Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday 30 March 2009

Intimations of something or other..

I've had an introduction to the undignified side of the sort of infirmities that may well await as I get old. The NHS has kindly been inviting people of my age to take part in a national bowel cancer screening programme.

This involves a piece of cardboard with flaps that lift up and close again, and some cardboard spatulas, for use (as used to be said in some old-style adverts) in the privacy of your own home, and to be returned, not (as those adverts used to say) in a plain brown envelope but a rather more secure plastic one.

Who'd have thought those instructive childhood hours spent cutting out cardboard models from cereal packets and tucking flaps into slots would be put to use, not for yet more wonky models of the Tower of London ("That's nice dear"), but for - well, not quite an advent calendar? And I don't think I'll be icing any cakes anytime soon.

I had much more Rabelaisian fun backing up my digital recorder's complete run of Phoenix Nights, which (for those who don't know) was a sitcom about the owner of a northern working men's club and the inevitable clash between his ambitions, his tightfistedness and the limitations of everyone around him (not to mention the bouncy castle for a family fun day that had to be turned into Sammy Snake - that one you can look up on Youtube for yourself). A regular joy of the series was the range of dud variety acts seen auditioning as the closing credits of every episode rolled:

Saturday 28 March 2009

Something for our friends in the Southern Hemisphere...

Or should I say

˙˙˙ǝɹǝɥdsıɯǝɥ uɹǝɥʇnos ǝɥʇ uı spuǝıɹɟ ɹno ɹoɟ ƃuıɥʇǝɯos


Friday 27 March 2009


Having grumpily stayed rather later at work than usual to finish off a job, I was rewarded with these striking cloudscapes when I got home:

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Subject to a tagging order...

I'm behind with my homework again. More than ten days ago, Ms Scarlet tagged me to write six things of no real importance about myself.

I suppose I could say with a swish that there is nothing about me that is not of real importance, and I will say I'm not playing along with the business of tagging six more people - partly because I can't think of six other bloggers who'd play along and partly because it sounds a bit like a chain letter. So I won't.

But here are my six pointless facts, for what they're worth:

1. My favourite examination technique, when I didn't know where to start, has always been to quibble over the terms of the question.

2. For a time, there was a Lamborghini in my parking space (not mine - would I be so vulgar?)

3. I wouldn't be broken-hearted if I never saw another courgette on my plate.

4. I nearly trod on the Prince of Wales's toes once.

5. I am given to letting out occasional sighs of relief for no apparent reason.

6. I have passed through Ashby-de-la-Zouch, but I have never been to Zennor.

Oh. That wasn't too painful

Sunday 22 March 2009

Head of the River

When I was a child growing up in Putney, this was the time of year to decide for Oxford or Cambridge (in terms of who you supported in the Boat Race) - on no particular basis, for no particular reason, just because it was the big local event, with all the national media and thousands of spectators in attendance. But quite why it was so important was - and is- never quite clear. You would only ever catch a glimpse of the race: with only two crews in it, once they were gone, they were gone; and even once you could watch the whole thing on television, it was clear that all too often it would turn into a simple procession.

The only excitement was to watch the enthusiastic spectators who had gone down to the water's edge without realising that the flotilla of umpires' and spectators' launches would unleash a substantial wash all over their feet. Later, those of us who lived nearby would make an event of watching the start in person and rushing home to see the finish on TV (we could still make our own entertainment, you see).

Eventually I learnt about the Head of the River Race: this year's event was held yesterday. Over 400 crews race against the clock over the same four and a bit miles of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, but in the opposite direction. Competitors range from Olympians to schoolboys and "Sunday morning gentlemen" crews, from all across the country, and indeed from other countries. I've rowed it myself several times (but decades ago, moving straight from the schoolboy to "Sunday morning gentleman" class, as it were), and it's by far the better spectacle, especially once the colourful traffic jams build up of crews waiting to come ashore and load up boats on to trailers, or to start the long row home to their own boathouses.

The difference - apart from the sheer numbers of people and the length of the thing (you could see the first hundred or so crews come home, go and do some shopping or have lunch and come back to find plenty more still gasping their way over the line) - is in the spectators. This is a sort of community event: each crew has its own supporters here (I heard plenty of French, German, Spanish and Italian as well as a wide range of British accents), the boathouse and pub balconies are packed with partisans who mostly know something about what they're watching, and there are food-stalls and people selling things that rowers find useful.

Incidentally, I used to live in a flat behind the boathouses in this clip - I walked past it, as well as my childhood home, and felt not a pang of nostalgia.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Friday 20 March 2009

Hello sailor!

Speaking of excuses for being late to work, I had the ultimate this morning: I had to give way to the Danish Navy. Or a bit of it, at any rate.

It's that time of year, when the courtesy visits start. Last week, a ship from the Irish Navy was in town (no doubt for St Patrick's Day) - moored up against HMS Belfast (ho, ho, ho) in the Pool of London, as some are; and there are often ships in (if not always in the Pool, then at Canary Wharf, just up the road from my home) from NATO countries like Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, and occasionally one will come from Brazil.

This morning, Tower Bridge was opened for a Danish ship. Rather prosaically, it was towed into position by some serious-size tugs (much as one might like to see a dashing destroyer sweep into position at full tilt, it would hardly be safe), with a suitably deafening blast from its siren as it passed into the Pool. Why, by the way, the impulse (seemingly universal) to wave to and from passing ships?

On the bridge, all the traffic formed a queue (you don't have much option when the way ahead through the bridge towers is interrupted by a vertical roadway), allowing the stream of two-wheel vehicles to squeeze to the front and (apparently stupidly) across the full width of the road. Unfortunately, as you can see, I only had my rather limited phone camera on me.

Eventually, the roadway began to descend (much hilarity as, for some reason, it stopped and went back up for a few seconds), and after what seemed like a very long time to resume the fully horizontal, bells and incomprehensible announcements heralded the opening of the ornate, faux-mediaeval gates. Here it became clear why so many cyclists and motor cyclists had taken up the right-hand lane: the gate on that side opens slightly earlier. For once the road was completely taken up with something like sixty two-wheelers leading the charge in both directions: but within fifty yards or so, only the patient queue on the south side, and the press of pent-up pedestrians, told you anything out of the ordinary had happened.

Thursday 19 March 2009

This morning, I found myself in the unusual position of being stuck in a queue at the traffic lights behind a a van (a white van, no less) whose driver seemed not to have noticed that the lights had changed. At last! A chance to use my bike horn, if not in anger or revenge for being on the receiving end, then at least with a typical Londoner's impatience.

I could almost say I followed this advice from a Japanese car hire firm, as quoted in Charlie Croker's "Lost in Translation" (the perfect loo-book):

When passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.

Saturday 14 March 2009

I went back to have a look at Broadway Market in Hackney today. It's the kind of place where it's the cyclists that are slowly cruising around looking for a parking space, and the stalls are mostly prepared foods, with some distinctly alternative, eco and ethnic clothes and bits-and-bobs, with the occasional alternative celebrity dropping in.

I heard an an interesting example of a confusing mix of old-style and new-style parenting: "Tracy, please don't effing wind me up, please"....

Friday 13 March 2009

Some people..

..are just too polite for their own good. Twice this morning, people gave way to me when they had the right of way, and I was obviously stopping for them. Pedestrians often seem to freeze in the middle of the road, I notice, and this morning, someone slowly cycling across a zebra crossing stopped without any regard for any other traffic behind me. Do I really look so fearsome (or frail) on a bike?

Tuesday 10 March 2009

A Sunday bike ride

Before there were railways, or even decent roads, the canals were the way goods got to and from the ports (and for quite a long time after the railways started competing, too); so where there are docks, there are canals to connect the Thames to the other main waterways into the industrial heartland of England. Last Sunday started bright enough to entice me out of the house to explore the eastern end of the Regent's Canal, which runs from Limehouse, right round through what is now central London.

What is it about living near water that so attracts people? In the hierarchy of chic, there's the river, then the docks, and then the canals. Where the canal joins the Thames, at Limehouse Basin, the area is thoroughly gentrified, with plenty of floating gin palaces moored up alongside the gleaming flats, a few of the traditional canal narrowboats making up the authenticity quota, and along the canal this striking modern extension of a lock-keeper's cottage. The tide of new apartment buildings is lapping ever northwards, but further away from the river, more of it is shared ownership, student and public housing.

On one side of the canal is Mile End Park, a modern development, squeezed into the land between the canal and the main roads, with different areas dedicated to sports, ecology education and other contemporary good works. This, by the way, is a seat.

The journey continues past the much older, more traditional and elegant Victoria Park.

In both the parks, the early spring flowers were well out: the crocuses were starting to go over as the daffodils come into full bloom, with forsythia and the first ornamental tree blossoms well on the way.

On the other side of Victoria Park, the canal comes to Hackney, still in many Londoners' minds a byword for "gritty urban", but (perhaps for that very reason), in many parts - and particularly here at Broadway Market - a magnet for "bourgeois bohemia". The traditional eel shop hangs on, amid the vintage clothing, retro furniture and poshed up bars and restaurants.

Right by the canal is a cycle café (or a bike repair shop that sells coffee and snacks). Here I found a bugle horn for the bike: acceptably adult and retro in style, and an agreeably comedic sound, loud enough to stop the bullying coots and send them scurrying along the canal.

From here, the surroundings are relatively run down public housing and the backsides of nondescript warehouses and factories; I could judge the canal was quite shallow here, from the fact that I could see the tops of traffic cones only a few inches below the surface. At one point the canal had been closed and partially drained for repairs, and sure enough the quantity of tyres, abandoned bikes and even a bath on top of accumulated mud and (I suspect) builders' rubble left little space for water above; but there are plenty of narrowboats moored up in various places, even here - and here's a dramatic modern school towering over an eel importer's business.

Eventually, the path reaches "De Beauvoir Town" (the kind of place where you'll find a doily even in a narrowboat window), and the canal goes into the long tunnel towards Kings Cross.

Here the path leaves the canal-side and leads up to a quiet street of elegant early Victorian townhouses in Islington. Suddenly I recognised the name: this is Noel Road, once the home, and eventually the site of the grisly murder, of one of the most striking figures of the 1960s.

Saturday 7 March 2009

Why on earth did I dream about punctures last night? I'd spent a sunny day exploring various parts of south-east London without any trouble from the bike at all.

The reason for the exploring was to see the kinds of neighbourhoods where it seems to be possible to buy so much more space in a property than I've got for what my flat is approximately worth.

And I found out why it's possible: not the kind of neighbourhoods I'd want to live in, and not quite the possible retirement options I'd imagined. Perhaps that's what was punctured.

Friday 6 March 2009

Nostalgia is, semantically, a pain.

I've never been one for going back to the old school or college: it's someone else's turn now, and who wants to live in the past?

But just recently my closest friend at university contacted me out of the blue (the wonders of the internet), and we had a pleasant lunch and catch-up conversation. As is the way of things, there turned out to be more than a few points of near contact and mutual acquaintance in our more recent lives.

So that wasn't at all painful; but in hunting out old photographs, I came across all sorts of paperwork, including a diary I kept in my last year at school. Naturally, I was mystified at quite a few of the names and other references in it (clearly I thought I would always know what I meant); but there was no mystery about the self-important, over-anxious, busy-busy, whiny White Rabbit of an eighteen-year-old writing it. Nor about the hints and portents - all too obvious now - of all the what-ifs, might-have-beens, indecisions and wrong turnings of all the years since.

Ouch. Not just a semantic pain.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Tonight I had the rare opportunity to experience what might, given the right circumstances, be a startling excuse for being late to work. Not quite in the class of the young man my mother knew in one of her first jobs, in the days of dragon ladies drawing a line across the book at the right time, below which one had to provide a written excuse. He would demonstrate his creativity with remarks like "Cow on the line" or "Fog in the Channel"; later he became a quite well-known artist. For me, it could be "Boat in the way", since I cross Tower Bridge and the entrance to Limehouse Basin. Once upon a time, docklands was full of such potential traffic jams, with ships passing through all the time; but tonight it was a great surprise to find a queue building up in Limehouse.

So far, so exotic, had it not been for the fact that tonight was one of the most blustery and showery for some time. March is certainly coming in like a lion, but I wasn't dressed for it: definitely a two-teacake evening. It might even be a night for listening to the Shipping Forecast with a mug of cocoa: tonight's looks rather alarming - so perhaps this edition instead: