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Elephant and Castle is a funny old place. Funny ha ha because it has a silly name – there are no elephants or castles for miles around, and where else in the world could you get on a bus, say ‘Elephant please’ and have the driver reply ’70 pence’ without batting an eyelid? – and funny odd because it’s a kind of anti-place. All it really consists of is a roundabout, a shopping centre, a station and a subway system designed to flummox even the most seasoned navigator. But it’s not without a certain charm. There is a standard set of words used to describe E&C in the media. For reference, these can also be applied to Peckham, Brixton and anywhere else in south-east London which is considered to be a bit intimidating. It’s ‘lively’ (there’s always something kicking off), ‘colourful’ (black people live there) and ‘full of ‘character’ (ugly as sin). It’s also ‘undergoing urban regeneration’, which the Government appears to offer as a last-ditch alternative to bulldozing the area completely or throwing a giant tarpaulin over it and pretending that it doesn’t exist. Sorry, had one foot on my soapbox there. More on regeneration later – let’s rewind a bit first. The shopping centre is the focal point of E&C. This grim hunk of concrete was erected in 1965 and painted sludge green (before my time), then shocking pink and most recently red, but whatever the colour it’s an eyesore. The inside is okay, whilst being unlike any other shopping centre I’ve ever been in, with a few high street stores like Boots and Woolworths, and an indoor and outdoor market. Most of the stalls seem to sell hair clips, hair products or bacon butties, and no matter how hard I think about it I can’t figure out why that should be, but there you go. We live in a strange world. The one shop really worth visiting is Tlon Books,
which sells books about all kinds of things and not just tlons. Because of the proximity of several university campuses, it’s a great place to pick up your whole reading list for a tenner (all the books are second-hand and dirt cheap). The universities, for anyone who’s interested, are South Bank, the London College of Printing and Camberwell College of Arts (about a mile away). I had a brief spell at Camberwell when I was 18 and thought E&C was the scariest place in the world, but that was before I’d been to Leyton. Anyway, aside from the shopping centre, the most notable feature of Elephant is the roundabout (oh, the thrills, the spills). This is a great place to catch a night bus to virtually anywhere, but there are many perils. First, every road leading off from the roundabout looks the same so orientation can be tricky; second, there are two 24-hour kebab shops which somehow convince you with their buzzing orange lights and odour of meat fat that you ought to waste valuable minutes therein. You will buy chips so foul you would not normally offer them to a dog and you will quite enjoy them, until someone is sick on the night bus. My recommendation is to force one member of your party to remain sober and remind you of the last time you went in said kebab shop. For all the good it’ll do. There is a network of pedestrian subways under the roundabout which is intimidating by day and a complete no-go by night, although it’s a lot better than it used to be. It is the domain of beggars and nuisance poster salesmen rather than dealers and proper crims (if you’re looking for a dealer or a proper crim by the way, I’m told the place to look is the Heygate estate off Walworth Road). If you’re brave enough to use it, don’t assume you know where you’re going – follow the arrows! Strange things happen within these tunnels, like the world above ground rotating by 90 degrees. Or maybe
I have a really bad sense of direction. Hmph. There are basically four places you can emerge (apart from the shopping centre) if you complete the subway challenge. The first is Elephant and Castle station, which has an overground and an underground bit. The tube is on the Northern and Bakerloo lines; the mainline services are run by Connex and Thameslink, so you can actually get to some useful stations like Kings Cross and Victoria, but also some stupid ones. I’m not naming names – cough – Bat and Ball. Honestly, who thinks of these? The second is Newington Causeway. Ministry of Sound is on a side road from here (Gaunt Street), but cards on tables here: don’t bother. A victim of its own success, Ministry is now irredeemably naff. The actual venue is only one notch above average, they play ‘Ibifa choons’ and think that £3 is an acceptable price for a can of coke. It isn’t. And that was in 1997. Anyway, Newington Causeway eventually turns into Borough High Street, which links E&C to London Bridge. There’s not an awful lot there – mostly offices and sandwich shops – but it’s perfectly pleasant. The third is New Kent Road, which leads to Old Kent Road, and then you’re on dangerous ground. A lot of shootings and stabbings have happened here, and all the shops seem only to be masquerading as shops to cover up something more sinister. On the plus side, there’s a massive Toys R Us. The fourth is Walworth Road, which links E&C to Camberwell. As an area, Walworth is a bit rough round the edges, but it has loads of cheap greasy spoons and a fantastic market on East Street. It’s a fairly typical inner city market – bargain string vests, lighters etc – but there’s this one stall run by a Japanese girl which has all the Sanrio and Miffy stuff being sold for stupid money in Hamleys at the moment. (A note for any boys reading: Sanrio
is the company responsible for Hello Kitty, Bad Badtz, Chococat and a load of other characters that girls go mad over.) Okay, I have to put in a bit about the name ‘Elephant and Castle’. A debate arose in the comments page of my last op (and I’ve done a bit of research since) – in the blue corner we have Malu and the Enfant de Castile theory; in the red corner we have MykReeve and the Cutlers’ Company theory. THE ENFANT DE CASTILE THEORY This one dates back to C14 when England was bilingual (as hard as that is to believe, given our current senseless reluctance to learn other languages). An English prince was due to marry the daughter of a French nobleman by the name of Castile, and the marriage became the subject of pub gossip much as celeb marriages do today. The daughter was referred to simply as ‘l’enfant de Castile’ (the child of Castile), and a south London innkeeper decided, rather ass-kissingly, to name his tavern after her. (Thank heavens publicans have more sense these days – who wants a local called Zeta Jones?) The good old Cockneys, who for the most part spoke only English, had trouble pronouncing the name, and thus it mutated into Elephant and Castle. Bless ‘em. THE CUTLERS COMPANY THEORY This theory centres around the same pub. From the thirteenth to eighteenth century the building belonged to a craft guild called the Cutlers’ Company, who made knives and tools with elephant ivory handles; the guild emblem was an elephant with a (castle-shaped) howdah on its back. When the premises were converted into a pub in 1760, the landlord saw this logo printed on the walls and decided to name the building after the images. Even though the castle wasn’t really a castle. Where were the Cockneys when the brains were given out? Down the pub. Oh well, it makes a good story. I don’t know which of these two I would subscribe to, personally, althoug
h the first one makes a better anecdote. Maybe they’re both wrong, and it’s named after a real elephant and a real castle. That’s the thing about history, there’s a lot of trust involved. It may all be lies. But it’s still on the national curriculum... I think I threatened a paragraph on the E&C regeneration project, didn’t I? In fact it’ll probably be more than one paragraph, because I’m fascinated by the plans (although if they pull it off I’ll eat my hat, scarf *and* mittens). Whether or not it can be called regeneration when they’re destroying its defining features is another matter entirely. Anyway, the aim is to transform the area from a grubby inner city wasteland to a great place to live, work and play etc (insert cliché of choice). They’re also going to re-brand it as ‘London South Central’. While I can see the sense of doing this (giving the district a completely new identity and making it sound less, well, common), it hardly has the comic appeal or memorability of Elephant and Castle. And I don’t think Londoners are going to buy it somehow. Okay, suspend your disbelief for a second. This is what they reckon they’re going to do to Elephant: - Tear down the existing shopping centre and replace it with a sky-scraping ‘eco tower’ containing offices and shops - Build a luxury hotel to encourage investment in the area - Re-route traffic underground and pedestrianise the roundabout, creating a ‘European-style civic piazza’ with trees and fountains - Demolish the notorious Heygate estate and build new council and keyworker homes (Ken Livingstone has promised to provide more affordable housing for London’s essential workers – teachers, nurses etc – who are being priced out of the capital) - Erect a new leisure centre, art gallery, theatre and music venue, healthy
living centre, IT centre of excellence, library and museum - Create a ‘world class transport interchange’ (topped, apparently, with a glazed canopy) Full details are at www.designforhomes.org/projects/planned/elephant/elephant.html, if anyone cares. Now excuse me for being cynical, but…well, it’s a bit of a challenge they’ve set themselves, y’know? I actually think they’ve got a good chance of success, because the location is superb and totally unexploited (zone 1, two stops from Waterloo and five from Oxford Street), but it’s a bit like making a harrier jet out of Duplo. One other thing which might work in its favour is the current national penchant for ‘destroy-and-replace-with-shiny-stuff' schemes (see Stratford in the east end, which has suddenly become terribly fashionable, or Changing Rooms). It remains to be seen. I’d love to see it work though. I really would, because then maybe the Government would start pushing more money towards the rest of south-east London instead of ignoring us. It would also set off a chain reaction (I hope) and put us on the map a bit more, and possibly even stop people from Kensington saying things like “Oh, Lewisham. Isn’t that near Gipsy Hill?”. Then again, maybe not. Oh, and by the way...’a tapdance hen tells’ is an anagram of ‘Elephant and Castle’. I couldn’t think of a title.
Woah there, you scaremongers! London Bridge is not falling down. I’m at least 98% sure that it’s alive and well (allowing for possible catastrophes in the last few hours), so get away from the wireless and back to your Bovril. Yes, I’m back, and I’ve resisted the temptation to review Harry Potter. Y’all know by now that Ron was crap and Draco Malfoy was ace and Hedwig wasn’t named and Dumbledore wasn’t wacky enough. So yeah, I’m NOT going to talk about HP. Welcome to yet another neighbourhood op! Okay fine, so I’m becoming a neighbourhood bore, but look on the bright side. At least I don’t collect ornamental shoes. I don’t know what I’d do without London Bridge. My train from home would have nowhere to terminate for a start, and I would be forced to alight on a grassy knoll or similar, which is not a practical interchange for Westminster by anybody’s standards. Instead each day I am greeted by a beaming Connex ticket inspector and the smell of fresh-baked Whistlestop croissants. Aaah, what could be nicer? So London Bridge: this one’s for you. Actually, there will be comparatively little mention of London Bridge the station in this op, ditto London Bridge the song (yeah, all eight words of it). This is about the bridge (duh) and the district of ‘Borogh [sic] and London Bridge’ (c’mon dooyoo, sort it out). What’s this Borough nonsense? Blank looks all round? Well basically it’s the bit that stops London Bridge being too closely associated with Elephant and Castle, but more on that later. Gosh, I typed ‘London Bridge’ a lot in that paragraph. I’m not bothered, I’m just saying. One last thing about the station: for no discernable reason it is topped with opaque plastic pyramids. Late one Friday night and rather worse for wear, we decided that their only possible use could be to house pyrami
d-shaped monsters, thus keeping them off the streets, thus avoiding terrifying the locals, thus avoiding hysterical screaming outside the Southwark Borough Council offices at all hours of the day and night. If anybody knows the true reason for their existence, or wishes to offer an alternative and equally improbable theory, I’m all ears. Er, apart from my limbs, torso and all the other bits of my body which aren’t ears. Clearly. Okay, the bridge. As obvious as it may sound, London Bridge is not Tower Bridge. It’s a common misconception. London Bridge, in its present form, is a rather unremarkable stretch of concrete that has linked the banks of the Thames since 1973. It has a fairly interesting history – from medieval times to 1750 it was the only way to cross the river without a boat or saddled dolphin – but these days, exciting it ain’t. (The original, by the way, is now in Arizona. Why? I don’t know. I only know it’s in Arizona because it was a question on The Weakest Link yesterday.) Tower Bridge is the one that can be raised to let tall boats (?) through, and has two columns at either side that look like they’re wearing crowns. The one that appears in ‘The World is not Enough’ and on the front cover of any guida turistica a Londra which doesn’t feature beefeaters or red buses. It was opened in 1894 to relieve the traffic congestion on London Bridge and these days you can also take part in the ‘Tower Bridge Experience’ which lets you see its internal construction (stickle bricks, if the rumours are to be believed) and stroll across the beams, which are 140ft above the Thames. The ‘London Bridge Experience’ consists largely of walking, jumping or hopscotching (dastardly spellchecker says that’s not a verb, pah) across the bridge. But at least it’s free. One more thing to say about bridges before I start this op in earnest
(and no, Ernest doesn’t mind, we have an arrangement): the Millennium Bridge on Bankside is the new one for pedestrians only, which links St Paul’s and the Tate Modern. It’s closed at the moment due to ‘synchronous lateral excitation’ – basically when people walk on it, it rocks. As in sways, not like, yeah man, this rocks. Thing is, it was designed and built as a shallow suspension bridge, and then everyone was surprised when it moved about. I mean honestly. Still, you’re not allowed a go until the Wobblemaster’s fixed it, and that’s that. Right, finally...what can you do in London Bridge and the Borough? The Tate Modern is the place most people head for first and I’m not going to argue with that. I’m not going to reel off its various merits to you either, because I’m sure every man and his tortoise has already done so. Whatever you think of modern art (feel free to say your piece in the comments page but be warned I’ve had week-long arguments on this subject), you have to come here just for the building, a massive former power station which has retained its industrial features. There’s an absolutely superb site-specific Juan Munoz piece in the turbine gallery at the moment too which is worth a visit in its own right. And this excursion will cost you zip, zilcho, diddly-squat, so don’t even think about saying you’re washing your hair or bathing the hamster. I’m not interested in your lies. Nearby, and with a rather different vibe, is the London Dungeon. I’ve never been, despite having had 2-for-1 tickets at the bottom of my satchel for a month. My first prejudice against the place is that last summer as I walked past the back door, one of the employees was having a fag in costume and I was caught off-guard and screamed and made a tit of myself. The second is that my brother went when he was twelve – a gore-loving age, I think
– and was completely underwhelmed by the whole experience. Without wanting to be snotty, I don’t see what appeal it’s going to have for me if it don’t float the boat of a first-year kid. And third, all the attractions relate to things that really happened, from the Jack the Ripper murders to the Great Fire of London, and I couldn’t in good conscience pay to be ‘entertained’ by stuff like that. But if you are without conscience it’s on Tooley Street, costs £11.95 to get in and the website address is www.thedungeons.com. Let’s say no more about it. The Globe Theatre. Now there’s something nice to talk about. As with London Bridge, the original structure is long gone. The first Globe was built in 1599 and then closed by a herd of joyless Puritans 43 years later (okay, so what *is* the collective noun for a group of Puritans, smartass?). Thankfully in the seventies, the American actor Sam Wanamaker (you think of the ‘want-to-make-her’ pun, I can’t be bothered) led the campaign for its reconstruction. It was reopened 200 yards down the road by her Madge (the queen, not Madonna) in 1997, and is now one of the highlights of a South Bank walk. They still perform plays in the Shakespearian style there – ie. in the round and outdoors, so make sure you take mittens. Prices range from a fiver (to stand in the yard) to about £30 (for nice comfy seats which have champagne taps in the arms and pleasantly vibrating fingers beneath the fabric – sorry, just kidding). But what if you’re one half of the whitening/protection couple who can’t agree on anything? What if you want to do the tourist circuit and your better half wants to find the nearest boozer? Well, here is a perfect compromise: Vinopolis (City of Wine). Yes, in the urban sprawls of SE1. Go figure. This slightly bizarre attraction has wine tasting halls (the admission price of £11.50 includes fre
e tastes of five different vins), history of wine exhibits (“some of the artefacts date back 4000 years!” – the mind boggles) and four restaurants which promise to serve more wine by the glass than any other eaterie in London. Interestingly, they also have a kids’ admission fee of £5. I wonder if they do school parties too…? So, what about this Borough business then? ‘The Borough’ is one of the oldest bits of the capital, although in Roman times it was not even considered to be a part of London (which is hard to get your head round these days when most of Surrey, Essex, Kent and Hertfordshire seem to come under the ‘Greater London’ umbrella). It’s basically just a long high street which links London Bridge (quite nice) and Elephant and Castle (quite grim, possible op pending), but there’s a surprising amount of stuff there. In days gone by its location just outside the jurisdiction of London seemed to attract criminals on the run, and quickly became renowned for its bawdy taverns. Several such places still exist, although for the most part they’ve lost their ‘bawdy’ reputations – The George Inn is the finest of these. It’s the oldest galleried pub in London (built 1676) and has a huge suntrap of a courtyard which positively encourages you to get heatstroke and alcohol poisoning in the summer months. And not a felon in sight. Southwark Cathedral is the oldest Gothic church in London (completed in C13 after the original church burnt down in 1212). Since then, parts of the cathedral have been variously used as a prison, bakery and pigsty – in fact it won the Cathedral Versatility Prize in the seventies. No of course it didn’t. I just made that up. It’s more of a visitor attraction than a house of prayer these days, as Borough has more commercial than residential buildings, and the accommodation it does provide is in the R
ather Expensive Loft Conversation category. Sigh. I’ll just have to wait until I’m Mayor of London and earning a proper salary. It’d be handy for the GLA offices too. More old stuff: Borough Market is the great-great-great grandad of markets, having been there since 1276. In its heyday (yes, long before Tesco) it was referred to as London’s Larder and was relied upon for essential provisions – these days it’s more of a specialist foodie market. Most of the produce is organic and people come from miles to trade there, most notably a couple from France who bring their cheeses over early every Sunday morning. Bless. It’s also been the set for scenes in Bridget Jones’ Diary and Lock Stock, but guess what? Somebody high up in railways (a man on the station ceiling?) thought it’d be a good idea to knock down the market area and lay an extra railway bridge over the site, to ‘ease congestion at London Bridge’. I have to suffer this congestion on a daily basis and I would still stand in front of bulldozers to stop them destroying the market. I mean come on, it’s been there nearly a thousand years. AND there are a billion places in south-east London that need railways bridges far more than Borough, if they’re just keen to throw another bridge up. Why don’t they put a new station at Camberwell? Or spend the money making sure that the services from Brockley run on time?? Gggrrrrr. If you agree that this is folly and nonsense, pop along to www.save-borough-market-area.org.uk and sign their petition. Go on, please. If I’ve won you over (sucker) and you’ve decided to stay here, there’s a hostel (St Christopher’s Inn) on the high street which charges a very reasonable £70 per week (in a room with 10-12 beds – it goes up slightly for smaller dorms). It’s attached to a Belushi’s bar, which is decked out in bright blue (surprise surp
rise) and is full of 50s American memorabilia. It does bargain sandwiches at lunchtime too. Opposite there’s a Slug and Lettuce, and while I hate chain pubs as a rule, this one does cracking nachos; further down the road there are some really nice cafes too. I used to work here by the way, I haven’t spent several weeks researching the local grub in the name of dooyoo review writing. Honest... Well, the sun is sinking and I’m sure you’ve long since finished your Bovril, so let’s call this the end. I’m afraid I can’t think of a witty parting shot – I used up all my falling down gags at the start of the op – so this is just an announcement. FIN.
Why don’t people want to write about the neighbourhoods of London? Tsk. I keep checking back on this section, but not a dicky bird. Ho hum. I’ll just have to do the decent thing, I suppose. Right. Westminster. (By the way, I’m reviewing the district and not the borough. Did you know that Oxford Street, Soho, Chinatown, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden – in fact about 80% of London’s tourist attractions – are in the borough of Westminster? If I get bogged down in all that gubbins, this op is going to be of publishable length.) Ahem. Ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome your host, Les Dennis! “Fingers on buzzers. The top three answers are on the board. We asked one hundred people to name something associated with Westminster.” “Bzzz! Flipper!” “Um…well…let’s see if Flipper is on the board.” UH-UHHH! “No, it’s not right. That means the Robinsons have the chance to steal the game.” “Is it sesame seed baps?” “Okaaaaaay. Let’s see if sesame seed baps are there.” UH-UHHH! Oh, enough of this nonsense. Let’s stretch our imaginations somewhat, and pretend that you, an individual with complete working faculties, are a contestant on Family Fortunes. What would you guess? “Bzzz! Big Ben.” “Yes, that’s our top answer. And you’ve won a spot prize. Let’s have a look at what you’ve won…it’s a pair of cheap plastic binoculars!” That really is the end of the Family Fortunes thing now. Big Ben is probably Westminster’s top attraction. It’s an internationally recognised monument. And of course it’s absolutely free, which must be a huge pull for tourists. In fact when you look at it, it&
#8217;s twenty pence cheaper than having a wee at Charing Cross station down the road. Which is a bit backwards. Big Ben is not actually the name of the clock. It’s the name of the 13-ton bell inside. You know, the one that used to do the ‘bongs’ on the 9 o’clock news. The one that announces the new year after a tiresome evening of Wogan, sherry and left-over Quality Street (always coconut and toffee pennies in our house – how ‘bout everyone else?). Although I’m not sure about the merits of a giant clock being the symbol of our capital (not very exciting, is it?) I have a real fondness for Big Ben. I’m loath to admit this, but walking through Parliament Square as it ‘bongs’ the time always gives me shivers, even though I hear it at least twice a day. There’s something very robust and reassuring about it, and something very ‘London’. You can feel all the history of the city with each chime. In the Blitz in 1941 the House of Commons was completely destroyed, but Big Ben still stood, never missing a stroke, and I really like that. I also like how it always looks majestic – against a brilliant blue sky on a summer day, against a blanket of darkness in the silence of the night (chugging night buses excepted), against stormy clouds and sheets of rain. I’m getting all sentimental about the stupid thing now. Other Big Ben facts: (1) there is a light above the clock face which only shines when Parliament are in session, and (2) there is a Big Ben webcam at www.camvista.com/england/london/bigben.php3. No, honestly. The only situation where I can imagine this site being remotely useful is if you are stranded somewhere without a clock. But with a computer. Not likely, is it? Hang on, computers have clocks anyway. So it qualifies as Completely Pointless. Ho hum. Going back to Family Fortunes (briefly, I promise), what would be second on the board? I woul
d hazard a guess at Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is a beautiful, beautiful building. It’s been the setting for every coronation since 1066, and anybody who’s anybody is buried there, from Charles Darwin to Laurence Olivier. But when all’s said and done, it’s just a church, and charging people £6 to get in (£3 concessions) seems a bit cheeky. Services are free though, if you can get a seat (Londoners are quite preoccupied with ‘getting a seat’ by the way, be it on the tube or at The Ivy); I’ve never been, but I imagine it’s rather busier than your average St Mary’s. For service times and special events, go to www.westminster-abbey.org. “Okay there’s one remaining answer. For a chance to win the game, can you name one more thing associated with Westminster? Confer if you wish.” “We think it’s Mario Brothers, Les.” “Mario Brothers?” “Yes Les.” Sorry, I can’t help myself. Well, the third answer is not Mario Brothers but Government. All the big decisions are made here in Westminster. Apparently. An introduction to Government by spacelamb, aged 22 and three quarters: The House of Commons is where Tony and his cronies meet for tea, biscuits and a bit of a wrangle about the perplexing issues of the day. The House of Lords is a glorified old folks’ home, within whose walls doddery peers make disapproving grunts about crime and immigration. They probably have tea and biscuits there too. Maybe even chocolate digestives. 10 Downing Street, with its famous black door, has housed PMs since 1732 and is currently where Tony plays Lego and practices the guitar. Whitehall is where most of the other Government Departments are, the people who make the menial decisions about sugar beet and pavements. I’m not trying to belittle the work of the Government. I’m not, because I work f
or them, and I don’t want my life to be futile. But then I have had a good five hours today in which to write this op, and that must tell you something. While we’re discussing parliamentary matters (or sort of) – one thing which would not have appeared on the Family Fortunes board is Civil Servant Central, more commonly known as Victoria Street, which links Parliament Square to Victoria station and is a veritable mine of sandwiches. Otherwise this is perhaps the dullest road in London. There’s a McDonalds. A Clintons. A Boots. (Wide open YAWN.) There’s also an Army and Navy department store, which is part of the House of Frazer group and does not, as I initially suspected, sell surplus combats. This is where civil servants come to buy last-minute presents and Anais Anais for their mistresses. I probably shouldn’t say things like that, should I? Slightly more interesting is Strutton Ground, which is a side road off Vicky Street. Never before have so many eateries been placed so close together! But at least you have lunchtime variety. There’s also a (not very good) market and an (excellent) Oxfam Books. The Channel 4 building on Horseferry Road, which has a rather natty external lift, is a couple of minutes’ walk away. And so is Pimlico, which has quasi-shops and the Tate Britain, so well done there. Back to important people. Take a look at this, from www.westminster.gov.uk, if you can bring yourself to: “The Lord Mayor is Westminster's first citizen, second in status within the City to Royalty and to the Lord Lieutenant when the latter is representing The Queen. He is formally referred to as "The Right Worshipful the Lord Mayor of Westminster" and addressed as "My Lord Mayor" or, less formally, as "Lord Mayor"…On civic and major occasions the Lord Mayor of Westminster wears a blue and gold robe.” Now Ken Livingstone, London&
#8217;s directly elected mayor, wears a beige suit for civic and major occasions. In fact for every occasion. He probably sleeps in that suit. But he and Bob Kiley are the only people talking any sense about the tube right now, so I’m not going to take issue with his dress sense. In any case, I just wanted to put that paragraph in because it made me chuckle. Okay, so what else can you do in Westminster? Well Buckingham Palace is in SW1, so you can see the changing of the guard. It smells of horse poo, but you’ll find yourself floating back into your childhood and humming that Christopher Robin song. Come on, you remember: They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace Christopher Robin went down with Alice Alice is marrying one of the guard A soldier’s life is terrible hard (says Alice) No? Maybe it’s just me then. You could always go to St James’ Park instead, which is lovely and has some really strange ducks in it. They’re black and white and orange and their feet are massive. No, they’re not geese. Honest. They carry sticks in their beaks. And they’re really funny when they run. In summer this place is Civil Servant Central II (Strikes Back / Returns / The Revenge Of etc), with every square centimetre of lawn covered in civil servants chomping on their Vicky Street focaccia. In winter you can actually move around in there, and (like all London parks) it looks ace if you’re lucky enough to get snow. Don’t fancy it? Scared of ducks, are you? Taking in the view from Westminster Bridge is something that I would genuinely recommend that you do (actually from any of the Thames bridges, but particularly this one or Waterloo Bridge). Like hearing Big Ben’s Bongs (sounds like a porno somehow), looking out over this scene makes me proud to be a Londoner. Okay, I’m from Middlesex (we’ve been here before). But I’m proud to
call this city my home. And yes, in spite of my general cynicism, I’m proud to tell people I work in Westminster, to be a tiny cog in a big machine, to be in amongst all the hustle and bustle, and to pass David Blunkett on the stairs. I did, you know.
You don’t know who Nitin Sawhney is, do you? Come on, tell the truth. Nobody’s cross. Nitin Sawhney is one of my gods (alongside Luc Besson and Zippy), and not just because he works from south London (centre of the universe). The Guardian, apparently lost for words for once, said last year that “it would be easier to jot down what this man can’t do than what he can”, and never has there been a truer word spoken. (Well I don’t actually know that – I mean he may have no culinary skills to speak of, but until he appears on Celebrity Ready Steady Cook I will have no evidence either way, and I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.) So why haven’t you heard of him? First, he doesn’t release singles, so you’re not likely to hear much of him on Radio 1, or catch him in a race with Mrs Becks for the chart top spot. And second, we Brits aren’t very good at being international. The range of influences in his music is so diverse that it will probably put most people off before they’ve heard a note, and of course his name is Nitin (so much harder to remember than, say, Gordon or Edmund). Let’s have a practice. NITIN sounds like knitting, so that should be a breeze. SAWHNEY sounds like sore knee (ouch). Say it once. Say it again. Shout it. And don’t forget it. Nitin grew up a British Asian in Rochester, and suffered a certain degree of racial abuse at the hands of Kentish folk. He turned to music to escape, but was famously banned from the school music room by a teacher who (it later transpired) was a member of the National Front. Nice. The theme of dual nationality is still heavy in his tunes. (Slightly irrelevant but interesting fact: Hanif Kureishi, another of my heroes, also grew up a British Asian in Kent (Orpington) and now writes damn fine novels, often with a theme of dual nationality. I would heartily recommend The Black Album.) I̵
7;m not going to tell you his life story or anything (mostly because I don’t know what his first girlfriend was called / whether he has a peanut allergy etc), but here are a few biographical details which might make you think, “Ohhhhhhh, him. Why didn’t you just say so?” The first thing is the BBC2 sketch show Goodness Gracious Me, which takes the p*ss out of outmoded Asian stereotypes. You know the one – an aunty hits other members of the family with her shoe a lot; it’s a bit silly, but quite entertaining. Anyway, it started life as a radio programme called The Secret Asians, and was written and performed by Sanjeev Bhaskar (who is still in the telly version) and, yep, Nitin Sawhney. He also wrote the rather funky theme tune. Does anyone else remember the original version of this song, by the way? I actually had it on vinyl when I was about four. I’m not sure what my parents were thinking. The second thing is his collaborations - he has played with The James Taylor Quartet, and in Tihai Trio with Talvin Singh who won the Mercury Music Prize in 1999. Nitin was nominated for the same award in 2000 for his album Beyond Skin, but lost out to Badly Drawn Boy. The world is a crazy place sometimes. He’s also a writer, lecturer, producer and actor, but I’m not going to list his complete works. The Guardian has made my excuses for me. Interested yet? Want to buy some of his stuff? Do ya? Do ya? He’s made six albums (including one ‘best of’ thing), which are: Spirit Dance (1993) Migration (1995) Displacing the Priest (1996) Introduction to Nitin Sawhney (1999) Beyond Skin (1999) Prophesy (2001) Spirit Dance is currently and annoyingly (I am still trying to get a copy) out of production, although it is soon to be re-released on Nitin’s own label, Positiv-id. Hurrah. Time for a wee confession now: I don’t own Migration or Introd
uction either, so I’m not going to be able to review them. Yeah, I see your eyebrows furrow. What do I think I’m playing at? Sorry. I have heard some of his earlier tunes played live though (more on that later) and they’re ace. DISPLACING THE PRIEST uses a lot less technology than its successors, relying instead on more traditional Asian instruments and patterns, which gives it an epic and haunting sound quality. There’s a lot of tabla, piano and non-lyrical vocals, although no sitar as far as I can make out (wot no sitar?). I’m not going to do a track listing, I’m afraid. (In other people’s music reviews that seems to be the point when I switch off. If you really want to know then buy the album, or go to www.nitinsawhney.com.) In any case, it’s not really a ‘tracky’ album because each one flows into the next so gracefully. (Having said that if I had to pick a favourite, it would be ‘In the Mind’ (track two). This is basically just hand drums and female vocals (by Jayanta Bose), which sounds a bit hollow on paper, but it’s beautiful.) The album is about religion and spirituality, and that old dual nationality chestnut. Normally I hate music that has deliberate issues, but in spite of the passionate messages of this album it comes off sounding eloquent and subtle. BEYOND SKIN is Nitin’s most widely known and critically acclaimed album. It’s got a screaming bust (as in a head and shoulders torso, not tits) on the cover, and you might – just might – have heard something off it. This is much more eclectic than Displacing the Priest, with a glorious and uplifting drum and bass track (‘Nadia’) and a lot more lyrical content. I’m going to pick my top toons from this one though, because (although it’s all gorgeous) there are some really outstanding tracks.’ Letting Go’ (“don’t be afraid of letting go
, not of anything, not of anyone”) opens with the noise of rain on rooftops, then a pianist and fragile female voice come in. It’s very soothing, especially curled up on the sofa when it really is raining outside. ‘Immigrant’ opens with a sample of his parents speaking about their decision to come to England from India, but is really a piano ballad. I’m sorry to use that description, because it conjures up frightening images of Lionel Ritchie, but that’s what it is, and it’s lovely. This album opens with a newsflash about the testing of nuclear weapons in India (“people here say they are proud that their country has shown its nuclear capabilities”) and ends with Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb, quoting the Hindu god Vishnu – “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. PROPHESY is a funky, upbeat album. Which is not to say that the classic strings and evocative, ghostly vocals are gone because they’re still there, but there are more electronic beats and trip-hoppy backgrounds. This album brings together Latin American music, flamenco, rap, jazz riffs – you name it, it’s in here. There’s also a track called ‘Street Guru’ which is dominated by a sample of a Chicago cabbie talking (as cabbies do) about technology and being a slave to time. He sounds like he needs a strong black coffee to be honest, but the rumbling bass behind him lifts the track and makes you start playing drums on your knee. The best tune from this album is almost undoubtedly the opening ‘Sunset’ which I think I’m going to have played at my funeral. It’s blissfully chilled out, although it sounds more like a sunrise than a sunset because it just keeps building and building, and then yawning out into joyous vocals (the London Community Gospel Choir do the last few choruses). ‘Cold and Intimate’ cannot go without mention, but I
217;m going to stop trying to describe tracks now (belatedly perhaps), because I’m not doing them justice and I’m running out of vocabulary. The website has tasters, which I’m sure will be a lot more useful. A couple of his musicians deserve particular praise. First, Jayanta Bose who is his long-time vocalist, and who just has the most rich, soulful voice. She seems to be able to make any song sound like it was written for her (they probably were, latterly, but never mind.) Tina Grace, who sings on the most recent two albums, is the ‘haunting’ one, whose delicate voice sounds like it might break at any second. It never does, by the way. JC001 is a human beatbox (not a mate of R2D2) who can reproduce all the beats on a complex dance track with his voice alone. Simultaneously. It’s quite incredible. Aref Durvesh is Mr-Tabla-with-the-Lightning-Hands, and last, but certainly not least, Sanchita Farruque is his trad-Indian male vocalist. The versatility of his voice is stunning, indescribable. I can only recommend that you see Nitin Sawhney live to fully appreciate him. All of them. Which brings me neatly to my next point. We saw him live!! He was playing at the Greenwich Dance Agency about a fortnight ago, and he’s playing at the Royal Albert Hall in December. I can say hand on heart that it was the best musical event I have ever been to, which includes scores of nights out clubbing with top DJs playing. The track that really made the evening, and I deliberately avoided mentioning this in the review, was ‘Conference’ (from Beyond Skin). Now I don’t know much about Indian music (“but I know what I like!”) – but I had the rather good fortune of ‘working’, about four years ago, with a guy called Shri. He’s now signed to Outcaste, the same label as Nitin Sawhney, and forms one half of the duo Badmarsh and Shri who regularly play at Fabric. Not that I
217;m name-dropping or anything… Anyway, I used to play in this small-time ‘junk band’. It was purely percussive (as you might imagine) and we basically used to beat the crap out of shopping trolleys, gas pipes, oil drums – anything that made a good sound really. And we took part in this huge Indian production for which Shri was the musical director. Going back to ‘Conference’ (sorry) – the two things I learnt about Indian music from doing workshops with Shri was that it’s all based on calls and answers, and that it’s horribly fast. ‘Conference’ is a classic example of this, and heard live it just blows your mind. The only real instrument in the tune is the tabla (played at hyperspeed), and then two male voices, part-singing, part-speaking (not distinguishable words, just sounds). I’m sure there’s a word for this, but I don’t know it. And they are basically conversing with each other and the drum – repeating, chatting, shouting, deliberating, interrupting. At at least a zillion miles an hour. It got a standing ovation, and it wasn’t even the last number. I’m still in awe two weeks later. I think I’m going to bring this op to a close. No wait, I’m not. I’m going to let NME do it for me (oh great joy at nicking things from other publications). Nitin Sawhney is, and yes, I quote, “careering close to the sublime”. (Remember: ask your local record merchant for Knitting Sore Knee.)
I had a really good op brewing. I was going to write about south-east London in general, because I think it’s the coolest place in the world, and we get far too much flak. Some of this bitching is justified - yes, the accent is horrendous (“saaaaarf east London innit?”) - but a lot of it is prejudice. You might be surprised to learn that a few million people venture south of Waterloo on a daily basis, even live there, without being stabbed, shot etc. Anyway, I emailed Monica with my wonderful suggestion, and I now have a whole load of new neighbourhoods to write about (Peckham, New Cross etc), but no general category. I’m quite disappointed, because I was going to do a really long thing broken down by postcode (all 28 of them) and I’m rather fond of postcodes (it’s a mutant trainspotter gene, I think). You have a lot to thank Monica for, really. So…I’ve decided to write about Lewisham instead. Lewisham is a borough, and also a town. Aha, she said, seeing a loophole. I’m going to review the borough. And I’ve just thought of a way to sneak in my geekery (oh happy day). Here is a list of (and mini-guide to) the areas within the borough of Lewisham and, you’ve guessed it, their postcodes. * Blackheath (SE3) Blackheath is lovely. (Hardly anybody gets murdered in Blackheath.) The centre has a really villagey feel to it, with a lot of independent retailers and cute little cafes. Its most famous asset is the heath itself, and I would like to take this opportunity to put an end to the urban myth which says that Blackheath is so named because the bodies of the plague victims are buried there. The name is quite simply derived from the colour of the soil on the heath, which is unusually dark. Or that’s what the local council would have you know, anyway. Property prices are among the highest in the region because there are loads of huge, attractive Geo
rgian terraces, but you get what you pay for. If it was a supermarket, it’d be Waitrose. And Deptford would be Kwik Save, but more on that later. * Brockley (SE4) Brockley has a lot of comic potential, not as a place but as a name. We’re moving there in about two weeks, and I’ve already heard all the broccoli jokes my brain can handle. The area itself is mostly residential, with a lot of Victorian terraces; the Lewisham website (www.lewisham.gov.uk), in case anyone is interested, says it has “an atmosphere of faded elegance”, which is a far better description than I could have come up with. There aren’t many interesting features to note except the Brockley Jack pub, which has a fringe theatre inside, and Hilly Fields, which is a large dog-walking and kite-flying common. (I’m sure you can do other stuff there too, it just seems most suited to those two things.) There’s a row of essential shops around Brockley Cross (including The Cross Launderette which never ceases to amuse me), but they’re a bit scary. * Catford (SE6) Catford’s most recognisable landmark, and this is quite telling, is a giant plastic cat mounted above the shopping centre. This looks slightly unsettling on a sunny day, and positively menacing in the rain. If you can overcome your fear of this beast however, Catford isn’t too bad. It’s like a mini-Lewisham, with a ‘proper’ town centre (ie. recognisable high street stores) and a theatre. (Well I say theatre, but it’s more of a playhouse – the kind of place where the Chuckle Brothers might perform their Christmas special.) There’s also a three-screen cinema which is quite cheap (less than a fiver anyway), a reasonable library and a gorgeous Turkish bakery near the station. But the best thing about Catford is the greyhound track. If you can lay your hands on a copy of the Lewisham and Catford News Shopper (the local f
ree paper), you can cut out a token for free midweek admission, and it’s totally worth it. We didn’t place any bets when we went because we didn’t know how and were afraid to ask, but it’s tremendous fun just watching. See if you can borrow a sheepskin coat, to be accepted by the locals. And they sell beer and pies too. * Deptford (SE8) Deptford has a reputation for being a bit rough round the edges. And, um, ah, well…it is. It probably isn’t somewhere you’ll want to visit. Having said that, it does have character, and fantastic photo opportunities if you’re brave enough to carry something as valuable as a camera around. There is a lively market on Saturdays selling fresh produce and ripped off designer gear, also St Paul’s Church (which I’ve never got around to visiting, but has been highly recommended to me). There are three other pluses: its proximity to New Cross means it has a thriving artistic community (see SE14); Gary Oldman grew up in Deptford and his amazing film Nil By Mouth was shot here; and if you keep walking long enough you’ll probably end up in Greenwich. * Forest Hill (SE23) I lived here very briefly when I was studying at Camberwell College of Arts, and my resounding memory is of the insane family I lodged with rather than the area. But I do remember it having a perfectly good town centre (supermarkets, banks, the obligatory Wetherspoons), and also the Horniman Museum (another comedy name). Apparently every kid who ever grew up in London was taken here on school trips – it has an aquarium, and exhibitions in the seemingly random categories of toys and games, natural history, and musical instruments. Go figure. But entry is absolutely free, which is always a bonus. * Grove Park (SE12) Grove Park is a residential suburb. Even the aforementioned borough website can find nothing to say about it, so I’m damned if I’
;m going to try. Seriously, there’s nothing there but a chemist and a couple of pubs. You’re practically in Kent though, so at least you can take advantage of Bromley nearby, which has a huge centre and is only a 70p bus ride away. * Hither Green (SE13) Until 100 years ago, Hither Green was entirely rural. Archibald Cameron (whoever he was – I’ve shamelessly nicked this fact from the Lewisham website because I thought it was quite interesting) built 300 houses on farmland between 1897 and 1913, which by all accounts are now *the* tourist attraction in Hither Green. Yep, it’s another residential suburb, but it’s a lot prettier and quieter than most (don’t forget that in London silence is a rare and precious commodity). There are a lot of tree-lined avenues with four or five storey houses, but that’s about all. It’s a great ‘gateway’ place to try when you first move to the city because it’s only about a 10-15 minute walk from central Lewisham, but prices are really cheap because of the lack of immediate shops and amenities. * Lewisham (SE13) I’m going to come back to Lewisham proper, because there’s quite a lot to say about it. And in truth I know this category is really meant for Lewisham the town and not Lewisham the borough, and I don’t want my op locking for being irrelevant to the title. * Lee (SE12) Lee is considered another good ‘first step’ area when moving to London because, again, it is cheap. It has a slightly bigger centre than Hither Green, with a Sainsbury’s and some reasonable pubs; also the two silliest shops I have ever seen (unless you are a wide-footed accordion player) – Wide Shoes (honestly) and an accordion repairer. I guess the shops aren’t silly within their own right, but putting them in a village location like Lee is, where the other outlets are newsagents and Chinese tak
e-aways. * New Cross (SE14) New Cross gets a bit of a bad press, I think. Last year someone brandished an axe in Sainsbury’s, but apart from that I haven’t read about an awful lot of scary stuff happening. I think New Cross’ image problem has more to do with poverty than crime; the main area looks run down and it puts people off. (There is also a disproportionate number of fried chicken ‘restaurants’ per person, and I don’t know why that should lower the tone of the place, but it does.) Once you move away from the seedy centre though (there are cafes which will sell you hash over the counter, which could be seen either as a plus or a minus), there are some really pretty old houses being sold dirt cheap (well, for London). There are a lot of students living there (which probably doesn’t do it any favours either), either from Goldsmiths University (one of the best places for arts degrees in the country – Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas are alumni) or the Laban Dance Centre (one of the top higher-ed level dance schools). Telegraph Hill Park is lovely, with excellent panoramic views of central London. It’s also one of the only places in south-east London to have a tube. * Sydenham (SE26) I’m ashamed to say this, but the only place I have been in Sydenham is the Sainsbury’s Savacentre (I’ve noticed that Sainsbury’s has cropped up a lot – I’m not working for them or a member of the Jamie Oliver Fan Club, I promise). It’s really big and sells not just groceries but electrical goods, clothes and toys, and has a restaurant and post office inside. I was impressed, but then I think I’m quite easily won over. Sydenham Wells Park and St Bartholomew’s Church are both supposed to be worth visiting, but I daren’t extol their virtues in case you go all the way out there and they’re crap. Right…back to Lewisham itself.
First great thing about Lewisham: you can actually get to it. Easily. South-east London is notoriously badly connected transport-wise, but Lewisham has a regular overground train service (to Victoria, Charing Cross, Waterloo East, London Bridge and Cannon Street), the Docklands Light Railway and several bus routes which run into central London. Even at night. Hurrah! Second great thing about Lewisham: it has personality. And I don’t mean that in the sense that it's used about people (“yeah yeah, she has a nice personality” – translating as “she’s ugly as a box of frogs”) or certain other places (cough – Deptford) when what you really mean is that it’s terrifying as all hell. It really is a vibrant and exciting place to be. Third great thing about Lewisham: Italian Vogue compared it to Montmartre in Paris. This is dubious wisdom, but it’s a nice compliment so I’m going to let it stand. Fourth great thing about Lewisham: it has real, useful shops. You can buy pretty much whatever you need from Lewisham – clothes, books, toys, plants, trainers, music, haberdash. It has a good indoor shopping centre and outdoor market, as well as larger stores like MFI and Allied Carpets (this may or may not excite you – I’ve just been taking all these places in because we’re moving soon). Fifth great thing about Lewisham: it’s cheap to live (again, I’m going by London standards. In the general scheme of things you’d be better off moving to Newcastle, where I’ve heard you can buy whole housing estates for fifty quid). There are lots of estate agents (steer clear of Acorn though, who are the most unprofessional firm you are ever likely to come across) with properties to rent from about £600 pcm and to buy from about £110,000. This also means that most houses are in a low Council Tax band, so you have extra money to spend on
sweets. Sixth great thing about Lewisham: plenty of places to eat, drink and go out. There is a plethora of pubs, bars and cafes, including (somewhat surprisingly for south-east London) a gay pub called the Roebuck. I have never sampled its delights, but have been reliably informed that on Thursdays there is a drag queen DJ called Dave Rossi and he has his own posse. It rhymes, see? Seventh great thing about Lewisham: it has a clock tower. Okay, so that’s not *so* great, but if I didn’t mention it someone is sure to write in the commentary asking why I’ve missed it out, and have I ever really been to Lewisham at all, etc etc. Eighth great thing about Lewisham: it’s in south-east London. That’s what this is really about. The areas, when I was writing about them individually, don’t sound like much. And no, I probably wouldn’t recommend that you visit most of them. But put them all together and they have a vibe unlike any other part of the capital. We’re the underdog down here. (Tell a North Londoner you live in Lewisham and they’ll just laugh at you.) But I think we’ve been downtrodden too long. Long live markets and jellied eels (hmm) and yeah, okay, being slightly intimidated when you chance upon a new street. We were talking about places to live the other day and I suggested Lewisham, and my flatmate said that I had middle-class yearnings for grit and I’d grow out of them. He may well be right, but I don’t care. It rocks down here.
Where were you when JFK was shot? When Princess Diana died? When the World Trade Centre was destroyed? I was at work in a Government office in London. There was a flurry outside the staff room, where five minutes previously people had been watching Neighbours and stuffing their faces with Monster Munch. Someone shouted that a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre in New York. First all the computer screens flicked to bbc.co.uk, then everyone scrummed to get a space in front of the television. We stayed there most of the afternoon, watching the twin towers collapse, the Pentagon burst into flames, the military aircraft circle the city, the hysterical crowds streaming away from the smoke. Nobody said a word. Phones started to ring: were we all right? Apparently Canary Wharf had been evacuated and Government buildings were next. We weren’t evacuated (I think they decided that the education department was a pretty unlikely target) but today there are security staff everywhere and the building is on ‘amber’ alert (we are normally on ‘black special’ alert which means “not much happening today, but don’t fall asleep or anything”). Visitors are being searched, and their bags emptied. Walking through Parliament Square last night, every aeroplane seemed menacing. I kept imagining that new Mini Adventure advert, where aliens crash into Big Ben and St Paul’s (which will soon be withdrawn, no doubt). The devastation in NYC covered several square miles – so, according to my entirely selfish calculations, I’m in trouble. I work in Westminster and I live one tube stop along from Canary Wharf. Thousands of people lost their lives, including 300 emergency workers. The city will never be the same. I don’t want that to happen to London. I’m scared. I’m really scared. I don’t normally pay that much attention to international new
s. Maybe it’s an island thing, maybe I’m just an ignoramus, but I usually check out what’s happening in London, then in the UK, and the overseas stuff kind of passes me by. But the events of 11 September 2001 are literally going to re-write history books. Geographically the tragedy may have happened in America, but the repercussions of that tragedy will affect the whole planet. It’s not melodramatic to say that this could be the beginning of the next world war. Senator John Kerry (Massachusetts) called the attacks "a declaration of war" that "demands a forceful response". Senator Richard Shelby (Alabama) has said that the States should pursue retaliation "whatever the cost". President Bush has pledged to “find these people, and they will suffer for taking on this nation”, and Tony Blair has said that Britain will “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our American friends”. This is right. But it’s terrifying. Retaliation will not protect the American people, although this is the inevitable (and probably, in truth, the most effective) course of action. Violence breeds violence, and this is only the beginning. We cannot avenge every terrorist act. Yesterday’s events proved that we are not as powerful as we think we are. International law and order has been completely undermined. Eight men, armed only with knives and cardboard cutters (yes, really) took on the most powerful nation on earth and won. These people are extremists who are prepared to sacrifice their lives to commit these acts. Like Blair, the leaders of most European countries have vowed to stand (and fight, presumably) alongside the US. But the combined might of Europe and America – however strong it seems on paper – cannot touch them. Not really. We don’t even know who is responsible yet, although in the press fingers are being firmly pointed towards Osama b
in Laden (who threatened three weeks ago to hit a “big” US target). For me, the culprit is not really important, although I daresay a lot of Americans feel very differently. What I can’t get my head around is the fact that it happened at all. I can’t comprehend the motives of the terrorists, the scale of the destruction, the implications of the whole thing. I don’t understand how people are wandering around today buying sandwiches and catching trains and going about their mundane business (even though I’m one of them). They are still searching for survivors. Firefighters haven’t contained the Pentagon blaze nearly 24 hours later. The stories in the papers today (which are extremely hard to come by, even in central London) tell of burned skin and strewn limbs, tearful phone calls from the hijacked planes describing how air stewards had just been stabbed, and the complete shutdown of America’s two major cities. We didn’t think it could happen. But it has, and we have to rebuild and carry on somehow. That’s so easy for us to say over here in Blighty, where our capital is functioning as normal today and most of us haven’t just lost friends, family or colleagues who did nothing to deserve having their lives cut so brutally short. I think that’s all I have to say. What else can you say?
I have a social disability. I am not a gossip (all the time) or a wallflower or a usurper or a space invader or a bigamist. It’s much more serious than that. I don’t like tea, and in polite English society this is about the worst crime you can commit. My best friend’s dad still refers to me as “the one who doesn’t drink tea” (followed by an incredulous chuckle) although he has known me by name for eleven years. I think if I had stolen a family heirloom on our first meeting I might have been forgiven by now, but the fact that I refused a cup of tea has led to him eyeing me suspiciously every time I enter their home. The English, you see, are nothing short of insane. To drink tea is to be an upstanding citizen and a good egg. We believe that a cup of tea will cure all ills (“you’ve severed your own arm, poor love, I’ll pop the kettle on”) and greatly distrust anyone who rejects the stuff. Have you ever seen a Bond baddie with a brew? Of course you haven’t. Anyway, this is a highly sophisticated study of ‘England in General’ not ‘Tea in General’. So on with the show. The English do a lot of things really well. I’m proud of our language, our history, our culture and our Government. No, honestly. I love living here. I love the eccentric quirks of the English nature, but most of all I love the stereotypes applied to us: that we live on a diet of fish paste sandwiches (yum – McWho?), that we love nothing better than queuing in the rain in our frog wellingtons, that all the ladies wear smart overcoats and all the gentlemen bowler hats. But of course we do. Here is a Guide To Blighty for the uninitiated. * * HISTORY * * I was going to attempt to write a potted history of our green and pleasant land, but realised the futility of the exercise after about 30 seconds when I happed upon this glorious website: http://
britannia.com/history It has everything you could possibly want to know and a good deal more besides, so I’ll leave the history to the historians. Phew. * * POLITICS * * I’ll keep this section short as well. I just think our Government gets far too much stick (and I’m not just saying that because I’m a civil servant and I want a quiet life). There are weasel-y and corrupt individuals, as in any profession, but as a system it *does* work. We have justice and freedom and opportunity and relative safety, which is a darn sight more than most nations have achieved. They’re acting like asses over the whole tube thing though. End of politics. * * LANGUAGE * * Did you know that thesauruses (thesauri?) don’t exist outside of the English-speaking world? No other language is rich or diverse enough to require one, and that makes me feel very smug indeed. The flipside to this of course is our reluctance to learn other languages (preferring instead to shout and gesticulate). I once saw this book called The Englishman’s International Dictionary (or something along those lines), which featured pictures of things like airports and plates of egg and chips, eradicating the need to learn any new holiday vocabulary at all. When in Rome (etc), the Englishman can simply whip this slim volume from his blazer pocket and point. English is a marvellous language. It is also completely illogical (I’m damn happy I grew up with it), yet the most widely spoken in the world. It would be nice to believe that this is down to its sheer beauty, or the wealth of great literature the English have produced, but the truth is that we owe the Yanks big time. America has global clout we can only dream of (but no past and no queen and no Barbour jackets). If you have a spare hour or two, read Bill Bryson’s ‘Mother Tongue’, which must be the only entertaining book on linguistics ever written.
* * ARTS * * Literature and the arts in general are things that the English excel at. Our great artists, past and present, embody the madness of the nation. J M W Turner strapped himself to the mast of a boat and set out into a rather choppy sea, nearly killing himself in the process, in order to accurately paint the ferocity of the waves. Tracey Emin has made a huge personal fortune by exhibiting her unmade bed (complete with used condoms, tissues and dirty underwear) and embroidering a quilt with a list of all the people she has ever slept with. (I often wonder whether she keeps it up to date, and how many prospective partners this has put off.) Our fashion designers too are among the most celebrated in the world, which is hard to believe when you consider that we invented the spotted-handkerchief-tied-around-head beach look, the Essex Girl and the Sloane. But our erratic tendencies seem to go down well abroad, and London is still considered one of the most stylish cities in the globe. * * LONDON * * I’m not going to wax lyrical about the virtues of London because I’ve bored you with that in plenty of other ops, but I can’t let it slip through the net entirely. Our capital is one of our greatest assets, steeped in history, bristling with life and innovation and inhabited by people from the far reaches of the globe. As a nation we have a long way to go to become truly ‘multicultural’ (I will draw a veil over the recent race riots up north, which make me sick to the stomach), but London is an international city which really puts us on the map. * * VILLAGES * * In contrast, our villages and hamlets are also national treasures. Arguably these show off the ‘real’ England, and are bestowed with such risible names as Wallish Walls, Twenty, Yeavering Bell and Wham (all true). Villages are the upholders of quaint institutions, from Girl Guide jumble sales to vicarage s
ummer hog roasts, and have a greater concentration of X-file candidates per square foot than anywhere else in the country. Unlike city psychos however, your average English village-dwelling crazy horse is seemingly innocuous, and it’s only when you’re invited in for tea (no thank you) that you see their collection of dead hedgehogs. * * MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN * * The English are a strange race. We weep at pictures of bedraggled cats, yet merrily part with £10 to go on a guided Jack the Ripper tour of London. We grumble ceaselessly about the weather, even when it is glorious outside (“hot enough for you?”), yet never complain about bad service. If a waiter asks an Englishman whether he is enjoying his meal the reply will invariably be yes, even if he has to politely excuse himself five minutes later to vomit. We are a nation of apologisers, stammering “sorry, sorry” if someone stands on *our* foot. And the English always wait their turn. For everything. Queuing is almost a national sport – and the sooner it gets recognised as such the better I say; we’ll be a shoo-in for at least one gold in the Olympics. * * OTHER POINTS TO NOTE * * An ironmonger does not mong iron, and a fishmonger does not mong fish. It’s just another example of how the English love nonsense.
Renting is a mammoth task. Try to start a conversation on the topic with anyone who has a mortgage – I dare you – and you’re likely to get comments along the lines of “Pah! Renting schmenting!” and they’re right that it can be a total pain in the posterior. There are numerous advantages though, the most prominent in my mind being that you’re not tying yourself down for a long period of time. The way I see it is, I’m only 22 and I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a few years’ time – I may be earning twice as much (or twice as little, perish the thought); I may not be with my partner any more; I may have changed careers; I may decide that I don’t want to live in London any more (unlikely, but never say never). When you’re renting a place you can effectively up and leave. Hurrah. I have tried to write this op from the point of view of One Who Knows (I’m getting to be quite an experienced renter these days) and hopefully it will help you avoid some of the traps I fell into. WHERE TO LOOK You basically have two choices – through an estate agent or an independent landlord. * ESTATE AGENTS Personally I would go for an agent every time. When you register with an estate agent they will take down the details of the kind of property you are looking for (price, number of bedrooms, area and so on) and then call you when they have something that meets your needs. It is in their interest to do this as they make money from every flat or house they let – so basically you are passing an arduous task over to someone else. Any property you see will have been looked over before you view it, so it’s not going to be completely uninhabitable; your contract will be a standard legal document so there’s much less chance of being screwed around; throughout your tenancy they are your point of contact so if anything goes wrong with the property it i
s their indisputable responsibility to fix it. It’s normally best to ring or go into the office itself to see what’s available – estate agents’ websites are notoriously ill-maintained (they can be useful however to get a general idea of their price range). * PRIVATE LANDLORDS The only advantage I can see to renting through an independent landlord is that you save on estate agents fees. Agencies charge you a one-off admin fee to reserve your chosen pad, liaise with the owner and obtain bank/employer references, but this amount is rarely over £50 per tenant which is frankly a small price to pay for peace of mind. A landlord can advertise any crummy old cupboard they like – and they do. (My worst experience was a looking at a ‘spacious studio’ in Wandsworth two years ago, which was indeed roomy but located in a building that looked like the Haunted House at Alton Towers, was literally falling apart and had one window not much bigger than a gentleman’s handkerchief. Needless to say I fled). Take extra care when being shown a place by some random person too - it's best to go in twos, as wussy as that sounds. Also a private landlord can draw up his own contract and you have far less legal protection if your cooker spontaneously combusts etc. (I’m not saying all landlords are bastards, I just haven’t met a nice one yet!) Local papers are without a doubt the best place to find this sort of accommodation, also in ‘Loot’ which is published on a daily basis. The only problem with this is that all the best places go really early – often before midday – on the day of publication. CRACKING THE CODE After you’ve spent a couple of weeks searching for a place, you start to recognise certain recurring phrases. Estate agents have a language all to themselves, constructed mostly from abbreviations and lies (well, versions of the truth). Most of the acronyms explain th
emselves (GCH = gas central heating, for example), but some of their other expressions really need to be translated. For example: an estate agent is reluctant to call a place ‘small’, even if it is, because all but the most eccentric of people want a reasonably sized house. So if they go so far as to actually call it ‘small’ it is likely be *really* tiny – they’re preparing you for the worst, you see. ‘Spacious’ or ‘large’ normally mean average size – the only word you can count on is ‘huge’, which is used sparingly and is normally the truth. Be wary too of ‘good transport links’ – any place with genuinely good transport links will say something specific like ‘5 mins walk to tube’. This statement is not always a lie, but often means there is a railway station in the same county, or that there is a bus service every hour from your road to the wool shop. SHARING AND MONEY If there is one thing to test a friendship it is moving in together. I have recounted a couple of horror stories below, but basically if you’re in the least bit unsure, don’t do it. Arguments start over little things – someone has left some dirty plates in the sink or whatever – and escalate out of control at hyperspeed because their bad habits are thrust in your face 24-7. * THE MYSTERY TELEPHONE CALLS When I first moved to London I shared with an acquaintance rather than a friend, for the sake of convenience. He is now neither of these things. I learnt to accept his disgusting personal habits, but he would often bring people back to our flat in the middle of the night, drunk and raucous. Once he and another guy came home at 4am on a Tuesday night, barged straight into my room (where I was asleep, obviously) and demanded cigarettes. When I told them where to go, they shouted abuse at me. I know they were drunk, and that this has more to do wi
th your choice of friends than renting – but if you’ve signed a joint tenancy there’s not much you can do to stop your flatmate behaving like a moron. The final straw (I moved out a month later) was when we received a whopping great phone bill – about £300 for the quarter. I was certain that I hadn’t made more than about £30 worth of calls, but he insisted he hadn’t either and that we ought to split the bill fifty-fifty. He told me he had contacted BT and they had refused him an itemised bill because there were too many calls to list. This smelt of fish to me, so I rang them myself and they said yes of course they’d send me an itemised bill. It transpired that he had been running his mobile through our land line and calling 0891 numbers at stupid o’clock, each call costing several pounds. I’m not quite sure what the moral of this story is – be careful who you share your personal space and financial responsibilities with I guess. * THE MISSING MILLIONS (WELL ALMOST) At the moment I live with two mates. The first is an absolute treasure who is tidy, reliable, respectful, solvent and a barrel of laughs. The second is a riot to have around, but he’s appalling with money. I am currently trying to move out of my current house and get a place with my bit of trouser, who has just moved to London. About a month ago we found a lovely little flat, but when I rang my present landlord to give him my month’s notice he wasn’t having any of it. He said we owed £1,500 in arrears, and although I had never paid my rent more than an hour late we had signed a joint contract, thus making me liable for *any* non-payment of rent. I confronted flatmate no 2 who admitted he had not paid his rent for the last few months, and I have now had to put my own move on hold until he has come up with the money. This story has a very definite moral, which is ask for your contract to be drawn up three (or however
many) ways, so you are only accountable for your own portion of the rent. Not every landlord is willing to do this but ask, ask, ask. And again, make sure you trust the people you’re moving in with! OMBUDSMAN While we’re on the subject of money, one thing I didn’t mention before (and another benefit of using an estate agent) is the Ombudsman Scheme. This has been around for donkeys’ years but only recently become so widely available. When you rent a property you have to pay a deposit – usually equivalent to 4 or 6 weeks’ rent – which you get back when you leave, as long as you leave the property in good condition (‘normal wear and tear’ is allowed, lilac cows painted on the living room carpet are not, that sort of thing). There can often be some discrepancy over whether a fault in the house is ‘reasonable wear and tear’ or abuse/neglect. This is where the Ombudsman Scheme comes in (I really love that word). When you move in, an inventory is drawn up by the estate agent (if you rent privately, undertake this task yourself) stating the contents and condition of the house. When you leave, an ‘independent adjudicator’ (in our case Natwest Bank) will come in and assess the property against the inventory, so neither you nor the estate agent can be diddled out of any money. It is usual by the way to lose about a fifth of your deposit – a popular counter-measure to this is withholding the final month’s rent, but this can easily backfire. It’s your call. SOME USEFUL WEBSITES www.letonthenet.com www.findaproperty.com www.loot.co.uk FOR LONDON: www.net-lettings.co.uk I think I have waffled quite long enough, although I’m sure I’ve missed something vital out – do let me know if I have! Happy house hunting :)
I’ve braced myself for criticism on this one already. Maybe I’m badly read or something, but all the choices below (bar one or two) seem painfully obvious. You’ll be pleased to hear that I have managed not to include the London A-Z and the Oxford Concise English Dictionary, which to be frank are the two books I would be truly lost without…well, anyway, judge for yourself. 10. NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND – BILL BRYSON Whether or not this is great literature is arguable, but I had to put it down several times because I was literally crying with laughter in public places and people were staring (so he’s clearly doing something right). Bryson is a travel writer who was born in the States and moved to England in early adulthood, and this book documents his journeys around Blighty in his forties. The humour comes largely from poking fun at the eccentricities of the English – the way we will solve everything from a paper cut to a hurricane with a cup of tea, the silly names we bestow upon our villages and the various perils associated with striking up conversations on a train. Contrary to what you might expect, he does not visit the obvious places, choosing instead to report on obscure northern towns which boast the kind of museum that has an annual attendance of four people (Bryson included). This captures the very spirit of what it is to be English. For non-Brits: I concede that you may not find it nearly as funny as I did (which is probably for the best as I almost choked) – but for anyone who has ever visited or resided here, it’s a classic. 9. THE WOMAN WHO WALKED INTO DOORS – RODDY DOYLE About as far as you can get from the last choice, this novel centres around a theme of domestic violence. For anyone who has never read any Roddy Doyle, his writing style is a plain as, um, ready-salted crisps (well you think of something plainer) and always set in some impoverished part of Ireland.
The main character, Paula, tells the story of her abusive 18-year marriage without bitterness or regret, and the story makes you slightly nauseous and brings tears to your eyes (although it is not true, it could so easily be). The most horrific part of the book is where the husband has just dislocated her shoulder in a fight and puts her in a cab to the hospital. She is sitting in the back wearing a coat with her arm hanging limp in the sleeve, but she describes the incident without a hint of anger, just weariness. This is also a book without a definite beginning, middle or end, although it is roughly chronological – a kind of idle, going-nowhere style which I love. 8. ABOUT A BOY – NICK HORNBY Nick Hornby has become so popular that his work has almost stopped being regarded as literature, which I think is a great shame. Hornby is another author whose style is chatty and rambling, although not a word is wasted, and his characterisation is spot on. The two central characters in this book are Marcus, a dysfunctional 12 year-old with a suicidal mother, and Will, a streetwise loafer in his thirties. Through a series of bizarre circumstances their lives collide, and each chapter is told from their alternating points of view. (Look out for the movie too, released early in 2002). About A Boy is the kind of book you can get through in a couple of days and you probably will because it is a joy to read, but no matter – just move onto High Fidelity instead… 7. CLUCK (A SORT OF HEN FROM TIMBUCTOO) – ROGER HARGREAVES Definitely not a Booker prize nominee, but my favourite children’s book ever. Mrs Roger Hargreaves (yes, Mrs) is also the author of the Mr Men books, in case it has escaped anyone’s notice, and she illustrates them herself as well – so in the Timbuctoo series we see the return of Mr Men extra Percy the Worm and a very similar sense of humour throughout. I actually only discovered Cluck a f
ew months ago, quite by mistake, and it was another of those rolling-on-floor-and-making-a-general-spectacle-of-oneself events. Cluck is a sort of hen from Timbuctoo, and not a very clever one at that. She receives a letter one morning (“from Neigh, a sort of horse, who was a sort of friend of Cluck’s”) and the story is of her dim-witted attempts to open it and so forth. I won’t ruin the end (oh come on, you’ve only got about 15 pages to get through) but it’s a cracker. 6. THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA – HANIF KUREISHI This is Kureishi’s astounding first novel. I must admit that he is my favourite author ever (although he escapes my number one spot here) because I’ve never seen anyone use the English language like him – economically but lyrically – and his characters are both believable and eccentric. The Buddha of Suburbia is quite a typical debut novel in that it is roughly autobiographical and focuses on the ‘coming of age’ period of a young man (Karim)’s life, and describes the breakdown of his family, his first job, first love and first experiences with drugs and sex. It is another book that has no real conclusion, but leaves you with a feeling of general fulfilment and happiness at the end (partly due to the plot, and partly from the sheer brilliance of his writing). You’ll also feel guilty for talking during the couple of weeks while you read this, because compared to his prose everything that leaves your mouth seems horribly clumsy. 5. EMMA – JANE AUSTEN I was made to study Pride and Prejudice at GCSE and decided there and then that I hated Jane Austen. I thought her writing was trivial and pointless, a symptom no doubt of being sixteen when everything is terribly intense and important. But four years later when I was in a production of Mansfield Park (also entertaining, but not a patch on Emma) I decided to give her another go. I wasn’t
sorry. Yes, she is trivial, but that is one of the best things about her books. Also, trivial does not equate to shallow in this context. Austen is a very witty social commentator, satirist even, and when you re-read her novels post-school you see a lot of humour that escaped you the first time around. The heroine of the piece is called Emma, rather predictably, a daddy’s girl and matchmaker who has always been unlucky in love herself (Clueless was based on the plot). I don’t think I’m ruining the ending by telling you that everything works out okay in the end (Austen is well-known for this) – but the twists and turns that lead you there are riveting. The language is not immediately easy to get to grips with, but once you have settled in you will probably find yourself saying things like, “Yes, I liked her tolerably well, but her bonnet cannot possibly have cost more than four and twenty pounds”. Hurrah. 4. HARRY POTTER SERIES – J K ROWLING Yes I know this is kind of cheating, and I should have picked just one of the existing four, but I really couldn’t. Unlike so many series, each book is as engaging and well-written as the last. These are really children’s books, but adults the world over have taken absolute delight in them, and Rowling is deservedly credited with ‘getting the nation reading again’. Is there anyone who *hasn’t* read them? – for those who’ve been living under rocks or equivalent for the last couple of years, the adventures take place at Hogwarts, a school for young wizards, and centre around young Harry Potter and his friends. They are genuinely quite scary, unpredictable and leave you gagging for more at the end. I was heartbroken when I finished The Goblet of Fire (the fourth and most recent in the series – apparently there will be seven altogether) – although the film is released on 16 November and ought to satisfy fans’ hunger fo
r a short while. 3. LOLITA – VLADIMIR NABOKOV A controversial novel written from the point of view of an imprisoned paedophile (he is, ironically, not imprisoned for this crime). Humbert marries and then effectively kills a woman to get close to her daughter Lolita, a precocious 12 year-old who is both knowing and innocent. They enter into what she naively sees as a kind of 'relationship', and he sees as something rather different. His professions of love for her ring true but you are left with a churning feeling in your stomach as he describes his feelings, and you can't put it down until you know what becomes of the two of them. It is not a 'happy' ending, but it doesn’t turn out the way you expect either. The horrific thing about this book is that it’s actually funny in places, in a very dark way obviously, and that you do to some degree feel sympathy for the narrator. Emily Prager wrote a modern day adaptation of this book called Roger Fishbite which I can heartily recommend if you have read this, although not as an alternative – Nabokov’s language is too beautiful to miss. 2. THE BLACK ALBUM – HANIF KUREISHI We’re back to Mr Kureishi again – his second novel this time. (He has written four altogether, the third being Intimacy which has just been made into a critically-acclaimed movie, as well as many plays and short stories). One of the main reasons I love this book is for its topographical detail – it is set in Kilburn, an area of London I know reasonably well, and his descriptions bring the place and the story alive. It is another novel which has a vague boy-to-man theme but this one deals with more serious issues, not least Islamic Fundamentalism (about as serious as you can get, but don’t be put off). Kureishi has been criticised for making his central characters too alike but for me this doesn’t seem justified. He describes all his characters w
ith a kind of detached closeness (this, unlike Buddha of Suburbia, is written in the third person) which shows up the flaws of the human condition but in vastly differing ways. 1. WHITE TEETH – ZADIE SMITH To say that a lot of fuss was made about this novel would be an understatement. I had almost decided (somewhat stubbornly) not to read it on that basis, but a special offer in Smith’s changed my mind, and how glad I am. One of the quotes on the back cover urges you to ‘believe the hype’ – take the man’s advice! All the praise that has been heaped upon Miss Smith and this book is completely deserved. White Teeth is an epic tale of two London families through four generations and deals with every slightly controversial issue you care to name without ever becoming too heavy. The characters, in spite of their sins, are deeply likeable. The plot, although extraordinary, is totally credible. It also has the best ending I have ever come across in a book – it is not too tidy, not remotely contrived and leaves you with a huge grin slapped across your face at the sheer genius of what you have just read. All this and she’s only twenty-six. It makes you sick. But kind of pleased that she bothered.
You might have noticed that Londoners love to moan about their public transport (and everything else, for that matter), but I think our buses kick ass. And before the accusations come flying, I’m not a bus-spotter and I don’t go out in I LOVE BUSES tee-shirts. I do however belong to one of those fantastic charities that let you sponsor a disused bus from as little as £2 per week, and I wait by the letterbox every morning to see if I have received a new photo of my bus, or a letter from my bus telling me how its dull existence has been brightened by my couple of quid (family pack of Maltesers last week, the cheeky blighter, I am thinking of cancelling my subscription). Of course, that was all lies. I’m just saying that amongst the general chaos of London Transport, buses can actually be quite a pleasant (and inexpensive) way to get around. These bullet points are not terribly interesting, but uncommonly useful. I don’t mind if you skip them. * London has four bus zones. Central London is zone 1, and then the others go outwards in concentric circles (well blobs) with zone 4 being the outside lane. * A one-day, all zone-bus pass costs £2. A one-week, all-zone bus pass costs £9.50. * A ‘travelcard’ allows you to use buses, tubes and trains and costs £4 per day (zones 1-2). * Single journeys in or through zone 1 cost £1. In zones 2-4 they cost 70p. * Single journeys on a night bus are £1.50 in zone 1, and £1 outside. Night bus routes run approximately every half an hour, but it generally seems much longer because you’re freezing your ass off and you’ve forgotten your mittens etc. * www.londontransport.co.uk/buses is a well designed and genuinely useful website with loads of information on fares, timetables and so on. Here endeth the bullet points. WHY BUSES ARE BETTER THAN A WARM CROISSANT 1. You can’t take a croissant to work. Well you can, o
f course, but they don’t keep out the rain nearly so well. But then buses with jam aren’t very tasty. One-all then. 2. Buses are the best way of getting to know London. If you become reliant on the tube you never get to see how the places fit together, or realise how small the city actually is (honest). 3. The childhood thrill of sitting upstairs on the front seat / ringing the bell never really goes away. 4. It’s much cheaper than any other form of transport in the city (apart from walking and cycling of course, but you take your life in your hands doing either). 5. When you’ve been waiting in the cold for half an hour, a bus is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. The relief when you get on board is even better than finally going for a wee when you’ve been waiting for ages, if you see what I mean. WHEN BUSES GO BAD (TONIGHT, CHANNEL 5, 10PM) 1. That old ‘joke’ about buses, where you wait forever for one and then three come along at once, is absolutely true. Especially when you’re running late. I don’t know why this should be. 2. That old ‘joke’ about buses being full of weirdos is also absolutely true. You can easily find yourself sitting next to a Maker of Strange Noises or Carrier of Bizarre and Smelly Objects. 3. Occasionally they can be kind of grimy, but they carry hundreds of thousands of people every day, so give them a break. 4. The congestion in zone 1 is so great that, even with bus lanes provided, it can take you the best part of an hour to cross the city. A similar tube journey would probably take about 20 minutes. 5. Someone invariably spews in the aisle of the night bus. HOP ON, HOP OFF There are two types of London bus these days. In bygone days, we only had the ‘hop on, hop off’ buses with the platforms at the back. These are all double-deckers, and a conductor comes round to check your passes or s
ell you a ticket from one of those old winding and whirring machines. The beauty of these is that you don’t have to wait for a bus stop, you can just leap out into the road when the bus comes to a standstill, which makes you feel very cool indeed. The conductor quite often shouts or gives you a parental, despairing look through the window, but it’s worth it. They are trying to phase these old style buses out on the grounds that they’re not terribly safe, which I think is a great loss indeed. On the new buses you have to show your pass to the driver as you board, and wait to be let off at a designated stop. Zzzzzzz. You can shove safety up your ass. I want danger. I want elderly ladies to tut-tut as I hurl myself from a not-quite-stationary bus and survive. MY FAVOURITE BUS ROUTE This is not, strictly speaking, my favourite bus route (although I am quite fond of it), but the one that I would recommend to any visitors to the city. Route number 12 shows a really interesting cross-section of London, while taking in a lot of the big tourist sights. It starts in Peckham, which is considered a ghetto and is one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden parts of London. It has a fabulous Salvation Army shop though (if you like that kind of thing) and is definitely worth visiting, if only for the contrast between that and your final destination – Notting Hill Gate. This is the home of most of London’s rich and famous, as well as the excellent Portobello market and Notting Hill Arts Club (one of London’s nicest – in my opinion – venues). In between you pass through Westminster, right past Big Ben, through Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and along Oxford Street. What more do you want? Blood? AND FINALLY… I would of course be delighted to hear other readers’ favourite bus routes (and reasons why). The best answer will win a ‘Drivers do it on buses’ keyring. I thank you.
I am losing friends like other people lose keys. It is not my fault. Every night at ten my flatmates retire to their rooms, apparently unable to bear my inane comments about a group of people I have never met. They fail to see how I can possibly find their antics interesting. Pah! I am talking of course about Big Brother, which is in fact the *most* interesting thing terrestrial television has given us since ooh, Inspector Gadget at least. Why is it so fascinating? – I don’t know. (The honest answer of course is that I am shamelessly nosy, but this is not terribly flattering. So I have given myself the title of sociologist. Yes, that’s better). I was completely sucked in to BB1 and was rather afraid that BB2 wouldn’t measure up – how wrong I was! Last year, the contestants did the decent thing and pretended to like each other; this year there are insults flying around like frisbees. Snippet of conversation from yesterday: Brian: How’s your time in the house been? Narinder: Horrendous – it’s hard living with people when you f*****g hate their guts. (Ouch! Now this, surely, is quality televisual viewing?) The producers have made very clever choices this year. Not only were these ten people completely unlikely to get along, but they were also unlikely to display any kind of tact (with the possible exceptions of Dean and Elizabeth). Actually before I proceed any further here is my guide to this year’s inmates, for what it’s worth: PENNY ·We like Penny because: she was so insane she was kind of entertaining ·We don’t like Penny because: she was overbearing and just plain weird – I mean she carried her shoulder bag around all the time like someone was going to snatch it and run off into the night (highly unlikely) STUART ·We like Stuart because: he had those demon contact lenses ·We don’t like Stuart
because: he was very aggressive, generally like your boss and had stupid hair HELEN ·We like Helen because: um…help me out here…well she’s a straightforward kind of gal ·We don’t like Helen because: she ought to be forced to copiously repeat the mantra: “brain first, then mouth” PAUL ·We like Paul because: he’s completely inoffensive ·We don’t like Paul because: he’s completely inoffensive (although he has a habit of concocting elaborate stories about how he jumped from the top of a double-decker etc) (bus, not chocolate bar) NARINDER ·We like Narinder because: she’s a former Bollywood actress, which is quite cool ·We don’t like Narinder because: she hasn’t stopped whinging since she arrived; for the first couple of weeks she was really cross that people were got her name wrong but she never corrected them AMMA ·We like Amma because: she’s outspoken, intelligent and easy on the eye ·We don’t like Amma because: she’s got a very bitchy side BUBBLE ·We like Bubble because: he’s the joker of the pack, and he got all upset when he was talking about what a bad father he used to be (aww) ·We don’t like Bubble because: he’s a bit much, and he has appalling dress sense BRIAN ·We like Brian because: he’s a camp little darling ·We don’t like Brian because: he’s got a really strange sense of humour and he lists his favourite song as Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ – oh please ELIZABETH ·We like Elizabeth because: she seems to have her head screwed on, and no evidence of back-stabbing yet ·We don’t like Elizabeth because: she’s a bit like the school swot JOSH ·We like Josh because: he’s eye candy and very easygoing ·We don’t like Josh because: he’s
a wee bit vain, and may well be an evil plant employed by Big Brother DEAN ·We like Dean because: he seems like a genuinely nice chap, and I hope he wins ·We don’t like Dean because: there must be some fatal flaw simmering beneath the surface So there you have it. The basic premise of Big Brother (maybe this paragraph should have been slightly higher up, but I don’t honestly believe that anyone reading this op is completely immune to the phenomenon) is to shove ten people in a house together and then film them. They have to do silly tasks to get more money for groceries each week, and then they blow it all on cider and throw up in the sink. Each week one housemate is evicted (two are nominated by the housemates themselves and it then goes to a public vote) until there’s only one left, who wins £70,000. Coverage is live on E4 all through the night and highlights are shown on channel 4 every day. There is also a live webcam, but my computer won’t let me use it. I am considering pouring a cup of Lilt onto the keyboard to teach it a lesson, but I think I would be cutting off my nose to spite my face, as they say. A lot has been made about the ethics of Big Brother – should be we all be taking such delight in this voyeuristic activity? Are the producers completely immoral to make such a programme? (I don’t think they care frankly, as they have rocketed to the top of the channel 4 hierarchy so fast that they all have permanent nosebleeds). Last year perhaps I could understand the argument. But this year, the contestants went into that house with their eyes WIDE open. They knew exactly what to expect and they still entered. Stuart even resigned as Managing Director of a company to take part, so I don’t think they deserve any of my sympathy. The big question is: how do you decide whether or not to waste most of your summer on this programme? Well the thing is, whether you love it
or hate it (and I don’t think there’s a middle ground), Big Brother is a landmark piece of television and you’ll want to be able to tell your grandkids that you remember it. It’s a social marker of our time. I don’t want to think about that too much.
...that was our school motto by the way, and I've forgotten what it means already, but it has something to do with passing on the torch of life or knowledge or something (while trying not to set fire to the new girl's polyester hair ribbons). Maybe some Latin scholar would like to set me straight on this. Anyway... There are a lot of preconceptions about all-girls schools. The lives of the pupils revolve around coming top in exams, being captain of the netball team, and playing good-natured flour-related pranks on the unsuspecting cookery teacher (which she will laugh about later). Let me tell you something: it is all true. I passed my 11-Plus exam (by divine intervention or similar) and shortly afterwards received information from the prestigious girls’ high school I was to attend. “Skirts are to be four or six gore and fall at least an inch below the knee” – I didn’t even know what gore meant (apart from in slasher movies) and to this day I’m not certain, although I believe it refers to a panel of fabric. The headmistress still wore a black gown to assembly each morning; most of the girls in my form had a crush (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) on the PE teacher, who was golden-blonde and fresh out of college; we all dutifully walked on the left in corridors and stood up if a teacher entered the room. It was archaic and comical. It was great. For the first four years at least I barely noticed the absence of boys. Maybe I was a late developer, or maybe because I took part in all the revues at the boys’ grammar school I didn’t really mind that they weren’t around during the day. (When puberty set in for real I was positively glad that there wasn’t a boy sitting behind me, pinging my bra strap and asking if I’d started my periods yet). Having said all this, nearly all of my close friends are now blokes. There is something about an all-girls’ s
chool that will put you off female company for life, although it is fine when you’re actually there – we’re all bitches. We bitched at the brightest girl, the dumbest girl, the prettiest girl, the fattest girl, the girl with the richest parents, the girl with the wrong socks, wrong bag or wrong hair. You didn’t even have to *do* anything. There was no getting away from it. Educationally, I really don’t know if it helped or not, being separated from the opposite sex. I never spent double history staring at the object of my affection and willing him to pass me a note saying “R U going to youth club tonite?” – thus having more time to concentrate on remembering the dates of the Punic Wars (which have come in useful many times). At primary school, it was the boys who disrupted the lessons – chucking rubbers and flicking ink (the real trouble-makers flicked fountain pens and ruined shirts; the wannabes flicked biros and laughed like Beavis and Butthead). This never happened at secondary school. It might have been the very strict discipline that was instilled in us from day one, or maybe girls just have a better aptitude for learning. I honestly don’t know, and probably never will. So could I have benefited from a mixed education? Possibly. I think I became quite blinkered; the school gave its pupils a confidence that was only slightly short of arrogance, and when I entered the real world I was stunned to find that some men would assume I was somehow lacking in intellect or ability because of my gender. Sorry if this sounds a bit feminist-soapbox-ey, but it’s true and it shocked me deeply. Because I had only been surrounded by girls, I had somehow come to believe that sexism was a thing of the past. Uh-aww (that was the Family Fortunes noise, which is very hard to write down). I think one disadvantage of single sex education is that in class discussion you only ever
hear a female point of view (unless you are blessed with a male teacher, and he would have to be a brave soul indeed to contradict thirty screeching pubescent girls). For five years of my life I heard very little diversity of opinion, and I don’t think that was healthy. To be fair this was probably made worse by the fact that most of the pupils were typically white and middle class. Hmmm. And what about social development? Single sex schools have the potential to breed the kind of man who gets nervous if a woman shows more than an inch of ankle, and to produce the kind of woman who feels it necessary to laugh maniacally at a man’s jokes (with pitch of laugh being inversely proportional to the funniness of the joke, if you see what I mean). We don’t all turn out that way – especially those of us with opposite gender siblings – but at sixteen, when I could suddenly mix freely with boys, it was a bit of a culture shock. Some girls went mad and tried their hardest to make up for lost time; others retreated into a corner like frightened hamsters. While I was sitting my GCSE exams, three of my classmates were pregnant and one was engaged; others had never even kissed a boy or been out on a Friday night. At risk of sounding a generation ahead of myself, going to an all-girls school “never did me any harm”. But then I totally dug the whole scene – the school hymn, the quadrangle (school yard to you and me), the fifth form prom – to which we all arrived feeling terribly glamourous, but left with hair askew and Baileys stains on our hundred quid frocks. If you’re about to start at a single-sex school, be reassured that it’s not all bad. There’s always the weekend. And if you’re the parent of someone about to start at a single-sex school, just remember that *nobody* actually wears a four or six gore skirt any more.
This following transcript of a real conversation (honest) relates to Redstar in south-east London, a rather nice bar that thinks it’s a club. WHERE IS IT? Camberwell Green. ISN’T THAT A KIDS TV PROGRAMME? PUGH, PUGH, BARNEY McGREW AND ALL THAT? Nope, you were thinking of Camberwick Green. And the Pugh Pugh thing is actually from Trumpton. A-HA. Do you mean to say you have understood, or are you beginning a new conversation about the band led by Morten Harket? SHUSH. Okay. JUST A SECOND. HOW DO I GET THERE? The nearest tube is Oval, although this is actually miles away. (Camberwell obstinately refuses to have a tube station). The nearest overground station is Denmark Hill, also miles away (catch a train either from Victoria or London Bridge). But of buses there are plenty - catch a 12 or 36 from central London. ISN’T THAT RATHER NEAR PECKHAM? Yes. BUT WON’T I DIE? Not necessarily. WHAT’S IT LIKE? Pretty small, but on two floors (the upper floor is only open at night). Excellent décor – wall-sized photographs, leather sofas, lots of bare wood and red paint. And they have a peanut dispenser. WHO’S GOING TO BE THERE? A lot of students from the nearby art college probably. Dress code is very relaxed. WHEN SHOULD I GO? Now I don’t want to be dictatorial on this matter, bearing in mind you might have other plans (or be washing your hair) – but the best times to go are definitely Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. WHAT’S ON SATURDAYS THEN? An event called Youth Klub. Downstairs, they play 80s classics – and I mean genuine classics, you will know every single tune and dance like a loom... DID YOU MEAN TO SAY LOON THERE? Yes. CARRY ON. Upstairs, they apparently play ‘funky house’ but we saw no evidence of this. An appallingly bad DJ
played a few dodgy records after each other and it sounded quite nasty. We went back downstairs in great haste, just in time to catch the opening lines of ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’. WHAM! Ouch. SORRY. It’s okay. SO…TELL ME ABOUT SUNDAY. On Sunday they hold an event called Stoned Asia. The DJ is actually reasonable, playing Asian Underground tunes and drum ‘n’ bass. They mess about lighting incense and so forth but don’t let that put you off. They also serve delicious-smelling Sunday roasts. IS THIS OUTING GOING TO SKINT ME? Only as much as going out anywhere else in London. Entry is free before 10pm, and drinks are about average - pints are £2.60, but they serve them in tall, thin glasses which make you feel cool, so it’s worth the extra few pence. HOW DO I GET HOME? Logically you would get out as you came in, but hanging around SE5 late at night is not recommended. Redstar has an agreement with a local cab company – ask the doorman to phone for you. They usually arrive in 2-3 minutes, which is pretty impressive. I’M IMPRESSED. So you should be. WELL I AM. Good. WILL IT BE THE BEST NIGHT OUT I’VE EVER HAD? Possibly not, but with a background of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and so on, it’s very difficult not to have a laugh. SO I’LL MEET YOU THERE NEXT WEEK THEN? With bells on (I’ll be the one in the country dancing outfit)...
I do not rob old ladies to get my next fix. I have never been found under a railway bridge with my eyeballs lost somewhere in my cranium. I am a recreational abuser of substances, and I can feel a rant brewing. First of all, as this category is quite specifically about my *experience* of substance abuse, I will tell you a couple of tales. The most frightening experience of my life was looking after a friend who had taken too much speed – base in fact, which is a particularly strong form of the drug. We went out to a club on a Friday night and he ‘bombed’ some powder (ingested it, wrapped in a rizla) and about an hour later he couldn’t walk. We had to carry him back to another friend’s flat, and he spent the next 48 hours hallucinating, convulsing, screaming, spewing, crying, and generally acting like a madman. We fed him water (which he spat straight back at us, wide-eyed and angry), took him to the toilet, tried to stop him falling unconscious. Not a pretty thing to watch. One of the best nights of my life was at this same guy’s stag night four years later (yeah I know, I’m a girl, but all my friends are blokes so I get to infiltrate these things). We all double-dropped some pills (Es) as we went into a club, and continued necking them on the hour until 6am. The music was fantastic and I was with all my favourite people. We came out of the club and had a spliff on the bank of the Thames, and I was at peace with the world. I am not for a second advocating this kind of thing – if I told you about the comedown the following day I think you would be thoroughly put off anyway – but there are two sides to every debate. For every yin there is a yang and all that. I’ve chilled out a bit recently. After a while you get sick of people gurning at you, or acting like they’re your best mate when they’ve known you 30 seconds. You get sick of ruining your good shoes (clubs
will mysteriously do this). And you get sick of feeling like a pair of old pants on Monday mornings, which are harsh at the best of times. A glass of wine and joint will generally now satisfy my hedonistic cravings (rock ‘n’ roll or what?) – with the occasional burst of madness and ensuing regret. Here comes the rant. You cannot tar all substance abusers with the same brush. We are not all junkies (and there is a difference, I think, between drug ‘use’ and ‘abuse’ - apart from the ab- prefix). The term junk actually relates to heroin – and addicts, to my mind, are ill and should be treated as such. These people have a need for smack, not a desire. Have you ever heard of recreational heroin use? Nope, me neither. There is no such word as ‘drugs’ (although the OED may wish to enter into debate on the matter) because each is so vastly different. I think the Government would do well to note this, and get rid of that objectionable old spoon Keith Hellawell. Obviously cannabis should be decriminalised right away; I have already written an op on this subject and don’t wish to repeat myself. All I will say is this: unlike alcohol, that lethal but socially acceptable intoxicant, it won’t turn you into an obnoxious fool (blokes) or weepy tart (girls). It will enhance your sensory experience of the things around you and make you think about things in a different way. We only use 1% of our brains in day-to-day life; personally I would like to know what I can do with the other 99%, and cannabis starts to tap at this. (Medically this might be an outright lie, but you know what I mean). There are about eight ecstasy-related deaths each year in this country, although over a million people take Es every weekend. I think it’s also worth noting that there are several thousand alcohol-related deaths in the UK each year. The figures are not even comparable, but the media get
s hysterical over a fatality when it is related to an illegal drug. The reason for this is a lack of understanding. It’s very easy for those who have never experienced the drug first-hand to wax lyrical about its perils. We are subjected to front-page pictures of young girls with bleeding noses and tubes in their mouths. Of course it is horrific, and tragic, but then so are a lot of accidental deaths. We are not made to look at images of people who have recently been run over. I think the public would have plenty to say if The Sun plastered a photograph of a hit-and-run victim on its cover with the message “tell your children never to cross the road” – which I genuinely believe is an equivalent statement. Ecstasy deaths are caused by the user, which sounds like a dreadful and harsh thing to say, but hear me out. Ignorance killed Leah Betts, not ecstasy – she panicked when she became overwhelmed by the sensations of the drug, and had obviously read somewhere that it was advisable to drink water when you’re ‘pilling’. So she downed two pints of water, which flooded her brain, and she died. If only British schools would take a more rational approach to drugs education, this heartbreaking story need never have happened. Rather than hammering home the ‘just say no’ message, we need to accept that drugs are a massive part of youth culture today and give young people information instead of preaching. The remaining deaths I think are caused by adverse reactions, in much the same way as people can react badly to prescribed medication. The risk with an illegal pill is far greater of course, because there is no way of knowing how much MDMA it actually contains (if any), and what it has been cut with. There is a machine that will test the purity of ecstasy tablets – these are installed in several nightclubs in the Netherlands – but unfortunately our Government thinks that to insta
ll them here would be to condone the use of the drug, which is just crazy. Back to the point of adverse reactions: the recent lime-green death pills only killed one student. I doubt very much that they were the only two of that brand in circulation, and I’m sure the rest of the batch was equally as strong. In my yarn about the overdosing friend, three other people had necked the same amount as him and were kind of wired, but basically fine. There are very few genuinely ‘lethal’ Es out there – it is hardly in the manufacturers’ best interests. And it is not, as the tabloids would have us know, a ‘killer’ drug. I think the point I am really trying to make, and I apologise if I have made it rather long-windedly, is that what we are lacking in Britain is knowledge. The middle classes like nothing better than to shout their mouths off about ‘druggies’ (I mean no disrespect, I would consider myself middle class), but often have no facts to back up their tirades. One man’s meat is another man’s poison – or, in a slightly less sinister turn of phrase – at least *try* to understand something before you write it off. (I feel like I have missed out a lot of points I intended to make - feel free to put my op to rights in the commentary).
I love noodles. I do. I would happily eat them two out of three meals a day (I'm sticking with yoghurt for breakfast thanks, I think the wormy texture would drive me mad before 09:00) if it weren't for my mother's sinister warning ringing in my ears: "You'll turn into a noodle!" Now, I have my suspicions that (chemically and biologically at least) this is highly unlikely; however, she has not been wrong about much yet, and I can't shake the nagging feeling (particularly as she is a nurse) that Mum Knows Best. So I limit myself to just a couple of noodle-based meals per week. Usually one of these is at Noodle Time in Greenwich, whose delights I wish to share with you here (in verbal form only - if you think I'm sharing my noodles, you are very much mistaken). Noodle Time is a Chinese fast-food restaurant. I am sorry to have used the f-f-word there, because it is in no way comparable to the likes of McDonalds et al - the food is always hot, tasty and reasonably healthy, the staff are polite and yes! - the food is even served on a proper grown-up's plate. Let me guide you through the process of obtaining your delicious meal. 1. Enter door. You will know which door to enter by the sign above it saying NOODLE TIME, and the pictures of noodles in the windows. If all you see before you are maritime curiosities, you have walked too far down the road. If you go on a Saturday, you will know which door to enter by the queue snaking out of it (worth the wait, honest). 2. An employee in a blinding orange shirt will show you to your table. Menus are displayed under the Perspex table tops (for you can’t be trusted not to steal a folded piece of cardboard) (just kidding – I guess it cuts down on the number of things you have to wipe after each party has vacated the table). You will be given a list of all the dishes and drinks. Write the quantity of each item you require, and wai
t for one of the hawk-eyed staff to swipe it up again. 3. I should point out at this juncture, because you will be starting to notice, that the one downside to Noodle Time is that they play atrocious music (quietly, but not quietly enough, ie. inaudibly). Shania Twain seems to be a particular favourite, although we have been subjected to Celine Dion and Panpipe Dreams in the past. Almost too clichéd to be true, but I kid you not. 4. Take a pair of chopsticks. Try your damnedest to snap them evenly. Curse when you fail (because you will). Pick up other items on table with chopsticks. Grab partner’s tie with chopsticks. Generally mess about with chopsticks until waiter returns. Look sheepish. Put chopsticks down. 5. And so the food arrives (usually very speedily). Unlike in most Chinese restaurants, you order a complete meal instead of separate dishes. This normally consists of either noodles or rice with a main course (sweet ‘n’ sour, curry, black bean etc), although they also have bowls of noodle soup only slightly smaller than fish bowls, which certainly count as a meal in their own right. The portions are a perfect size if you also have a starter between two people. All the favourites are here – prawn crackers, spring rolls and their friends - and also the rather exotic ‘cuttlefish buns’ which I have never been brave enough to try. 6. Eat. Yum yum. My personal recommendations would be won ton or prawn crackers to start (not very original but certainly tasty), with either chicken curry and rice, or black bean beef and vermicelli. 7. Relax, maybe pat your bulging stomach, have a fag (a note for non-fumeurs: even though there is a large smoking section, their extraction equipment is top-class and it is NEVER smoky). Proceed to cash desk. 8. Now here is the best part. A meal for two, with soft drinks, is likely to set you back around a tenner. Yes, a tenner. That’s it. (Ad
d another couple of quid if you have beers). For those not blessed with a mathematical brain, that’s a goddamn bargain. Makes a cheap date, although it’s about as romantic as a day in Bognor. 9. Exit door. You will know which door to exit because it is the one you entered through. If all you see before you are piles of utensils and vegetables, you have gone downstairs by mistake. Enjoy! Spacelamb :) Noodle Time Trafalgar Road Greenwich London SE10 (Nearest tube: Cutty Sark DLR)