more violent scenes of Clockwork Orange was filmed in the brutalist concrete estates of Thamesmead, while the supposed murder in Blow Up happens in Maryon Park  - one of the entrances to which we're passing right now.

This strange green space is like a maze or snail's shell, folding in on itself, a strange vortex, paths leading upwards past tennis courts, up to a peak where there are views across the Thames. It is a Tardis of a park: much bigger on the inside than its boundaries suggest.

As is well-known and documented, this is the park where Antonioni shot the key maybe-murder scenes for his wonderful and crazy 1966 film, Blow Up.

I search in vain for the antique shop where David Hemmings buys a wooden propeller, before entering the park with his Nikon F.

The shop has gone but the park remains very much as you see it in the movie - except that many of the trees have doubled in size, and most of that distinctive wooden fencing has gone. And the grass is just normally green, not painted green as the mythology of the film suggests the Director insisted on.

For me the part that really worked was cycling around past the tennis courts where, 51 years ago, a load of hippie extras from the the Living Theatre performed their mimed tennis game, and drove off in a batter old Land Rover.

The murder scene - then as now - is supremely dull and inconclusive. I sit on a bench somewhere near where the killing might or might not have happened.  People have been here. There's the usual mess of silver foil, fag packets, dirty tissues, energy drink tins, fast-food containers, empty prescription pill strips, used condoms.

I eat my 9-seed bar and from the corner of an eye detect movement; about five teenagers in school uniform have arrived, seen me, and turned back down the hill. I've occupied their favourite spot, by the look of it.

What were they planning? God knows. I get back on my bike and edge downhill to the A206, and take a detour down to the Thames Barrier Park, a not very convincing sliver of green space which does take you all the way down to the river - and one hell of a view of everything.

From this angle, the scale of the development around Canary Wharf becomes truly apparent. Just for once, I think the developers got it right. This was the right place for a dense plantation of high-rise luxury apartments, and they are still shooting up. Many of them look much more interesting than any of the dreary rubbish going up in Nine Elms.

And so on to the next roundabout, this one blessed with a big drive-thru MacDonalds, just before you get to a huge Co-Op funeral parlour.  Which is about as far as we're going today, just back down to the river and on to the weird former industrial estate where new enclaves of artists' studios rub shoulders with confectionery warehouses, police vehicle depots and abandoned factories. Just across the river, Tate & Lyle's Silvertown plant sucks a lot of the world's sugar production into the UK.

Right next to London City Airport, which quickly sucks in and spits out global executives looking for always newer, always better havens for their megabucks.

So, new stories begin.