Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Saturday 28 June 2008

Passing show...

I sometimes think that might have been a better title for this blog. Life in London - no doubt in any big city - is such a Dickensian succession of events and sensations. Currently, we're in the middle of a festival of architecture. Now, London has architects the way it has foxes: often a surprise, sometimes charming (some diddums cubs playing on a railway embankment), sometimes not (a desperately flapping bird dragged off into the undergrowth) - and my, can they leave a mess around.

I'm being unfair, I know, but the genius of this place is that is an undesigned mishmash: and its real life tends to happen outside those designs that have been attempted.

But the umbrella festival listed some events at one of our more intriguing local sights, Trinity Buoy Wharf. At the point where the River Lea enters the Thames, between industrial detritus and mudflats opposite the Dome, the Wharf was where Trinity House built navigation buoys and tested and engineered lights for lighthouses - so it has "London's only lighthouse", and a number of other surviving industrial buildings put to other uses (the English National Opera will be storing costumes and scenery here).

It's also famous(ish) now for "Container City" - shipping containers constructed into artists' studios (as elsewhere in London they have been converted into housing), and for an original American diner that's somehow washed up here. Some of these were open today, as were a number of exhibitions and artworks supposedly doing something related to architecture - a nice new bridge over the Lea, a tour of the Container City, and something on high rises that didn't appear to be off the ground yet.

What did intrigue me (which is an evasive way of saying I smiled but thought 'Yes, and?' - the passing show again, you see) were the things that didn't really have much to do with architecture: a machine designed to clank evocatively like dockside machinery, the longplayer, which sets the sounds of singing bowls to echo round the empty lighthouse until the end of this millennium without repeating (only another 991 years and a bit to go - or are we going to have the argument about 'year zero' again?), and a set of rotating wheels which assembled and dis-assembled a rather classical statue of a lady called Wendy:

It's only taken me three years to work out how to optimise the quality of video out of my camera and on to Youtube, but I'm so proud of doing so that I'm going to post my journey home on the Thames Clipper service as well:

Thursday 26 June 2008

Seen in the papers...

(rustling of paper...)

I know they say genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, but really....

(more rustling)

I gather Barack Obama has been seen with holes in his shoes: this reminds me that, much as I want him to win, he is not the first articulate ideas man from Illinois who energised an enthusiastic new generation of activists - and faced a military hero with unacknowledged outriders who don't mind spreading a smear or two about their opponent. Is Obama this year's Adlai Stevenson?

Saturday 21 June 2008

Deptford High Street

Mention Deptford to most Londoners, and if they don't say "Where?", they'll quite likely pull a face. At best, it has the image of just another featureless sprawl of council housing and Victorian terraces interspersed with grubby small factories and warehouses, like so many of the parts of London that most Londoners actually live in. At worst, it's thought of as rather rough.

It's the bit between Greenwich, New Cross and Rotherhithe, just across the river from where I live. It has its place in history. Somewhere here, Christopher Marlowe was murdered; later it became the dockyard where Pepys laboured to build up the Royal Navy, Peter the Great came to study shipbuilding (and ruined his host's garden), and Captain Cook left for his journeys around the Pacific - and to Australia.

Following up on a suggestion from a neighbour and this intriguing post on Going Underground, I went for a wander down Deptford High St this afternoon. Unfortunately for me, my camera decided to give up the ghost this afternoon, so I don't have any photos of my own to show.

But what do you know, it's a real High Street. We don't really have one where I live, for all sorts of historical reasons, but this is a High Street, not quite as they used to be, but not mucked about by drastic redevelopment. Along either side, the buildings remain two-storeyed, and the shops are nearly all independent businesses. The reason is fairly clear: most of them are pound shops or charity shops or catering for local niche tastes, chiefly African or Caribbean, but there are also shops specialising in sewing machines, car parts and even nothing but balloons.

This is not a street where the major chains feel there's room for their kind of shop. Thank goodness, for what is there is a lively street market: not just the usual range of things for mobile phones and clothes that oughtn't to go too near naked flames or electrical circuits, but the complete range of household bits and pieces, fruit and veg, secondhand books and records, nuts, fish (even lobsters!). The pound shops are as fascinating as anywhere I've seen: saucepans and hair curlers, crockery and mysterious kitchen gadgets, plastic flowers, a fibre optic fairy (with wings that move!) and a pink mosquito net (uh-oh). Ooh and a big bumper pack of pot-scourers, which was handy since I'd forgotten I needed some more. And what's more, plenty of jolly banter, which doesn't happen everywhere else.

This must be the only part of London that claims a Ugandan-Senegalese restaurant: there's also a Chinese (with red-glazed chickens in the window), a Nigerian and two Vietnamese, and that (now rare) marker of classic working-class London, not just one tiled pie-and-mash shop with hard church-pew cubicles, but two - Goddard's on one side and Manze's almost opposite.

There's one latte-and-cappuccino café already, and of course the Deptford Project café-in-a-train. I hate the "X is the new Y" formulation, but this has the feel of the next place for "alternative" gentrifiers.

Walking further on to the riverside, I could see money's clearly gone into things like the biggest adventure playground I've ever seen, and there's an interesting-looking real ale pub I'd like to go back and investigate some time. There are various industrial premises being converted into housing for sale: famously, one of the council tower blocks on the riverside was controversially sold off to developers for conversion to much more upmarket housing. And round the corner there's just a trace of the old village around St Nicholas's church. A jocular description of the undeveloped riverside as the "Deptford Riviera" now looks like a gift to the estate agents.

Arriving at the riverside, I was stopped on the way to the boat home by a couple of people planning a mural to go on that controversial tower: would I just talk into their recorder about my thoughts and feelings about what I could see along the river and around the area? Would I? Well, what do you think?

Thursday 19 June 2008

Down the spiral walkway..

Last weekend was one of those when the public at large can see a bit more inside City Hall than we normally can. Not that there's a great deal to see - this new building doesn't have the imperial self-satisfaction of its Edwardian predecessor. Instead City Hall speaks to more modest concerns: this is not a city government responsible for everything, it's home to a mayor who's mainly responsible for appointing people to some administrative agencies, and developing London-wide policies and strategies by knocking heads together amongst all those organisations he doesn't directly control (which is most of them). It's also about transparency (so it's all glass), and a low eco-footprint. You can go into the main foyer and visit the café and any exhibitions any time, and you can sit in the public galleries for open meetings; but you can't get into the meeting/reception space at the top of the building, or walk on the building's most spectacular feature, its spiral walkway.

Except for two weekends a month: then you can go straight up in the lift to "London's Drawing Room" (or you could also book it for a private do - some friends of mine had their commitment ceremony there), stroll around the balcony and admire the views (well, one view really - most of the rest is rather dull stretches of south London, but you can look down on the people queueing for the Telectroscope), and then move on to what you really came for (admit it - it's all about that wonky spiral).

The architects had their eco-reasons for stepping the building off-centre as they did. It allows the walkway to curl up above the assembly meeting chamber, providing space for the hot air to rise from debate (ho-ho) to heat the building in winter and disperse in summer without air-conditioning. Or something of the sort.

There really isn't much of note in the offices that look into (and are looked into from) the walkway (do they have a special tidy-up before the open weekends, I wonder?). No sign of Boris's new Routemaster, no plans for sacking the police commissioner, just the occasional fluffy pen-holder - and a solitary orange providing almost the only point of colour.

Once you've made your way downstairs, past the purple-carpeted chamber, there's an exhibition of ideas for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square - shortlisted artists on the main floor, school-children's (much more entertaining) ideas on the way into the café. Outside, there's a mini-amphitheatre ("the Scoop"), on this occasion offering various demonstrations of things to do with sound - but it's used for all sorts of meetings and performances, such as free movie showings.

But all that steel and glass doesn't make the building feel transparent and welcoming so much as rather strange, a science fiction set. Perhaps I should find some suitably Doctor Who music to put over this:

Tuesday 17 June 2008

Seen in our garage..

.. a lone abandoned aubergine. Classy people, my neighbours.

Saturday 14 June 2008

About turn.....

Today was our annual festival of shouting, stamping, marching and oompah, dedicated to Saints Brasso and Blanco (with perhaps an echo of our prehistoric ancestors' worship of the horse).

I mean, of course, the Queen's Birthday Parade (or Trooping the Colour). No need to send a card or pressie, since it's the "official" day, not the real one. And like so many royal celebrations, it's not really about her as a person or an institution: it's often been noted that "royal" events are really about a communal celebration of - well, our capacity to celebrate.

In this case, the military celebrate their own ability to mount impressive demonstrations of somewhat baffling technical skills in moving large numbers of people around a defined space without bumping into each other - and doing so in gorgeous outfits with bags of swank and swagger. It can't be denied it's impressive. The processions and events that we plebs can see without invitation are striking enough - here's some clips I took this morning:

It's often seen as the closest we come to a British national day (our diplomats overseas tend to have major receptions and parties to coincide, just as the French do on Bastille Day or the Americans on 4th July). Different members of the Government keep suggesting such a day (without doing anything about it). If we wanted to, we could move the second May Bank Holiday (which no longer has its original religious connection) to this weekend (which tend to have the better weather). It's also conveniently close to the anniversary of Magna Carta. Admittedly, that was a showdown between Norman barons and a Norman king over the governance of England alone (and I have no idea what status or influence it had over Scottish law): but it's worth celebrating as a concept that unites us all its core principles - that all authorities are subject to law and due process, and above all To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

That was, of course, until this week's shameful parliamentary shambles.

Friday 6 June 2008

Mea culpa..

I am a backslider.

I have had an on-off relationship with sports and physical activity. I ran around a lot as as child, but never got the hang of ball games at school, particularly those that involve charging at larger people or rolling around in the mud. Being one of those who it really wasn't worth putting into a rugby team on a Wednesday afternoon, I was regularly consigned to the group that ran vaguely around under the even vaguer direction of the school chaplain - in the unenlightened early 60s, we were charmingly listed on the noticeboards as "Remnants" (but I'm not bitter, honestly).

Eventually, I discovered rowing which - joy of joys - one can do sitting down. And I actually did quite well at it, with a few battered pewter pots sitting on a shelf.

Since then, I've tried. Fresh fruit genuinely is my snack of choice, I don't keep biscuits in the house, and I have only a nodding acquaintance with strong drink and cream cakes. I don't keep a car, and, unlike many of my neighbours, I find it quite normal to walk. I've had periods of going to gyms - indeed a large chunk of the service charge on my flat goes to maintaining one here. So when a few months ago a routine check showed some of the vital measurements on or over the "Do something about it, NOW" level, I started again; and the belt came in a few more notches, I was running for the bus without turning purple, and generally feeling all the better for it. What's more, I work at the kind of place that goes in for claiming to support healthy activity, and we had a challenge to log our activity as a group "marathon" (20 minutes = 1 mile).

And somehow I fell off the wagon. Too much staring at the screen at work tiring me out, the odd minor injury - who knows why these should give me an excuse now when they didn't a month or two ago? I have back-slid: and there is no health in me.

That, I suspect, is the root of the odd relationship many people have with both intake (food and dieting) and output (activity). We talk about it in the language of sin, fault, virtue and reward, and put too much emotional strain on ourselves as a result.

After all, I am still walking up the escalator on the underground. But only when they're going up.

Tuesday 3 June 2008

If I believed..

in St Peter and all that, I might be speculating about the conversation in the queue at the Pearly Gates: my newspaper has side-by-side obituaries for Yves St Laurent and Bo Diddley.