Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday 31 December 2007


Picking up a challenge from Claude, here's an end-of-year review sort of thing:

Still grateful: that I have my health, most of my wits and the ability to support myself.
Still reading: anything I can lay my hands on.
Still hate: that there are just too many things to read, to look at, to listen to.
Still grateful: that I live where people are free to create so much, and I'm free to read what I like.
Still starting: what I can't finish, half the time.
Still laughing at: the wrong moments. And the ridiculously smug and self-satisfied.
Still hate: the ridiculously smug and self-satisfied when they think everyone not like them is morally deficient.
Still not: voting Conservative. Or smoking.
Still drinking: too much tea.
Still sticking: to my sofa far too much.
Still feeling: peripheral. And occasionally pointless.
Still missing: whatever it was I came in here to find.
Still being: probably too polite for my own good.
Still not wearing: prosthetics of any kind.
Still making: whoopee - quietly and in moderation.
Still wondering: about the choices I didn't make when I stuck to the cosy option.
Still lacking: the self-belief to make those choices.
Still glad: I summoned up the courage to change my life when I did. Even if I should perhaps have done it earlier.
Still working: to live, and not the other way around.
Still will never: vote Conservative. Or smoke.

Sunday 30 December 2007

Fans and folderols

If you walk just a little bit away from the traffic and tourist crowds in central Greenwich, into the quiet Georgian streets beside the park, you'll find the Fan Museum, just across the street from the Greenwich Theatre.

This is quite a revelation if all you, like me, know of fans is the flick and flutter that underlines some witty (or smutty) remark from a Sir Foppington Sneerwell in a Restoration comedy (by the by, whatever happened to Restoration comedy? It used to be all the go, but we don't seem to hear much of it nowadays).

In two ground-floor rooms, there's a permanent exhibition of techniques and materials used to make fans - including a fan of ivory so delicately pierced and worked that it looks like the finest muslin - and some samples of basic types, including a fascinating all-purpose job with a little mirror, a thimble and compartments for a sewing kit and smelling salts. There's a final nod to modern industrial and battery-powered fans, but they're not what we've come to see, are they?

In two rooms upstairs is a temporary exhibition, currently on a theme of "Celebrations", with plenty of examples from the collections. Mostly French, with some Italian, Spanish and English examples, commemorating variously royal weddings and births, revolutionary anniversaries, the first balloon ascents, Christmases and New Year celebrations. The stars are the fans by Gauguin and Sickert.

The earlier they are, the more classical many of the decorative themes (a handy explanation here of how to tell your Cleopatras from your Calypsos): but there are special party fans from the nineteenth-century (some beautiful art nouveau peacocks in mother of pearl, and some rather gruesome embossed paper pugs and cats), and calendars as commercial promotions.

Downstairs at the back is the Orangery, a modern building but painted in vaguely Georgian style with trompe-l'oeil flowers and trees, which offers teas on Sundays and Tuesdays (buy a ticket at the desk). A "half tea" for £3.50 included a large pot of properly strong tea, two warm scones with jam and cream (whipped, though, not clotted) - in proper dishes, hooray, not those fiddly sachets. A full tea at £4.50 includes a cake.

Friday 28 December 2007

Some Christmas logodaedaly

In the true spirit of a family Christmas, I think I shall treat you to the benefit of one of the books I was given.

I don't think I can quite sustain a complete consuetudinary to the tralatitious Christmas celebration, but you may take it from me that our gulosity deliciated in my sister-in-law's magirologistic skills - no omophagy here. We are hardly prone to polydipsia, but we can appreciate a certain nippitate nittiness at this time of year - thank goodness, not a trace of the jumentous! Of course, there was much galimatias, but on the whole we avoided the risk of becoming temulent or succumbing to the woofits.

The children there were delightful as ever: not at all mammothrept - not a sign of momurdotes. Of course, there were times when might wish for a sitooterie, particularly when a grandparental whigmaleery presented a three-year old with one of these. Oh the rimbombo!

How was your Christmas? Were all your gifts cromulent? An autogeneal curwhibble, perhaps, or something from the knackatory? Were the presents you gave crumenically laetificant?

Friday 21 December 2007

Thank goodness for market stalls. I finally gave into winter today and bought a pair of gloves - only £1.99, so I won't mind too much if I manage - as I usually do - to lose one within a few weeks.

I suppose I ought to do the old mums' trick of threading them on elastic up one arm of my coat and down the other.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed in my paper that someone was selling an all-in-one scarf and gloves - sounds perfect, till you start to think what might happen if the scarf's wrapped around your neck and you suddenly try to hail a bus or have a conversation in Italian (perhaps that's why the only one I can find online is on sale in Japan).

Another of those wonderful ideas that might not be quite so clever is the single slipper/footwarmer for both feet that you occasionally see advertised in the back end of magazines for the comfy-minded. They make me wonder what happens when the doorbell rings and a forgetful wearer rushes to answer it......

Monday 17 December 2007

Films I'm so glad I didn't pay to see, part the umpteenth

One good thing about being a bit of a stick-in-the-mud is that I find I don't regret not going to the cinema that often, and finding that I can see on TV things I let slip by.

Another is finding that something I wouldn't have paid to see anyway turns out to be a real stinker. I went to a festive dinner and DVD show with a group of friends last night: someone had chosen The Holiday, as it was vaguely Christmas-themed. Oh dear, what a waste of time and some good actors. It's supposed to be a romantic comedy based around a home exchange between two women who want to get away over Christmas from their romantic disasters. The English leg is set in Hollywood's mysterious England-land, where it always snows for Christmas, and people who write up society weddings for the Daily Telegraph can afford to live in a twee cottage in Surrey, down a twisting forest path too risky for a hire car to drive down (until it suits the plot for it to do so later on), but still "only 40 minutes from exciting London".

It expects Kate Winslet to be a drippier version of Bridget Jones, who is inspired to realise her strength by a twinkly old screenwriter and a quirky nerd; and who expresses it to the cad (who has turned up on her doorstep in Los Angeles - oh yeah?) in yards and yards of psychobabble (all the women in our group were shouting "Just tell him to eff off!"). It expects Jude Law to change from gadabout drunk to charmingly sad widower with impossibly cute children, and to explain this - with a straight face - by saying "I know I come as a package, and I realise my package isn't very impressive".

Is there some sort of "cute by numbers" kit they issue to Hollywood scriptwriters?

Saturday 15 December 2007

I've reached the age where book tokens are what the young people in the family give to Uncle (i.e., me) rather than the other way around. Or in other words, in our family (perhaps in most) Christmas shopping isn't the stressful, anxiety-ridden nightmare we're led to believe it might be.

It helps me that I'm single, lazy and regularly expected at someone else's Christmas celebrations, so I've not had all that to worry about; and being peripheral to other people's lives puts me in the position of the Victorian child whose anxieties about her party frock were calmed with the assurance that "No-one's going to be looking at you anyway, dear". As long as I don't set out to give something downright offensive, whatever I give is unlikely to upset anyone else's equilibrium, so I don't need to worry too much about the balance between heart, head and wallet that comes into play when buying presents.

So once again, pacing myself over several Saturdays for some repeated trawls for books and consumables gets the job done. I can't claim to be as organised as my mother, who had a whole drawerful of "useful and acceptable gifts" bought throughout the year just in case anyone had been forgotten when the time came (not that stopped her fretting): but that's a useful reminder. It is the thought that counts.

If the weather hadn't been so perishing cold today, I'd have been able to linger and enjoy the decorations and entertainment in Covent Garden this afternoon - as you can see, a genuine balancing act.

Wednesday 12 December 2007


Sitting slack-jawed in front of Spooks (well, it's been a tiring week at work and all I want to do at the moment is hibernate), it took me a while to feel it's all getting a bit.. well, repetitive?

It's the same high-glitz, high-energy mix of moral dilemmas (ends vs. means, individual vs. collective loyalties, lurking doom and count-downs to disaster, in plotlines that are no less improbable for a modish nod to contemporary issues. The "one in, one out" policy for central characters is as rigidly enforced as in the days of uniformed commissionnaires controlling the queues for the one-and-nines. Some praise is deserved for making the geek and an older woman into central, decisive and authoritative characters (is naming her Connie a knowing hommage to Le Carré's Smiley's People?).

But I'm starting to get the impression that, for all Rupert Penry-Jones showing us more than perhaps he intended, his shoulder-rolling walk is starting to look like Roger Moore's eyebrow in semaphoring a performance. And the central conceit of an impossibly small group of people doing all the impossibly dangerous and glamorous and techno-whizzy stuff (no computer system ever breaks down) is starting look - well, as though they work in an office plastered with those signs saying "The Impossible We Do At Once - Miracles Take Longer" and "You Don't Have To Be Mad To Work Here, But It Helps" and take them all seriously.

Saturday 8 December 2007


Charing Cross Road, Saturday afternoon - a crowd outside Central St Martin's School of Art display windows. Why are they all staring at a steamed-up window? Well, it is near Soho - and it was an advertisement for an exhibition at the Barbican: Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now. But this wasn't quite as exciting as all that - it was a young woman licking chocolate off the glass.

Lèche-vitrine, if you didn't know, is the French for window-shopping - but I don't think they imagine it happening from the other side.

Creature comforts

Is there anything better, on a dark, dank, dismal December afternoon, than knowing you've actually made a start on the Christmas shopping, and coming home to Marmite crumpets?

Sunday 2 December 2007


Sitting indoors with the makings of a cold on a wet winter Sunday, catching up on yesterday's newspaper, my eye lights on the word "amusia".

For a moment, I thought of a mythical country where the national sport might be giggling, the national anthem Will You Stop Your Tickling, Jock, and the most solemn day of the year would feature the laying of a wreath of water-squirting flowers to commemorate those who died laughing. But like all utopias, it would have its dystopian side: can you imagine what Kafka would have made of The Laughing Policeman?

As it happens, the reality of amusia would be even worse for me: the inability to recognise music as music. It's discussed in Oliver Sacks's book Musicophilia (another one to add to the pile of fascinating things to find out about), but I remember now there was a flurry of interest about a year ago, about the Delosis online test. (I've just done it again, and from what I recall, my score's gone up since I did it a year ago - I seem to be more aware of rhythmic variations).

We might occasionally debate whether it would be worse to lose one's sight or one's hearing. Heaven knows, I hope never to find out. But if there's one thing worse than losing the hearing of music, it would be having hearing but experiencing music as a meaningless clatter indistinguishable from all the other extraneous noise of the world. Imagine, none of the inspiration or consolations of great music (or of the cheaply potent).

Saturday 1 December 2007

It's a commonplace that one of the best ways to learn a language is to fall in love with a native (I'm bowdlerising a bit, I think): one of the next best is to fall in love with a song.

I picked up on a phrase in one of Claude's posts that called to mind a song sung by Jean Sablon which I have on a 78. And in hunting for an online recording for someone else, I found on Youtube a whole treasure trove of chanson: Sablon, Trenet, Mistinguett, Lucienne Boyer, Damia. In amongst them was this one of Jean Sablon's that I didn't know:

Sunday 25 November 2007

Confessions of a foolish virgin

There, that's got your attention hasn't it?

This morning, I woke to find the carpet outside my airing cupboard completely sodden, and water leaking from somewhere: and then I found my insurance policy didn't cover emergency call-outs.


But then, having bitten the bullet and called out an emergency plumber, I found the water was coming from the flat next door, so I could claim the cost against someone else's insurance policy.


But it still cost £183, just for the plumber to come and check it all out.

So I must remember in future to check the details on the insurance policy before I renew it; and instead of writing about interesting things happening in London this weekend, I shall be laundering towels.

Saturday 24 November 2007


1: Why do ducks sleep on one leg?

To have one still functioning if anything happens to the one they're standing on?

2. Why am I always taken by surprise when the Christmas shopping season starts?

This was the queue for Santa's first day at Canary Wharf this morning.

So far, so enlivening. But in the afternoon, I went up to town, planning to visit the reopened Transport Museum, and with a couple of mundane items to buy.

So why was I surprised to find as long a queue waiting to get into the museum? Why was I surprised not to find around Covent Garden a place selling simple clip frames (because there's nowhere within half an hour's travel to buy a bit of glass to replace something broken - much easier to buy a whole new frame that's come all the way from China: this is called progress) and a bit of Blu-tak?

And why is it that walking through all those crowds turns me into an exhausted combination of Scrooge and Eeyore?

And why does a cup of tea make all the difference?

Friday 23 November 2007

Words, words, words...

Apparently, some words of mine sent Claude to her dictionary.

As it happens, I've been trying to read some Fred Vargas that I bought on a previous trip to France. No chance of reading it on the train*, I'm afraid, as I find almost every page contains something to send me off to my huge Robert - accastillage, baffe, mettre en boule, plastron, bousiller (she likes that word, does our Ms Vargas), crânement.......

Proof once more that when it comes to languages, there really is no substitute for just doing it, over and over again.

The book's just introduced the idea of a Breton village crier - Ar Bannour - whose voice can carry from the church to the wash-house. The first is an obvious title for a blog: but then the second might better reflect the reality of a lot....

*There was a man on the tube this morning reading a book by an author with a Turkish-looking name, and a title that looked like no language I could recognise; I guessed Albanian - but then he pulled out of his bag a Kurdish dictionary. That's London for you.

Tuesday 20 November 2007

Reading a book?

Hearing someone say (I hope as a joke) that they haven't read a book in a year reminded me of one of my favourite comic film moments, from Dinner at Eight, where a gangster's moll (Jean Harlow) accompanies him to a society dinner and makes polite conversation with a "stately galleon" of a hostess (Marie Dressler) about a book she's been reading.

I remember still the delight with which, twenty-odd years ago, a very camp friend of mine acted out the comedic exaggeration of Marie Dressler's reaction. Trying to describe it in words, at third hand, would be one of those "you had to be there" moments. It was months before I got an opportunity to see the original - but now, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, I can save you a tortuous description with just a finger-click:

Saturday 17 November 2007

Where I'm from

I've been wondering whether this blog really has a "voice", or any sort of online personality. A bit of digging suggests people visit because they're interested in the individual events and places I write about; it doesn't look as though visitors feel they require any comment - apart from Daphne (who was obviously brought up proper, and kindly acknowledges my all-too-feeble comments on her blog).

It comes of years of bureaucratic writing. I occasionally slipped a sly joke into para 34 of some committee paper or report (one way of checking whether anyone read it), but on the whole, anything I wrote had to get to the point and summarise facts and arguments as concisely and non-controversially as possible.

So when it comes to writing anything really personal, I welcome the idea of filling in this form - the link to which I picked up from Claude's English blog (now there's discipline - to be able to write blogs in two languages, and make them both interesting, as she does).

Forms I can do. Forms I understand. Heaven knows, I had to construct enough in my time. You wouldn't believe, for example, how difficult it is to collect people's names, given all the different naming conventions and systems. "Christian name" is obviously meaningless in large parts of the world, "surname" seems to be a particularly British usage, "first name" and "last name" have completely different significances in Anglo-Saxon and Chinese cultures, some people still have purely patronymic systems, some people simply use one name, and so on. I felt like giving up when I tried "family name" one year and an American student put in "Bud".

But that's by the by.

Here goes:

I am from mincers, mangles and apple-coring gadgets, from Bemax (ugh) and extract of malt (yum).

I am from a tall, narrow Victorian house, where every move from room to room taught me to plan (never go up or downstairs empty-handed; take what you'll need for the next few hours, or you'll be dashing up and down those cold stairs and landings).

I am from the candle-flowered chestnut tree and a resident blackbird, its summer afternoon song and evening alarm call; from the smell of the flowers on the lime-tree several gardens away; and from the rolling Thames.

I am from fossicking in junk-shops, from music, shouting and sulking.

I am from make-do and mend, never throwing away something that "might come in useful", be it string, brown paper, clothes or the remains of the air-raid shelter.

From learning not to fear the wasps with yellow stripes on black, only those with black stripes on yellow, and concentrating on telling the difference.

I am from somewhere between Congregationalists, Baptists and the low Church of England: conscience comes before pings and pongs; and now I'm the kind of atheist that most irritates the faithful, that tuts over the modern prayer book and watches "Songs of Praise" shouting "Wrong tune! Wrong tune!".

I'm from London, via Edinburgh, South Shields, Kent, Cornwall and Suffolk; from my mother's Queen of Puddings, and my father's beloved pease pudding (once he made it in a pressure-cooker and took off the lid before the pressure).

From the stories of my father's time working as a prisoner of war in German railway yards and a Polish coalmine (which records suggest may have been a much darker experience than he ever told); from a father who barely remembered his father or brother who died in the First World War, and grew up in a household of forceful women, and a mother who, as the only child of the oldest daughter, kept up with cousins and aunts in every continent.

I am from five red ring-binders, full of photocopied certificates and register entries that help identify photographs from the 1860s onwards - and a box full of the unidentified, mysteries to be pursued.

Friday 16 November 2007

Fun with Sonia

Here are some diverting alternative tube announcements, recorded by the genuine article - as listed by Going Underground.

They'd have made a nice change from the cacophony at Canary Wharf this morning. Mr Growser's Do NOTs were being broadcast every ten seconds, on top of an overly self-important platform attendant, and a busker who seemed to think he was auditioning for Spinal Tap.

Perhaps I should invest in an MP3 player after all, if only to cocoon myself still more.

Thursday 15 November 2007

It's That Man Again (not)

I see there are mutterings in Conservative ranks about Boris's perceived low profile. Well, what did they expect? Being opinionated is not the same thing as campaigning (let alone actually running public services); and did they seriously expect a man with his record to be a team player?

His notion that the Stockwell shooting was all the fault of "healthandsafetyism is quixotically off the point. There was a management shambles - something, perhaps, his experience doesn't equip him to recognise: far easier to rail at something the Mayor of London is not empowered to change than to think about the things the Mayor could and should be doing.

On which topic, why on earth is Ken Livingstone so adamantly hitching his star to a dead duck?

Sunday 11 November 2007

Now I know I'm getting old

There's a slightly creepy advertisement on daytime TV, all about putting elderly minds at rest by encouraging them to park some money with an insurance company "for your loved ones' peace of mind". Until recently, the presenter was June Whitfield, opening with a clip from one of her films from the 50s. Now we have Cilla Black (Cilla Black!) telling us she loved the 60s.

Who's next? Toyah Willcox?

Lord Mayor's Show

It must be 50 years or more since I was taken to see the Lord Mayor's Show. I remember standing about halfway up Ludgate Hill, not far from the railway bridge that ran acrss the foot of the Hill in those days. The cellars of the bombed-out buildings behind us were serving as carparks (as they did until the City Thameslink station was built not that long ago).

The Show itself hasn't changed that much. The City of London has always taken its status seriously. This is hardly surprising - for centuries it was the one power in the land independent of both Church and King. The Lord Mayor (not to be confused with the new arrival, the executive Mayor of London) may only be a ceremonial figurehead and ambassador for the City, chosen on Buggin's Turn, but the City Corporation, once made up of the trade guilds (livery companies) is still dominated by business votes and safeguards the interests of the financial and business establishment gathered in the enclave of the City, just as it always has.

But the civic pomp is shown in a light-hearted atmosphere. I can remember, all those decades ago, the policeman smiling as a group of teenage boys chanted:
"I'll sing you a song,
And it's not very long -
All coppers are bastards".

This time, I arrived on Ludgate Hill to see a line of coaches with various dignitaries in their robes - waving glove puppets: a Mickey Mouse, a Mr Punch, a Gromit, a lion, a badger, sundry fluffy puppies and a pink inflatable hand.

Then the Household Cavalry led the really grand part of the procession, with the Lord Mayor's ceremonial coach (liberated for the day from the Museum of London); if he was preceded by the royal Life Guards, he was followed by sternly Cromwellian-looking pikemen.

I'd missed the first part of the procession, but caught up with it on its return. Here any and every organisation connected with the City and the new Lord Mayor gets its chance to put itself on show (and some seizing the opportunity for purely commercial advertising). There's a strong representation of all sorts of military units, community and charitable organisations, vintage machinery and bands galore (I never knew there was a St John Ambulance band, but apparently so), flags and bunting, and many floats carrying their own music, with plenty of spectators blowing whistles (which seems to be the thing to do at any public event these days).

At times the people on the floats were calling out to us to smile and wave, but there was plenty of banter from the onlookers as well: "Where's your boat?" to the watermen marching along with their oars.

But as the pikemen came past for the last time - no band for them, just the repeated click of the musketeers' staves on the tarmac - the procession came to an end with a small group of elderly men, one in a wheelchair, all with medals and banners from the units they'd served in. The whistles and shouts died away, and instead, on the eve of Remembrance Day, there was a soft and gentle wave of clapping.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Great Expectations

It's an odd thing about Dickens - or me - but I tend not to think of him as particularly attracted to railways. You'd have thought his imagination would run wild at the thought of fire, steam and speed; what would he make about the various odd personalities and goings-on that you can see on Mr. Livingstone's Stupendous Tubular Railway - and surely there's nothing more "Dickensian" than the looming pinnacles and turrets of St Pancras?

But what most of us remember is the mythologised pre-railway world of his childhood, all carts and stage-coaches; and, as part of that, the mysterious marshes where Pip meets Magwitch, the convict escaped from the hulks. Dickens names no specific location, but what he had in mind can't have been that far from Eurostar's spanking new Ebbsfleet station. It's all concrete, steel and glass, and - frankly - without any sense of place at all. It might as well have been in Paris, as it has been pretending to be for the purposes of Eurostar's testing of systems on the new high-speed line into St Pancras. Thanks to a tip-off from diamondgeezer (a Stakhanovite of blogging about all sorts of London lore), I was able to get to be one of today's guinea-pigs.

The new line replaces a leisurely tour of the back-garden sheds and washing-lines of south London to Waterloo with a swoosh through anonymous concrete tunnels and cuttings and much briefer glimpses of lines of pylons marching across the warehouses and containers of Rainham and Dagenham. A fine welcome to London: whereas on the approach to Waterloo you see the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye (for quite a long time if there's a queue to get into the station), on the run-in to St Pancras you see nothing of note, and only the briefest glimpse of the towers of St Pancras Chambers at the last minute.

That said, the new St Pancras is every bit as imposing as the rave reviews say it is.

The "undercroft" space where the freight used to be stored is now converted into the Eurostar check-in and departure lounges, combining exposed brickwork and cast-iron columns with woodblock floors, glass and steel and slate in the fashionable Docklands warehouse look, with plenty of seating, some in an interesting "spine and spur" shape of backless purple leather bench.

This allows masses of space. Even allowing for the jolly, "we're all just acting the part" atmosphere of the test runs, the check-in areas, circulation and waiting spaces are handsomely spacious and airy.

One of the disappointments of Waterloo is that you don't really get to appreciate the ingenuity and scale of the sweep of Grimshaw's roof curling around the rest of the station, because (if you're leaving) you're underground until you need to board or (if you're arriving) you're going back underground within a relatively few paces of leaving the train - and let's face it, the platforms at Waterloo aren't that wide, either, so you feel you have to keep an eye on where your feet are.

But at St Pancras, you can at one point see the magnificent arch from the lounge area; and on arrival, you have the time (well, admit it, you have a rather long walk) to look up.

Waterloo seems cramped and tired in retrospect - not to mention the Gare du Nord or Brussels Midi. Let's hope St Pancras continues to convey this sense of adventure and comfort.

Friday 2 November 2007

Oh dear oh dear

Oh Stephen, Stephen, Stephen....

I was so impressed by the lightness with which The Ode Less Travelled delivered some serious learning.

But if Twining's ads were bad enough, what sort of judgment is that jumps on the Christmas commercial bandwagon with voiceovers for Argos..?!

Sunday 28 October 2007

In my last post I mentioned in the context of the constitutional consultation the idea - that the soldiers of 1647 would have seized on - that the House of Commons ought not just to be a replacement monarch with monarchical powers. Catching up on a book of Leveller texts I bought at the Putney Debates exhibition, what do I find?

In A Remonstrance 0f Many Thousand Citizens - what a title! - (July 1646) the authors complain:
For we must deal plainly with you: you have long time acted more like the House of Peers than the House of Commons. We can scarcely approach your door with a request or motion, though by way of petition, but you hold long debates whether we break not your privileges. The king's or the Lords' pretended prerogatives never made a greater noise nor was made more dreadful than the name of privilege of the House of Commons.

They may not be sending people to prison for having the wrong opinions, or engaging in "fishing expedition" interrogations any more: but there are precious few legal brakes on what the House of Commons might be able to do if a sufficient majority thought they could get away with it, even if at the moment we only face minor nonsenses about priority in queues at Westminster or some eyebrow-raising expenses claims.

Saturday 27 October 2007

The poorest he and the richest he

I was brought up in Putney, and on the fact that it has one proud claim to historical fame: its parish church housed the debates, between the soldiers and the leaders of the Parliamentary army against Charles I, that most clearly articulated the issues that dominated debate (in the Anglo-Saxon world at least) about the principles of representation in government for the next few centuries.

Last night I went to a staging of the key moments in the debates, and the opening of a commemorative exhibition in the church. Actually, given the constraints on space - it is still, after all, a functioning church - it's more of a commemorative cupboard, with half a dozen explanatory panels of text and pictures, and an audio-visual display of extracts from the record of the debates and of various talking heads on their significance. And there's an elegant engraved slate plaque as well.

That's not to minimize the importance of what happened here. In 1647, the Army had presented Parliament with a victory over the King in the first Civil War, but also with a challenge. Soldiers were claiming a say in that great issue that confronts all revolutions: where next? To borrow a phrase from Milton "Progressive, retrograde, or standing still?"

A contemporary shorthand record allows us, uniquely, to eavesdrop on the (more or less?) exact words with which ordinary soldiers argued their fears over the compromises the Parliament was planning to make with the King, for the sake of peace and property, and their belief that God's grant of a victory over the King created a right for all men to a say in government.

Eventually, and perhaps not surprisingly, the process of debate collapsed into repression, as the Parliamentary revolution faced its Kronstadt. As tends to happen to revolutions that require a particular kind of perfection in the people, it fell even further into a military dictatorship which could not long outlast the death of Cromwell.

The issues raised at Putney never went away. If the revolution of 1689 finally settled the primacy of parliament over the monarch, equal suffrage finally arrived in 1832, and universal suffrage in 1928, we still argue over how democratic our system really is.

How appropriate that this has happened at the end of a summer in which The Broon launched a consultation on at least some of these issues. However, if you look at what was proposed in July, it focusses on incremental changes, with a great deal of "could" and "might" about the possibility of a proper written constitution - and absolutely no recognition of the idea - that the soldiers of 1647 would have seized on - that the House of Commons ought not just to be a replacement monarch with monarchical powers.

Thursday 25 October 2007

More announcement nonsense

As I career down the escalator, it's clear there's a train at the platform: but the crowds aren't pushing to get in, they're just standing waiting. Some of the doors are open, some aren't; the train is quite empty.

Something Is Not Right.

Eventually the platform attendant announces that someone is ill on a train two stations along, and she'll let us know when the trains will be moving again, and whether this train is to be boarded or not. Before she can do so, the doors close and the train moves off empty, leaving a full trainload of passengers, and the new arrivals, puzzled and bemused.

At this point, a cheery message tells us there's a good service on all London Underground lines this morning. Once again, the PR tells us something that is not only not the case, but even if it were true would be of no informational value at all.

Does no-one at LUL have any common sense?

Saturday 20 October 2007

I had thought about going to see the Camouflage exhibition at the Imperial War Museum this weekend. I'd like to say I couldn't find it; but the truth of it is, when it came to it I just couldn't be bothered.

It's the weather. I feel like one of those late wasps that sometimes stumble around in a sudden warmth of the sun in the first chills of autumn, not quite knowing what they're trying to do.

So after doing my chores for the day, I thought I'd see the waxwork of Jonny Wilkinson that replaced Alison Lapper in Trafalgar Square, with some pertinent thoughts about the symbolism. But though the giant St George's Cross flew all round central London, the waxwork seems to have made way for the celebrations of Eid. I couldn't hear much of what the rappers were saying (I rarely can), and I don't like feeling hemmed in by crowds, so instead I settled for home, and the first Marmite crumpets of the autumn.

Tuesday 16 October 2007

Gymshoes teapot funnel..

What's been your strangest shopping list?

Saturday 13 October 2007


If a nickname is the mark of an impact, then Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth at Tate Modern has made it, and very soon after opening.

A shibboleth is a means of dividing people to identify those you fear or mean to harm. This "division" is an artificial crack in the floor of the main Turbine Hall. The official description points you to the divisiveness of the very concept of "modernity". But if you arrive thinking that the crack suggests that the cultural constructs this massive building houses are unstable (even if its foundations aren't), the experience of it suggests otherwise.

Despite much discussion over the supposed "mystery" of how it was built, there's no great secret or puzzle to it. The artifice isn't exactly hidden. A section of floor has been replaced by one in which cement render forms the "crack", on a deliberately visible framework of chicken-wire fence-netting: what divides also contains and supports (Good fences make good neighbours, or so I was taught).

I don't think many of the people who came for the spectacle were feeling their foundations rocked, their cultural assumptions challenged, or any particular concern to reconsider their own shibboleths.

Children played their unselfconscious games with it. Tourists assumed their standard "We were here" poses for photographs, as they must have done across the meridian line at Greenwich and outside Westminster Abbey or the Tower, recording their individual presence in the same sort of pose as millions of others. Others were putting their cameras right inside the widest parts for that God-like canyon effect.

People straddled and probed what must very soon be appearing on the souvenir T-shirts. They were imposing their presence without any visible cracks in their foundations: the consumption of modernity as spectacle went on its merry way.

Tuesday 9 October 2007


Use all the available doors along the platform edge

As opposed to which doors, where?

Thursday 4 October 2007

Hubble bubble.....

I'm in print. Or, to be precise, one remark I made on a messageboard has been used in a guide book to London. The producers kindly offered to send me a free copy from the US, which arrived today.

A roughly A5-size book, 1" thick, came in a box 14"x11"x5", complete with enough bubble-wrap to fill the space and sixteen (count 'em) sheets of documentation. Among them, just to reassure, is a written confirmation that the package contained no unauthorized explosives, destructive devices or hazardous materials [unauthorized?] - complete with a photo of the person signing and a sticker to say that Random House authorized the rather fed-up looking woman in question to sign.

And I have to wonder - is any of this remotely likely to prevent anything - apart from unemployment in the packaging and bureaucratic nonsense industries?

If I let it get to me, I might need to start popping bubble-wrap as therapy. I've got plenty of it, after all.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Not even bronze

I have to hand it to TfL, they replied within 48 hours to my email about station announcements, along the same lines as my rant here.

However, despite my asking for a reply that didn't just seek to soothe my irritation, but actually answered the point I made, they went for the standard "customer management" response:

Thanks for your recent feedback for about the use of PA messages at Canary Wharf station on 18 September.

We've been reviewing the type and frequency of messages that are broadcast at our stations and have developed a new set of guidelines for staff when making announcements. These guidelines will be disseminated to front line staff over the next few weeks and should result in a reduction in the frequency of announcements.

The changes are focused on giving customers the information they are most interested in - factors affecting their journey - without overloading them with information. Service information - to tell customers if there is a good service, delays or a suspension - will still be the most frequent type of message, but will in most cases be no more than once every five minutes.

Non-service announcements will also be reduced in frequency, with announcements from each category to be made no more than once an hour. The categories are:
* Housekeeping (no smoking, no photography etc)
* Marketing (Oyster pay as you go )
* Safety & security (CCTV, personal belongings etc).

We have also emphasized that consideration should be given to residents and note that these guidelines are not to override any local agreements with residents, for example the quiet period at Earl's Court.

While there may be times when more frequent announcements become necessary for safety reasons, these new guidelines should ensure that customers get the information they need while reducing any impact on residents.

I hope you notice a positive difference to our announcements in due course.

Do get in touch if I can be of any further help.

Well, I did get in touch. Two weeks ago - and not a dicky-bird in reply to my basic point: that using the PA too often switches people off and they don't listen. Only use it when something out of the ordinary is happening, and they will - unless LUL has evidence to the contrary, but this reply rather suggests no-one's collected any.

I've often thought there ought to be a Society for Halting Unnecessary Transport Undertaking Pronouncements (geddit?), but I don't really have the energy to do more than whinge, like most commuters. Until now. I'm really thinking about it.

Thursday 27 September 2007

The First Commandment

Last night I went back to Wilton's Music Hall to see a performance of Mozart's The First Commandment (Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebotes) .

An early play-bill for the Hall lists acts like "Madame Pedley and the Infant Lotto", or "Syluest the Monstre" (what on earth could they have been like?): at the time he wrote this piece, Mozart was himself travelling Europe as an equally Dickensian "infant phenomenon". At one point, he was confined alone with pen and paper to prove he could write such music without help.

For a piece about what should be done to ensure salvation, Wilton's, with its scaffolding-props, damp stains, bare bricks, exposed joists and its fate by no means certain, seemed a fitting environment. The occasional uncertainties and asperities of tone in the period instruments contributed to the mood; even the trains passing nearby managed to contribute ominous rumbles at just the right moments.

The piece is the first part of a trilogy written for Lenten entertainment in the palace of the Archbishop of Salzburg (the other two, by other composers, are lost). Because of the season, the pieces had to be religious in theme, but this translation (barely theistic, let alone theological, in content) was sprightly enough to have delighted the notoriously potty-mouthed young Mozart, though not perhaps the Archbishop: "Get up you lazy sod / Prepare to meet your Lord!".

The music is full of hints and pre-echoes of grown-up Mozart, with many delightful moments. However, the arias, though tuneful and demandingly florid, are in the "Say what you're going to say, say it, say what you've said" manner, which halts dramatic development rather than forwarding it. This leaves a lot of scope (or should that be temptation?) for stage business - or busyness.

So the lapsed Christian becomes a back-packing student asleep at an airport boarding gate, with Justice and Forgiveness as contrasting check-in operators, the Christian Spirit as a rather fearful security attendant and the Worldly Spirit as a show-stealing flirty party girl who would probably get the flight diverted to Prestwick. She force-feeds the protagonist Christmas lunch and throws sweets to the audience, before he turns his back on his fears of Judgment Day to run off with her.

Even while singing the final trio, the attendants board a queue of extras through the celestial security gate - one of them sniffed and barked at by a live dog.

The youthful cast sang beautifully (sometimes almost too powerfully for the hall). By contrast, well over half the audience must have been over 50 - the Herbivore class in full ruminant mode. I heard one distinguished-looking older gentleman discussing his outrage at having to pay a booking fee at the Wigmore Hall, despite being a Friend: "I said, in that case, I'll join the Enemies of the Wigmore Hall. Mind you, I'm the only member".

Tuesday 25 September 2007

LOMO loco

One of the incidental pleasures of strolling around London is that you never know what you might come across. Especially, these days, in Ken's Circus Maximus.

Last Saturday, it was the turn of the Lomography World Congress to give us the slightly maze-like LomoWorldWall.

Lomography uses LOMO* cameras for spur-of-the-moment snapshots, often in multiples, or with odd colour or fisheye or other trick effects.

A WorldWall puts lots together in colourful mosaics; but dress it up as they might with introductory artspeak posters, the cumulative effect takes the eye away from the individual images. Any effect they might have on their own is lost in the overall pattern.

Still, it made a cheerful contrast with the looming presence of the National Gallery, and for once the old cliché "All part of life's rich tapestry" was almost literally, and unexpectedly, true.

*Lomo is also Spanish for pork loin; what do they make of "lomographia" in Spain?

Sunday 23 September 2007

Freewheeling fun and games

I expressed some doubt about how London Freewheel would cope with all the people that might be tempted to turn up without registering.

Well, I don't know what the figures were, but what I saw suggests that everything went very smoothly. The weather was perfect, and there was every sign that a good day out was had by all. There were families with children of all ages, some pedalling furiously on their own bikes, and some in trailers (some people had brought their dogs in trailers and baskets as well), there were braves and goths and a not-quite Kendo Nagasaki, there were roller-bladers and skateboarders and even some people on Segways.

I went to the Victoria Park "hub", where the attempts to rev up the mood with cheerleaders and a unicyclist seemed to be dampened by the kind of embarrassed British reserve you'd expect at 11am on a Sunday. By the time I'd taken the tube to rejoin the route at Bishopsgate, there were still only a few discreet tinklings of bells.

But by the time people got into the Blackfriars underpass there was woo-hooing and screaming to beat the band; and in St James's Park, there was one elaborately decorated recumbent (see the video-clip below) with a trumpet as well.

Apart from one stand-up row with a bus-driver in Bishopsgate, one or two few tearful children getting separated from their parents en route, one show-off riding on the pavement (and doing a wheely) along the Embankment and a little boy tumbling over outside Buckingham Palace, there really didn't seem to be any problems. But did the St John's Ambulance people have to ride on the pavement along Embankment? And please can someone stop cyclists jumping the red lights at Elephant and Castle in the morning rush hour? It happens every day.

The "festival" in the Park amounted to some commercial stands and displays of artistic cycling and BMX daring. A big hit was the opportunity to try out various unusual kinds of cycle.

If I'd thought about it in advance, I might even have picked up on the opportunity to hire a bike and join in - except that the Freewheel website didn't list any in Tower Hamlets. However, I was quite taken with this possible afternoon out; and even if we don't (yet) have anything like the Parisian Vélib, we have the makings of a start. I even began to reminisce about the bike I loved dearly as a teenager, and the terrible old wreck I kept for years after it ought to have gone to the tip. Maybe I should invest in a bike again; or maybe I should future-proof myself for old age....

Saturday 22 September 2007

See The World - forget about your Oyster

One of the advantages of living near the Thames is that we don't have to make an effort to see visiting ships. This week, dwarfing a large block of flats is this moving block of flats - sorry, "ocean residences" - that's known as The World.

For a few million dollars and an annual service charge that would pay the salary of several MPs (if you need to know exact figures, you obviously can't afford it), you too can enjoy cruising around in your own home, complete with access to a spa, golf simulator and the kind of things that come with luxury cruises. Wherever you go in the world - and this ship seems to stick to the well-travelled cruise ship destinations, you're in - as the small ads used to say - the privacy of your own home: or at least your holiday home. Or one of them.

It wouldn't suit me: when I go away it's because I want to experience a different way of living for a while. The whole point is to be in unfamiliar surroundings; and if hotel rooms can sometimes be a strangely dislocating experience (you can never quite just chuck off your shoes and curl up with a cuppa), a good alternative is a home exchange, which I've done from time to time.

But taking my neighbours with me everywhere I go? I think not.

And what it must it like for the places they visit? I had a holiday on Mykonos once: in the height of summer, a street of village houses, white like sugar cubes, were open to the street to display their wares: fur coats. Who else would buy them but people off the cruise boats?

Imagine travelling from place to place and finding that, no matter how scenic it may be, it's been set up to offer you whatever you can get everywhere else you can go. Imagine being the kind of person that wants it that way.

These last few weeks, the people of The World (!) been exploring the imperial glitter of St Petersburg, the amber of the Baltic states, the elegance of Oslo, and this week - Deptford.

Because it's so big, The World is hardly able to pass in style through Tower Bridge and berth in the Pool of London, unlike these more modest cruise ships. There are plans for a swanky cruise terminal just opposite us, but it seems to be stuck at the hole-in-the-ground stage, so the likes of the World and the Ark Royal have to make do with a couple of portakabins on a pontoon.

There's sort of appropriateness about a cruise from St Petersburg ending in Deptford: it was, after all, here that Peter the Great came to study shipbuilding (and turned out to be the tenant from hell in the house of the diarist John Evelyn.

Though it may not be very recognisable from The World, there are some of the eighteenth century buildings of the old naval dockyard left. From here, Captain Cook set sail for Australia; a century earlier, it was here that Samuel Pepys restored the Navy - his contemporaries knew him as a leading administrative and political figure, not the backstairs gossip and skirt-fumbler we know from his diaries. Earlier still, of course, it was in Deptford that Marlowe met his mysterious end.

I'd like to think the people on The World might be interested in all of that. Perhaps the people who've moved into the converted council flats on the site of the old dockyard might be able to afford a place on The World and tell them all about it.

Much more scenic nautical visitors recently - to Canary Wharf this time - have been some sailing ships. I like the contrast between the bland sleekness of the buildings and the complexity of the rigging (however does anyone remember what rope does what job?).

This is the Tenacious, one of the Jubilee Sailing Trust's ships, which enable able-bodied and disabled people to sail together. Not much luxury cruising, I imagine, but probably a lot more fun: and perhaps nicer people.

Not so much fun, and definitely not run by nice people, were the slave-traders. I missed the visit of the Amistad, the replica of the ship that was taken over by its captives, and became the subject of a film. Various mishaps delayed their planned arrival: and, according to the local paper, it looks as though the crew didn't entirely enjoy their stay in London. I wonder what they would have thought if they'd been moored on the West India Quay side - the other end of the sugar trade the slaves were captured for.

Friday 21 September 2007

Sunday cyclist or lycra lovely?

That's one of the kinds of cyclist you can be, according to those jolly people over at London Freewheel. The other categories they offer are "Love cycling. And pies" and "Old bike, old legs".
Which one you choose governs the advice on preparation they offer those planning to join in this mass ride around a bit of central London this coming Sunday.

The Hi-de-Hi-ness is unrelenting (what, no knobbly-knees and glamorous granny competitions?).

Writers "Abel Ryder", "Penny Farthing", "Max Speed" and the like tell you all about the fun and frolic that await at the Hubs and the Freewheel Festival in St James's Park (I'm wondering how they'll cope, not just with the 38,000 people they expect, but with all the other people who'll have heard it mentioned or seen a poster, but didn't realise they're expected to register - for what?).

If being patronised wasn't bad enough, cyclists might be able to judge how far some people at TfL have to go from this notice at bus stops where routes will be diverted. Apparently, the "event will take place on ...roads with live traffic [= cars, lorries, taxis, vans and buses]" and - now, how do they describe roads that are closed for people to enjoy? "A sterile road network", that's how.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

Silence is golden..

.. but not if you work for London Underground.

Canary Wharf station, for all its grandeur, is one big platform. This morning, we were treated to two competing streams of commentary from platform staff on each side, interspersed with relays of their conversations with the control room, and overlaid with the more routine system announcements ("I am pleased to announce we have a good service on the Jubilee Line", "Slight delays on the Metropolitan Line", "Always touch in and touch out", "Always keep your belongings with you").

And when I got on the train, some loon seems to have decided it's a good idea to thank us for travelling on the Jubilee Line. At every station. And the scrolling visual display says "Attention! Attention! Thank you for for travelling...."

And none of this was information anyone really needed to know.

We do not need to be thanked for travelling on the tube. We have no choice.

We do not need to be told there's a good service running. London Underground has no choice - that's their job.

Millions and millions of people have managed to use the tube successfully using just their wits and printed signage. Those who can't, for whatever reason, usually manage to find someone to ask if there's something they need to know.

Back in May, on the Going Underground blog, there was some lively debate about announcements, and a train driver listed some of the scheduling instructions management had issued: far too much, far too often, of course.

Here's my suggestion:

Only make an announcement when something goes wrong
Then we'll know we need to listen to it.

The more people are lectured about things they've heard a thousand times before, the less notice anyone takes. It just becomes blah, blether and bedlam. Ever heard of the boy who cried "Wolf!"?

So, please, just step away from the microphone and SHUT UP.

Saturday 15 September 2007

Champagne, conscience and cloud-capped towers

London Open House weekend is a chance to see what's behind the façades you see every day - grand, bland or merely mysterious.

First off today was Wilton's Music Hall, like 19 Princelet St a magical shadow of its former (and this case rather raucous) glory: the song Champagne Charlie was written here, and they say up to fifteen hundred people could be there, though I don't see how. There's a small personal interest - my great-great-grandfather lived nearby in Wellclose Square in the 1830s, and he might well have known the public house that preceded the Music Hall: as someone who described himself as a "wine porter", I assume he'd have had some dealings with the Prince of Denmark, though he'd moved well away by the time the Music Hall was built.

It's a plain and simple auditorium behind a façade of terraced houses, and it feels almost domestically proportioned, comfortable and welcoming, even in its present crumbling state. Its future is still not secured. I plan to check out what a performance there is like: the next occasion is a Mozart oratorio (written when he was only eleven, for heaven's sake).

While there I noticed a leaflet for the opening of St George's German Lutheran Church nearby, so, passing up the full English breakfast in Poppies Diner on Royal Mint St (The coldest drinks in town), I went round there.

En route, I passed this evidence that it's possible to do something interesting with railings round empty land. Glancing at the estate agents' windows and the various "luxury" flat/rabbit-hutch conversions, I wondered what my great-great-grandfather and the denizens of Wilton's would have thought of the idea that Wapping would one day be one of the most expensive addresses in London, or that any part of it would attract so many of the heritage-visiting classes.

Come to that, it would have been as much of a surprise to the people who turned out in these streets to halt the Mosleyites in 1936. I was reminded of them on arrival at St George's. This fine and austere interior (complete with its 18th century box pews) received Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while he was pastor at nearby St Paul's German Church, before returning home and joining the resistance to the Nazis, for which he was executed. His church, by the way, was bombed flat in the Blitz. But it says something that the German community was able to go on worshipping at St George's, in German, throughout the Second World War.

From heritage and history to anything but. The Shri Swaminarayan Temple in Neasden is barely ten years old, and the hub of a vigorous and confident community. Just count the trophies, awards and photographs of the visiting great and good in the foyer, and savour the firm reminders (in the exhibition on Hinduism) of how much of our mathematical knowledge comes from ancient India.

You approach along a particularly noisy and depressing stretch of the North Circular and eventually turn up an ordinary suburban traffic rat-run. And then, around a bend, there suddenly appears from behind the semi-detached houses a confection of white marble towers, tipped with gold and topped with flags.

Closer to, you can see the extraordinary intricacy of the carved marble. It's like this everywhere, inside and out, in the woodwork and the stonework. Photography is (politely) limited to the exterior, so you'll have to take my word for it.

Sadly, there's airport-style security on the way in. But once you've stowed your shoes, you can appreciate the airy foyer, with two double-storey atria, lit from skylights and looked on by the windows of upper rooms, with false balconies and supporting pillars. Every part of the surface is covered with carved wood. Miniatures of Ganesh the elephant god, flowers and leaves and I don't know what. A rather stern-looking man directed visitors into the exhibition on Hinduism (and the Shri Swaminarayan movement in particular); Swaminarayan was a guru from around 200 years ago, whose followers are now widespread and clearly very active around the world (there's a school over the road). Upstairs is the Mandir or prayer room. Here all is white marble, in the same intricate carving of pillars and ceiling, leading into a domed space lit by a clerestory; it's not quite as silent as the warning signs would like it to be. To one side is a door opening on the ceremonial staircase, roped off on this occasion to make a terrace, from which there's a fine view of those other temples to modern British forms of worship - IKEA and Wembley Stadium.

The detail of the decoration and the style of architecture reminded me of Moorish buildings in Spain or Mogul palaces and (dare I say it) mosques I'd seen in Lahore, though they wouldn't allow the representation of idols. I couldn't help feeling the contrast between the exuberance of the decoration and the selflessness emphasised in the exhibition. But then, I've often felt that in the more Baroque Catholic churches. And the shop reminded me of them too: burnished domestic shrines in various sizes (£75, £90, £120), and figures of gods in various rather bright shades of plastic, and all sizes, from pocket size at pocket-money prices up to rather jolly music-playing Ganeshes and Hanuman (the monkey-god) in both contemplative and warrior-like poses at £35+.

Friday 14 September 2007

Do NOT....

...dispose of your Metro newspapers on the escalators.

So says Mr Grumpy over the loudspeakers at Canary Wharf.

He has a point of course, the damn things make a mess and if one ever got caught in the tines at the end there'd no doubt be an expensive jam to be cleared.

But where are the litter or recycling bins? ONE crate outside the station, apparently.

What earthly use is that? In Toronto there are newspaper recycling bins on every platform, by the exits. In Paris, you can barely walk five steps on a busy street without passing one of these:

Of course there's an issue about security and fire risks, but I don't see why clear plastic bins and bags are any more of a risk than piles of litter and newspapers all over the place. And until there's one at the top AND bottom of every escalator, and no more than ten yards apart on every platform, people will not get the message: and they certainly won't by one more ratty lecture over the public address system in the middle of all the others (but that's another issue).

Now, back to my nice cup of tea. And breathe......

Monday 10 September 2007

Lettering mad...

Thanks to Matthew Rose at the Paris Blog for linking to Erik Kastner's site where you can:

Saturday 8 September 2007

Brick Lane and Princelet St

Today was the Brick Lane Festival. It didn't seem that different from any other Sunday crowd visiting the markets, though with the traffic taken away there was more room to spread, for the restaurant tables and the crowds alike.

Fifty or so years ago, I was taken to Petticoat Lane by my parents. I don't think we would have ventured up Brick Lane. Markets tended to be even more about entertainment then than now. Instead of today's blaring beats, there were the china salesmen, who could take a cunningly-interlocked 24-piece tea set and chuck it around in the air, while running through the familiar stand-up routine to which the audience can recite the punchlines (Everything I make goes towards the mother-in-law's holiday, and the more I make THE FURTHER SHE GOES).

Now as then, markets offer the novelty and diversion on which city life thrives. You can find some very different goods: the main attractions in Spitalfields and the lower end of Brick Lane are arty rather than practical or second-hand clothing, handmade jewellery and lighting. At the northern end, once you pass the area where the East London Line extension is being built, the market becomes more general, more second-hand. Here, among the batteries, bargain socks, toiletries, offcuts of flooring, cheap mangoes, cooking pots, mysterious tools and bits of electrical gear, bankrupt stock, ends of lines and things that might possibly have been helped off the back of a lorry, there's a whiff of continuity with that childhood visit here. And foods from all around the world: not just the curries on the Lane itself, but stalls offering dim sum, falafel, stir-fries, crepes, Ethiopian, Caribbean, paella, empanada - and some decidedly retro cupcakes.

The processes by which we got that diversity have not been without controversy. In the disused synagogue at 19 Princelet St, there are plans to open a Museum of Immigration and Diversity. Today was one of the few days this fragile building could be opened to the general public (last chance for 2007 will be through the London Open House weekend, 15/16 September.)

Surrounded by the discreet good taste of expensive restoration in Georgian Spitalfields (and less discreet or tasteful burglar alarms and estate agents' boards) No. 19, once you enter, is a shadowy, grimy space, here and there propped up on scaffolding. Daylight filters through coloured skylights on the narrow gallery, the dust-laden chandeliers, the painted boards commemorating the synagogue's donors, the fragments of lino and the stored away furniture.

In and around the space, the Suitcases and Sanctuary exhibition tells the story of the successive groups of immigrants to the area (Huguenots, Irish, Jews, Bengalis, Somalis), through the imaginative and touching contributions of local schoolchildren (most of them children of immigrants themselves), and some installations and artwork by immigrant artists.

The building is also famous for the room abandoned by its last caretaker. His life was explored in Rodinsky's Room, a fascinating parallel investigation of the facts and the myth-making surrounding his apparent disappearance. The prosaic truth, was unsurprisingly, sadder and stranger than the myths: a family's withdrawal into the remembered habits of the abandoned shtetl, while the community around them adapted to the "get on and get out" hustle of life for new arrivals in London. The last of the family, David Rodinsky, became a reclusive auto-didact. Alone in a little room above this abandoned meeting-place, he pursued his self-designed curriculum, that would perhaps have been understood and accepted by previous generations in eastern Europe, but was seen by his London contemporaries as strange, and ultimately mad.

In the large scale, the history of immigration is a collection of individual success stories, but with so much sadness along the way, as with the Rodinskys. So many memories deserve, like this haunting building, to be preserved.

And even more than buildings and memories, living refugees need help. Now.