Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Thursday, 30 October 2008

You don't get this on the tube...

My new trip to work takes me through some places I already know quite well, but also to some complete surprises.

First, I go up the only main road off the Isle of Dogs to Canary Wharf and round the huge roundabout built in under the new developments. This manages to act as a gigantic wind-funnel: a headwind, naturally.

Coming up and out of the roundabout, there's a slightly hairy choice of lanes before ducking out of the main flow of traffic into Narrow Street in Limehouse.

Before the Victorians, this was a base for sailors, often of dubious reputation. Later, warehouses were built along the river; some survive, converted into expensive housing, rubbing shoulders with a converted shop or pub sporting this cherub, model workers' dwellings from a century ago (now gated off and renamed upmarket) and a pub that claims to have been the model for one in Dickens.

A sharp turn comes up to the main road by the Limehouse Tunnel; there's a wait for the roaring flood of traffic to halt a while before you can cross and turn off along Cable Street and its bumpy cycle-path.

This runs almost all the way to the Tower of London, past clumps of social history: a short terrace of two-up, two-down cottages, solid blocks of public housing from slum clearance programmes of the 1920s and 1930s (but mostly of course post-Blitz reconstruction), a Catholic church, and one of those pocket palazzos that the Victorians created for public buildings (now a rather neglected looking base for a number of small community organisations, with a convenient side wall for this mural commemorating the anti-Fascist "Battle of Cable Street" in 1936).

Then there's a longer, older terrace of Regency/ early Victorian houses for the middle class, a corner pub which is now a private residence (next to the halal butcher and a few steps from one of Hawksmoor's "coal churches") and on past slabby and brutalist 1960s concrete and system-built tower blocks. One thing I notice more and more is the waste of odd left-over spaces around these estates - a bit of pointless grass, at best, with little sign that anyone ever uses it. But here and there, some have been taken over, officially or otherwise, for little vegetable gardens, many with the kind of trellis pergola for growing squashes that I take to indicate some initiative by Bangladeshi residents.

On down the nondescript Royal Mint Street, with the apparently prettily-named Rosemary Lane restaurant the only reminder that, in the days when that was the street's name, this was one of the poorest and most destitute streets in London. Here Mayhew came across people who lived by collecting and trading in street-waste - bones, cigar-ends and "pure" (dog dung, used in tanneries).

Here the route turns into the main stream of traffic squeezing its way over Tower Bridge; once over, a lot of traffic is lining itself up to turn left at successive traffic lights, and some decisive judgement is needed to get into lane to turn right, down Tanner Street and into Leathermarket Street (do you see a theme here?). Here's another area gentrified apparently and mercifully without (so far) massive rebuilding: the Morocco Store and the Leather Exchange buildings are still in use as offices for small businesses. Crossing Bermondsey Street you see the greasy spoon is still doing business, even as the kind of sports shoe shop that wouldn't look out of place in Covent Garden has opened up (it's called "United Nude" - nope, me neither) and the pubs have spruced up: "ever popular" the estate agents call it (i.e., property prices beyond the imagining of people who knew it 40 years ago).

This is Dickens territory. A little to the East was Fagin's lair, a little to the West, the Marshalsea debtors' prison, as featured in Little Dorrit (and David Copperfield, and Dickens's own life). And here, all down the side of a building, is a quotation from "Pickwick Papers".

Over the next main road, you're into Chaucer, as the streets in the Tabard Gardens estate (another 1930s public housing development) are all named with reference to the Canterbury Tales (Pilgrimage, Pardoner, Manciple): the pilgrims would have set out from the Tabard Inn on Borough High Street nearby. With wide quiet streets shaded by full-grown plane trees, it looks closer to the planners' pictures than their 50s or 60s equivalents do today.

Crossing over Great Dover Street (the main road to Canterbury and the coast - you see why the pilgrims set out from Borough), the route comes back into Dickens's time, passing a side street of plain Victorian workshop buildings, and turns into the grand, elegant 1830s Trinity Church Square with a church (now a recording studio) at its centre:

I could imagine Dickens's not quite upper crust settled here: enclosed among their own kind, but close enough to their businesses to keep an eye on their workers. Apparently it's owned by Trinity House, which operates the nation's lighthouses: this might account for the austere and uniform external decoration.

Turning south again, and past the mosque on Dickens Square (now what would he have made of that?), avoiding a dustcart (or is it a work of art?), it's a short run down and round past the Salvation Army headquarters - how appropriate - to the Elephant and Castle:

And in the evening, I get to do it all again in reverse.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Life's too short

There are too many lists. You can't move for lazy TV programmes about the umpteen best/ worst/ funniest/ most irritating whatevers. And now the Guardian's producing a list of a thousand artworks to see before you die. Well, that's one supplement that goes into the bin unread. I see what I can when I feel like it(and vice versa) - and that's it.

On the other hand, I did enjoy their article on costume drama (the latest BBC offering, Little Dorrit, looks promising):

"Generally speaking though, costume drama acting is about demonstrating supreme bonnet control in devastatingly posh circumstances. This is why it is known as Dench warfare. "

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Generation gap

Today I saw a young woman jogging along the main road with a black armband. How unusual, I thought, you don't often see that sort of mourning convention these days.

It was, of course, her music player.

I'm surprised I didn't wonder if she was monitoring her blood pressure.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

I blame the weather.

Recently, I just haven't been to any special events or places to write about. Just catching up on the stuff that's accumulated on my TV recorder (that "series link!" facility has a lot to answer for), and the reading matter that piles up on my kitchen table. I need to clear a bit soon (because I've had another offer of a house swap to Paris in early November - the other side of the city this time), but first I've been wading through Martin Amis's "House of Meetings", which someone at our book club brought along but couldn't persuade the rest to select.

I say "wade through" advisedly. Somehow I just cannot get along with his style. The subject matter - the love and rivalry of two brothers standing as a metaphor for different responses to the experience of Stalinist repression - interests me, and the writing style is great deal less florid than in other novels of his I couldn't finish: but something in the voice of the narrator (the ruthless, shameless survivor of the two) just didn't take life. It's not that it's overwhelmed by the detail of the research - it's a short book - but I was just too conscious of the author describing, to the point that the characters seemed merely schematic.

On the other hand, I am enjoying "The Clothes On Their Backs", one of the Booker Prize finalists. For this month, the book club agreed to choose whatever we liked from the shortlist, and to be honest, it was the shortest and cheapest that I could see in the shop. As good a principle as any (I remember a bookstall in North End Road market in Fulham with the sign "Thick books £1, thin books 50p"). This is a tale of family secrets, and how refugees responded to life in Britain. I don't know yet what the secret is, though I can guess there might be a plot element in common with "House of Meetings".

Sunday, 19 October 2008


One of my parents' more gnomic sayings was "If we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread". I can't remember if this was a comment on privation or improvidence, but catering just for oneself at a supermarket tends to the reverse.

Inspired to try Ken's "smoked potatoes" (I prefer to call it bacon hotpot), I realised I would still have about half a pack of lardons left. What to do? Easy, fry them off and have them with some scrambled eggs for Sunday breakfast (I don't usually have a cooked breakfast, but on Sundays - especially in the winter - I might make an exception). But what to do with the rest of the half dozen?

Which is how I came to indulge myself with a proper sponge cake on Saturday afternoon (and it helped use up some marmalade that's been hanging around for far too long). And I might make an almond soufflé topping for some gooseberries that have been cluttering up the freezer. If I had some ground almonds.

They teach you more than they know, do parents.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Etiquette (2)

Once on the bike, I turn into someone else. Every bump in the road, every missed turn or misjudged choice of lane, every traffic light deaf to my pleadings, evokes an almost involuntary expletive: not so much a tour as Tourette's.

By Christmas, at this rate, I shall be Father Jack:

Saturday, 11 October 2008


Navigating my way around the mess made by the umpteenth excavations of the electricity cables along our only route off the Isle of Dogs, I was wobbling along with my right hand signalling a turn, two fingers elegantly extended, when I found myself in one of those "After you, Claude" moments with a car.

Nice of him to slow down, but I wasn't quite sure he was giving way; since I was nearly about to stop, it seemed more secure to keep moving to turn behind him, so I switched to gesturing to him to carry on towards me and go first.

Only later did I realise that it must have looked like a particularly vigorous V-sign.


It's started.

Now I'm thinking of getting one of these (well, I do have a couple of nasty turns against the traffic, which is fine at the moment, but what happens when the nights draw in?).

Ooh, and it might be fun to have one of these, too....

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Sheer frivolity

The isle may be full of noises (chiefly of headless chickens coming home to roost), but at work today all is calm, as a colleague presents each of us with a sycamore seed picked up in the street, and we all spend a merry moment playing helicopters. I wouldn't put it past him to organise a conkers contest.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Sit up and beg

I would pick the a grey and windy, autumn-setting-in sort of a day to test out a route to cycle to work: but even with a head-wind trying to blow me backwards across Tower Bridge and a stop to check the maps, it took me no longer than it would by public transport - 41 minutes door to door. No excuses now...

The best thing is how you can see - and stop to look at - all sorts of interesting odds and ends - the curious coat of arms at the entrance to Guy's Hospital, or the mural commemorating the most exciting piece of local history in what is now a very quiet residential street (so quiet, it's got the only real cycle lane in the area - sadly, it appears to have been laid with the only square-wheeled roadroller in existence).

For a couple of weeks I've been trying to work out what niggled me about a piece in the newspaper on the best sort of posture for cycling. Sit upright, let the legs do the work: it wasn't just the vague memory of an old-style district nurse going about her business, but something else I'd seen.

And then it came to me (I do hope I don't cycle like the first four minutes of this):