Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

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..?!