The London Evening Standard this afternoon had a full page picture of the black oil smoke billowing over the city, under the headline “Timebomb”, and making crisis out of the need to clear up London’s skies before we all die a horrible choking death. The sense of doom was spoiled only by the sensational ice-blue sky above, under which the Standard seller was unseasonally basking.
I was left undisturbed by the explosions yesterday, and the black plume itself didn’t make an appearance until dusk, when the heavy smell of petroleum caused a glance upwards. The early darkness turned out to be only in the northern half of the sky. If we had been right underneath the smoke, we would probably not even have realised it.
She had taken a correction pen and written across the back of her wheelchair:
Don’t rush me
Leave me lone
One of the most appealing of logical fallacies is to suppose that two closely sequential events are somehow related. I think I’m falling for it.
The level of anxiety on the tube network has measurably fallen this week. The polices are visibly relaxed, fewer shoulders tense at the mere sight of a backpack, the normal atmosphere of mildly exasperated boredom has crept back in at the corners like the vile but somehow reassuring malodourousness of the local farm.
On Monday, we were all reading about how Freddie Flintoff had almost single-handedly rescued the second Ashes Test for England, prompting a famous (and squeakingly close) win. On Tuesday morning, the front page of the non-cricket-loving Sun had the earth-shaking news that Freddie was swearing off the beers in order to win us the Ashes. (As Andy pointed out last night, this amounts to laying off the lash for a whole four days between back to back Tests, a heroic feat clearly worthy of the front-page screamer ‘From Beero to Hero’.)
This morning, as those of us at work prepare to monitor the score as best we can, even grotty freesheet The Metro was offering a full-page explaining cricket to its many new followers.
The day before the bombs on 7th July, London was partying because it had unexpectedly won the right to host the 2012 Olympics. It’s crass, I know, but it does feel almost as though the wholly welcome distraction of the cricket has returned us, to some extent, to the unconcerned joy of 6th July.
A piece of paper can be held upright if slightly curled in the hand. If too straight, it collapses: it has no backbone. There is no real backbone here either, but we simulate it well enough, even through something as silly as winning a game of cricket.
Disembarking from the tube this morning, I looked down the train and saw six yellow-jacketed police officers pop their heads out of the door almost as one. They exchanged some silly grins as they acknowledged this curious version of peekaboo.
At the exit of the tube station, six more yellow-jackets were busy checking passengers about to go through the ticket barriers. A white man is having his holdall searched. An asian lad is waved to a stop by a WPC before she clocks that he’s carrying no bag whatsoever.
The parades of sirens bugling down the streets are too common now to even raise prickles on the neck. The low panic of life in London at the moment becomes indistinguishable from a kind of black festivity.
Notable posters on the Underground, No. 1.
The advert for Iain M. Banks’ new novel, The Algebraist:
Have your mind blown to smithereens.
Thanks for the offer but, right now, probably not.
There have been some curious nocturnal activities recently chez Rogue Semiotics. No, not that sort. This is not that kind of journal.
The night before last saw me up a ladder, in the dark, at 2am, troubleshooting a squeaking alarm. Suspended above the stairwell, half asleep, the stairs fading into the gloom below, it reminded me of nothing more than swimming at night in clear water. It was I suppose something to do with that terrible half-light of cities, the orange buzz that persists on the edge of your vision no matter how deep into the night you are.
It is, I suppose, a sorry electric version of the deep northern summer so heartbreakingly described in The Idea of North. The chapter on Northern summer brought such a gentle tear to my eye that I immediately reread it.
I was, of course, too sleepy while up the ladder to call up such Elysian thoughts. I limited myself to not pressing the ‘Deafen me please’ button and not stepping off the ladder for a swim.
Last night, I had to address the cause of the darkness. The landing lights had blown in a pretty comprehensive way, In replacing the whole messy unit, I made some tiny discoveries. First, wires look the same colour in the dark. Second, holding a torch in your teeth is only possible for about a minute at a time. Third, there is no such thing as a quick job when you’re starting late in the evening.
I haven’t been alone in getting up to annoying and potentially dangerous activities at night. The Southwark foxes have reappeared. I found one sleeping on the shed roof. She had the decency to scarper as though frightened, but I know it’s a pretence. These are South London foxes; tall, rangy, cocky looking beasts. An hour later she was back on the shed, asleep again. Our cats took the entirely sensible precaution of hiding under the bedclothes.
Later, I saw the pair of them with their noses pressed up against the back door of our neighbours. I’m hoping that they are not interested in working out the mechanism of cat flaps, or at least are put off by the smell of human emanating from the house. I don’t wish to be up a ladder in the orange-black night some night only to notice a pair of sharp red ears trot out of the darkness and beneath me. I’d be stuck up there all night.
The graveyard was first uncovered during work on the Jubilee Line extension in the 1990’s, when workmen unexpectedly started digging up human remains.
A little historical digging then revealed that this had been an unconsecrated, and therefore uncelebrated burial place for the prostitutes or “Geese” of Southwark, who had worked the many brothels, stews and bawdy houses of this area in the 14th 15th and 16th Century.
I’d never heard of Robert Elms’ Footnotes and Queries. More fool me.
He covers all kinds of London hidden history and geography, from the sorry story of Borough’s Crossbones graveyard (above) to the supposed system of Masonic temples in Picadilly:
This query came from a listener who had been taken to the top of Lillywhites store on Piccadilly Circus about ten years ago. A friend of his worked at the store and took him to the very top of the building where most staff never went.
Here [on the top floor of Lillywhite’s store] he was amazed to see a large ballroom, and even more intriguingly a Masonic temple decorated in full symbols and signs. This though was not all, he was told that there were a series of Masonic temples around Piccadilly Circus, which together created a Masonic symbol that could be seen from above.
The supposed pattern seems to be a construal added by shop workers familiar with London psychogeographers (the theme appears not only in Alan Moore’s From Hell but earlier in Iain Sinclair’s fiction). I do like the idea of each venerable department store having its own Masonic temple. The idea reeks of old-fashioned capitalist power.
I travelled in today on a route I’d never used before.
I caught a hummingly fast train from Denmark Hill station, which is tucked into a deep cut opposite the vast redbrick bulk of the Salvation Army headquarters. The station, I note with envy, has a funky looking bar (albeit one with a poor reputation). Within five minutes I was coasting smoothly across the river as river tugs heaved past below. It was like being on a very horizontal version of the London Eye as we eased into Blackfriars, a station that I realise I had never before passed through.
The final treat was the interchange at Westminster station, the escalators of which are in a large open space (to which this picture does incomplete justice), forming a thrilling architectural play as you spiral around them. They seem to me to be the sort of thing that Piranesi would have come up with had he excitably shared several espressos with a Futurist of an afternoon. There are, of course, no prisoners or torture contraptions on show, but this being Westminster, they are there in spirit.
A very good day, and not just for the reasons outlined above.
Suggestion for improving London tube trains:
A three-foot sheet of glass suspended from the roof of the train, running exactly down its centre.
This glass sheet would enable passengers to make better use of the fact that maps of the tube line are mirrored on each side to follow the direction of travel. Passengers seated on one side of the tube would be able to see precisely to which station stop a passenger seated on the opposite side of the tube is pointing whilst engaged in animated conversation with his/her friend/lover in an unidentified language.
Please note that this facility could also be used by a passenger for surreptitiously watching passengers seated next to them. Whilst such behaviour is legal, it is probably undesirable, and would discouraged by large decals on the glass such as:
Do not ogle in the glass
The car windscreens this morning were heavy with water. The sun shone wanly. The trains seemed to sense in their steel skeletons that the world had tipped into autumn and that it was time to hunker down for a long cold snap.
They were wrong; it’s turned into a lovely day. For the London rail system this morning, though, it was like winter. I had to change my route to the emergency go-round-the-whole-city-the-other-way version that involves a variety of crowded and eccentrically arranged stations.
As I stood, crammed onto a thin tube platform, waiting for a train that would arrive at some unspecified future time, the woman standing jammed up against my back started to rail against the whole system. She started with the fact that the information boards were not working, coursed rapidly through to the fact that they’d chosen to apologise for this rather than the cranky network itself and crescendoed with a calling down of many bad things on the purveyors of public transport, their families and friends. Even their enemies may have been caught up in the crossfire, I’m not sure.
I was firstly irritated by the way that I was getting the full benefit of this woman’s own irritation. A trouble aired is a trouble shared, so thank you very much, lady, for adding to whatever irritation I was feeling on my own account. I also didn’t much care for the way she was giving me an unrequested sample of what it feels like to have a devil on your shoulder.
Finally, by virtue of its relentless unhappiness, her irritation managed to erase mine. How could I compete with her magnificent unhappiness? More to the point, why would I? Much as being stuck on a crowded tube is undesirable, it’s far more undesirable to spend my time being miserable about it. Either I do something about it (not right now), or I get on with it.
When I emerged, some time later, at the little used station that seems to exist only as an alternative for people who really want to be somewhere further down the road, the sun had warmed up the bricks and dried up the morning dew. That brilliantly slanting September sun followed me all the way to my destination.
I don’t know who’s responsible for this online text of Arthur Henry Beavan’s 1901 charmer ‘Imperial London’, but, whoever they are, they’ve done a service.
Beavan can be acute:
I would remark that, topographically, Modern London is essentially Protean, and there can be no finality in its depiction.
He can be forensic, as with this description of a typical ’seamy’ London street:
The houses are chiefly one story, or at the most two stories high; the shops, small, and such as minister solely to the necessities of life: butchers’, who deal in cheap New Zealand mutton and inferior beef; fishmongers’, whose stock-in-trade is of uncertain age, with mussels and whelks, and every kind of dried fish well to the fore; pork-butchers’, and ham-and-beef shops, generally of superior size, and well patronized; “purveyors” of cow-heel and ox-cheek, of tripe and trotters, their windows innocent of provisions until the day’s “boiling” or “dressing” is accomplished, then overflowing with these popular dainties; fried-fish shops, very much to the front up to all hours of the night; and general-dealers, who sell anything from firewood to tinned salmon; public-houses, of course, but of a subdued order, with plate-glass, paint, and gilding waiting to be renewed.
He is tremendously a Victorian male. There are, for instance, separate chapters on ‘Utilitarian London’ and ‘Romantic London’. But, my goodness, by romantic London Beavan means that which is found in the romances (novels), so we get a guide to places found in the novels of Dickens and Thackeray.
Finally, Beavan is, to my surprise, the T-leaf’s friend. Consider this overhelpful note on the monetary habits of the Daily Telegraph:
Its advertisements - the life-blood of a newspaper - usually occupy forty-six out of a total of eighty-four columns of an ordinary twelve-paged issue; and it is an open secret that every day in the week, the trusted clerk, who, well-shadowed by a private detective, pays the cash receipts into the Bank, leaves the premises with a sum generally running into four figures.
A seamy side of Beavan you perhaps wouldn’t have anticipated. I note that he also published a book with the not entirely unambigous title ‘Birds I Have Known’.
The sandwich board promoting this week’s Ham and High reads:
Hampstead’s Most Wanted
I live in South-East London and work in North-West London. Nothing could illustrate the difference between the two more effectively than that headline. If the South London Press ran a board saying “Peckham’s Most Wanted” you know it wouldn’t be talking bijou chi-chi, it would be talking bang-bang shoot-shoot.
In fact, if it were up to me, I’d have led with the hard crime story, Shopper injured in cabbage attack.
The man was standing just behind the Hampstead theatre, at the top of a scratchy plot of grass. He caught my eye because, at first, I thought it was Boris Johnson, the bumbly MP for Henley and part-time PG Wodehouse character.
It wasn’t him, although the combination of straw hair, Bunterish frame and bemused expression made the mistake forgivable, I think.
He was, ever so slowly, performing some Tai Chi. His pudgy arms ghosted around in pondeous arcs, then carefully stacked somethings in front of him. From the waist up he looked like a clubber in slow motion.
After about ten minutes of this, he let his arms fall to his sides one last time and leant back against the wall of the theatre. A few seconds later he’d grappled a quick cigarette into his mouth and was taking his first drag with obvious and deep relish.
Boris would have been proud.
I sometimes feel that my journey in to work is a journey ever deeper underground. From the streets where I live to the moving tunnel of the train. Then into the real tunnels of the tube network. Then I’m disgorged at the other end almost seamlessly from underground into a building, from one capsule of chemical lighting to another.
Then, after the day’s work is done, back out and up, up, up to daylight.
I’m not talking about the bleakness of work or the clammy deadness of the city:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
These are old and valid emotions, but not what I’m trying to capture. I toyed with that flippant phrase used of work: ‘another day at the coalface’ to express that sensation of going in underneath. However, although the modern workplace is characterised by repetition periodically interrupted by bouts of panic, this is unimaginably remote from the reality of coalmining, which consisted of long bouts of discomfort periodically interrupted by bouts of mortal danger.
No, I think what I’m aiming for is the sense of the city as a formic organism; an inverted ant colony. If you tracked the movements of an ant colony you would see daily pulses of movement out from the climate-controlled brood centre of the nest. The daily pulse of human movement into the air-conditioned, totally covered, city would look spookily similar.
The city as a nest, or a burrow. Perhaps we’ve got it the wrong way round. Perhaps we actually live in the offices, and we only venture out into the hinterland to hunt and gather the resources we need: food, leisure time, sleep. We’re nocturnal animals, greedily rampaging through the countryside in the evenings to slake our rapacious need for space, for entertainment, for ‘freedom’. Sated, refreshed, the next morning we are able to return to the burrow, sit at our alloted stations in the great organism, and get on with the real business of living.
First myth about Elephant and Castle: it gets its name from the local mispronunciation of ‘Infanta de Castille’. The story goes that a Spanish princess (the infanta in question) stayed briefly in this part of Southwark. Some versions have it that she was on her way to marry Charles I in 1623.
It is more probable that this important crossroads in London was named after a local pub (not the current Elephant and Castle pub), which in turn would have taken its name from the device of an elephant and a castle (or a howdah). This could have been from a guild association. Two suggestions for the guild are the cutlers (who would use ivory for handles) and locksmiths (for whom both elephants and castles would symbolise security).
Second myth: the strange, illuminated aluminium box building in the centre of one of Elephant and Castle’s two roundabouts is owned by Richard D. James, AKA the Aphex Twin. Given James’ reputation as the most reclusive and eccentric of electronic musicians, it doesn’t feel improbable. The truth seems to be that he lives in a converted bank nearby.
Myth two and a half: cats can perch like howdah-riders on your shoulders while you type. It’s half a myth because they can, but you can’t, as I’m now discovering.
I may have mentioned that on most Sundays I play football on Peckham Rye Common.
The joys of this cannot easily be enumerated, but would certainly include, two Sundays ago, a certain rogue semiotician hammering, yes, hammering an equaliser late in a game that had until then seemed lost.
There is, however, one thing that, since it belatedly occurred to me the other week, will give me a tickling manner of glee regardless of who scores or wins.
There is on the common a venerable oak tree. There are a few dotted around, in fact, but I choose this one.
You will know the story of William Blake. How, well before he saw such things as the ghost of a flea, he was marked as a visionary sort of a chap by virtue of, as a child, seeing angels playing in the branches of a tree. An oak tree. On Peckham Rye Common.
Now, as I say, there are several candidate trees on the common, and it may even be that Blake’s oak is no longer standing, but I choose that it is. I choose that it is this one because it stands alone and central, because it feels right, because it is exactly the sort of oak under which an imaginative child might stand, gazing up, and translate the frankly huge flappy rooks into something altogether more angelic, and because, after all, it is the tree under which I play football on a Sunday.
One thing of which I’m sure. When young Wm Blake saw his angels playing, he certainly was not seeing some future echo of our Sunday afternoon kickarounds. Angelic would be entirely the wrong sort of a description, and I carry the bruises to prove it.
I noticed this morning that London Bridge station, after years of muddling through without a logo, has gained one:
My pleasure at the meaninglessness of this was tempered when I realised that all the major stations now have a logo. Hurrah for the branders!
Glasgow Central’s is subtly Mackintoshy, Liverpool Street’s is impenetrable, Cannon Street’s is simply a cannon.
If you’re travelling underground, yet another tube map may be of use: the real-time tube map shows where delays are occurring.
London Ancestor is a genealogy site that contains some wonderful source material, including Boyle’s View of London of 1799, listing amongst other things societies, quays and querey docks, prisons and principal coffee houses.
Oh yes, and the Congestion Charge is a year old, and working remarkably smoothly. Then again, as DG notes:
The Congestion Charge isn’t what puts people off driving into Central London. Central London is what puts people off driving into Central London.
(All of DG’s London material is now collected in one place and is highly recommended)
I’m as guilty as the next man of taking a pop at the London Underground. It struck me this evening, however, as I waited two minutes for the next train to arrive, that it’s the victim of its own success.
Two minutes is a trivial amount of time to wait for a train. It’s difficult to see how tube trains could arrive more frequently than this on a planned basis. Increasing the length of the trains, or making them double deckers, is hardly a viable option.
Travelling by tube is, for most journeys, measurably faster than any other means of transport. Granted, in central London, you do have to trudge underground to get on the tube, but that rather comes with the territory, I think.
Of course there are delays. The only rail systems I have encountered without delays are continental systems which either have simple toytown layouts (like the Swiss) or very, very slow trains (like the Italians).
I like to think that there is a time penalty attached to any type of journey. For Italian trains, for instance, you tend to pay the time penalty in advance of each journey, when you try to buy a ticket. In this misshapen country, where we don’t like to plan in advance, you pay the time penalty for several journeys all at once, at a randomly chosen point in a randomly chosen journey.
No, the tube’s not that bad. Could you do better?
Leaving the station today, the homeless bloke had a copy of a book called ‘Leeds United’ beside him. A cruel gift, a message of sympathy, or a badge of the fallen? (sorry Andy)
Just when you think you’ve seen every possible variation on the London tube map, along comes another.
This one, developed by Paul Mijksenaar at Delft University in 1983, was not adopted by London Underground. It’s a shame in a way, as its differential approaches to inner and outer London reflect the very different ways in which people use the two areas. For one thing, Inner London remains essentially walkable.
When did Julius Caesar take the Kennington Oval?
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