The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'london'
There's a piece in the Telegraph (yes, the Torygraph) about the London housing crisis; the prognosis is not good. Basically, it's going to get much worse. Private tenants are, of course, screwed as they've always been, and there'll be no relief as the Invisible Hand Of The Free Market tightens the screws on them (and this will increasingly apply further from London, encompassing the entire South-East of England; basically, anyone living anywhere where a commute to London is not utterly soul-crushingly miserable will be paying through the nose for the privilege). The lucky few who have managed to grab a tenuous grip on the bottom rungs of the housing ladder as it started to pull away are also not out of the woods; as interest rates start to rise, many will find it difficult to keep up and some will fall off. As for their houses, and the thousands of flats being built around London, they're unlikely to help: virtually all of them (other than the super-premium ones bought as investments and “bubble-wrapped” by foreign investors) will be snapped up by buy-to-let landlords, flush with cash from their healthily growing rents and looking to build up their portfolios further, aided by preferential mortgage terms. The end result looks pretty bleak for everyone. Well, everyone with the exception of landlords, for whom life is good and can only get better:
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation extrapolates and suggests that by 2040 private rents will rise by more than twice as much as incomes, resulting in a majority of future private renters in England living in poverty. Social renting, currently the tenure of one in seven people, will house only 10 per cent of the population by 2040.And don't expect relief from any of the major political parties; none of them have submitted any proposals for fixing things, save for ones which would further push housing prices up, and keep the cash flowing into the pockets of landlords. Perhaps the fact that a third of MPs are buy-to-let landlords has something to do with their collective reluctance to in any way interrupt the party?
The elephant in the room is the assumption that the normal state of affairs is owning one's own home; this is a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ideal, perhaps imported from the broad suburbias of the United States, where the average working stiff could buy and pay off a detached bungalow (at least in theory). Whereas in a lot of other countries, renting is seen as the normal state of affairs, in the UK, people live with the belief—or delusion—that it's a temporary state of affairs, a stepping stone on the way to being a fully-fledged adult member of the property-owning democracy. John Steinbeck famously said that socialism never took off in the United States because poor Americans, in their eternal optimism, saw themselves not as exploited proletarians but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires; perhaps in Britain, the idea of rent control, regulation (even such supposedly uncontroversial regulations as preventing landlords from evicting tenants in revenge for raising a fuss about problems), or even not rigging the system to funnel billions of pounds of taxpayers' cash to landlords, stems from a similar sentiment: that the hard-pressed renter, paying 60% of their income for a mouldy bedsit, will somehow eventually become a property owner, and, ultimately, graduate to the hallowed echelon of landlords, funding their golden years from the property portfolio that they will, in the fullness of time, inevitably own?
Upon seeing the title “The City That Privatised Itself To Death” in this morning's Guardian, I began wondering what gruesomely absurd edge-case of neoliberalism the piece would be about; some bankrupt municipality in the US, perhaps, reduced to selling its fire brigade to Uber-like privateers (who, subsequently, would elude prosecution after having been found actually setting fires) and flogging off tolling rights to its roads; or possibly some once-vibrant city in central America, cracked open like a ripe nut by corporate raiders armed with free-trade treaties and the IMF's full backing, bled dry and reduced to a fortified enclave and a sprawl of miserable shanty towns, their inhabitants busily dying of preventable diseases? But no, it turned out to be the latest Humorous Rant About London Privatisation/Gentrification (so bleak, you have to laugh), this time by a chap named Ian Martin (who, if I recall correctly, has stepped in for Charlie Brooker when he had a column):
Perhaps eminent historians will study London in the early 21st century, see how its poorer inhabitants were driven out, observe how its built environment was slowly boiled to death by privatisation. And they will wonder why people tolerated this transfer of collective wealth from taxpayers to shareholders. And they will perhaps turn their attention to Eduardo Paolozzi’s fabled mosaics at Tottenham Court Road underground station.
Paolozzi's mosaics' significance is, firstly, that they date back to the instance before the privatisation explosion and, more importantly, whatever their artistic merit, they take up space that could be otherwise monetised for advertising, as the owners of the city would will it to be.
You can’t paste an ad on to a wallful of public art. You can’t fix one of those irritating micromovies over it, telling a vacuous five-second story about investments or vitamins or hair. The Paolozzi mosaics went up as decorative art, just as privatisation was about to explode like a dirty bomb all over the public realm. What survives at Tottenham Court Road station is a brave, forlorn little seawall set against a stormtide of corporate advertising.
I say “we”, although the greatest trick Thatcherism ever pulled was this redefinition of “us and them”. Suddenly, people in your own family were voting Tory. Mrs Thatcher’s chief information officer, Rupert Murdoch, was telling us that the firemen and the dustmen were our enemies. That the women of the NUT and Nalgo were the mad, selfish defenders of a doomed elite. The Tory government went after the local authorities, telling us that government itself was our enemy. You were just going: “Hold on a minute, if you’re the government …” and then they shouted: “Oh, God, look! The Falklands!”, hired more expensive PR guys and carried on privatising.
Further on, Martin contrasts the Blatcherite moment of privatisation with the old world, the shards and pseudo-public spaces in the middle of ridiculous-looking postmodern vanity skyscrapers, with the heady, wholesome, if at times drab and unexciting-looking, not-quite-socialism of the post-war decades:
Let me tell you, little ones, about how popular music and the bright optimism of collective space came together long ago in London’s heady, soot-laden, pre-privatised air of 1967. Song of the summer was Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks, with its odd blend of keening melancholy and positivism. Nostalgia for a doomed postwar world, exhilaration for the coming of a new post-industrial one. Terry and Julie, facing the future unafraid. Wherever you went, it floated into earshot on a tide of treble from someone’s transistor radio.
(I have, as undoubtedly many who have heard Waterloo Sunset do, a particular image of Terry and Julie standing on the bridge; an image formed long before I heard that the song referred to Terence Stamp and Julie Christie. Terry, in my vision, wears a beige cashmere jumper, and his chestnut hair cascades voluminously over his ears, as the hair of men did in 1967; he has a gold ring on the middle finger of his right hand, which rests on Julie's shoulder. Julie, his dollybird, hangs on his arm; she is tall (though half a head shorter than him) and beanpole-thin, with long, straight bottle-blond hair and teeth slightly too large, giving her a somewhat horsey appearance. Both of their respective sets of parents toiled in menial jobs, but the increased social mobility has allowed them to raise their expectations of what life has to offer. They have a little apartment near the Thames, which they've done up fashionably, a Dansette which they've bought on hire-purchase, and half a dozen records which get played when they invite friends over for parties. Life is good, and can only get better.)
And if you were Terry and Julie gazing at a Waterloo sunset in the summer of 67, you’d have seen the Hayward Gallery under construction. The beautiful, brilliant, brutalist Hayward, part of a people’s South Bank that had started with the Festival Hall in 1951 and would end triumphantly with the National Theatre in the 1970s. And we did gaze at it, thinking: “This is us.” This is us, building something amazing, for us. Several eminent architects worked on the scheme, but oversight belonged to the GLC architects department. Imagine that. A time when most architects worked in the public sector, designing a world of public space and collective aspiration, a world of affordable housing with statutory space standards.
Martin outlines the Blatcherite big-bang which ended all that; the privatisation of architecture, the normalisation of privately-owned spaces, with actual public participation governed by conditions enforced by private security, the transformation of public ownership into a sin—socialism— and its abolition into a moral imperative, takes a few shots at the Shard, and then extrapolates the zeitgeist to a post-apocalyptic conclusion:
On the current track, maybe life does become unbearable in the future, when the last remaining cubic centimetre of public space – a trembling pocket of air perhaps, in a cellar at the Emirates British Library – is finally acquired by a friend of King Charles III. At some point, there’ll be no more space left to squeeze and monetise. The city’s overlords will own everything. Qatari, Saudi, Russian, Indian, Chinese, some UK hedge funds named after Shakespearian characters – all air will be their air.
Then – who knows? Maybe when London is pixellated into billions of stock-marketable units of sequestered air, boing! The world cracks and changes. Iceland acquires the north pole, discovers tons of diamonds and becomes the richest nation on earth. Ghana puts the first woman on Mars. Scientists announce they can convert rising sea levels into environmentally sustainable “brinergy”. The global petrochemical industry suffers a fatal prolapse. Its sheiks and warlords, the fawned-upon princes who once did as they wished – buying up most of Streatham in the morning, beheading someone for sorcery in the afternoon – well, they’re dust and shadow now. Maybe the global property market follows oil down the plughole. London’s last human inhabitants head north, their hovertransits stuffed with electronic belongings and omniplasma, to affordable housing, a temperate climate and a hopeful, collective future.Also on the topic of spaces in the shadowy hinterland between public and private, the Guardian has a piece on the Thames Path, a public walking route running along the river's banks, considerable lengths of which (particularly in “regenerated” parts of London) have been surrounded with fences and gates, with the aim of intimidating the public into abrogating the right they have to use them, allowing them to finally be fully, legally taken out of the public realm.
More despatches from the London property boom: The transformation of the London borough of Hackney from a byword for crime, squalor and perhaps an edgy bohemianism to high social status proceeds apace; the ultra-fashionable borough is now the most unaffordable place to rent in the UK, with the average Hackney resident's rent being 59.9% of their income. Meanwhile, the values of houses in Hackney have risen just under £100,000 in the past year, meaning that the average house in Hackney earns considerably more than the average resident.
The same publication, Dalstonist (a journal for the residents of the eponymous hip'n'happening playground of moneyed, well-connected twentysomethings) also has an editorial arguing that it makes no sense to blame the hipsters for rising rents, the main gist being that the typical “hipster” is a young web designer/barista/media worker/miscellaneous “creative” renting a sharehouse and on the cusp of being evicted to Walthamstow or Tottenham or somewhere to make room for finance professionals whose musical and sartorial tastes are more Patrick Bateman than Nathan Barley. Oh, and that there is no such thing as a hipster.
The people who get priced out are those who rent their homes on the private market – who have to shell out more than half their salaries just for somewhere to live. That might be people who’ve lived in Hackney for decades, like the residents of the New Era estate. Or it could be those who moved here more recently. The people who earn too much to qualify for social housing but not enough to buy a house. You know; graphic designers, jewellery makers, photographers, baristas. Hipsters, basically.Of course, that is assuming without question that the typical “hipster” is renting, rather than having bought a flat just off London Fields with the help of their parents, or been given one for their 18th birthday. This is a somewhat questionable assumption, partly because the contemporary hipster lifestyle (itself gentrified from the days of math-rock nerds and fashion refuseniks dressed in cheaply acquired, ironically repurposed thrift-shop clothes) is not a cheap one to maintain; if one really is paying 60% of their rent to a landlord, how much does that leave for the vintage trainers, imported Japanese denim, meticulously crafted hairstyles and other sartorial items that are de rigeur to be seen in?
This malaise is not confined to the hipsterised East; everywhere across London, the city is being reorganised for (often absentee) investors over residents; a case in point is the demolition of the historic Earl's Court exhibition centre, and its replacement with expensive luxury apartments:
The new apartments will – like those in the big new developments and Nine Elms – be aimed at the pockets of investors and speculators, people with deep pockets who have taken advantage of stagnant interest rates to buy up property and then charge eye-watering rents for them. It’s hard to blame them, as economic policy seems designed purely to over inflate London’s property market, but the damage is considerable. Because not only are they building identikit apartments in areas nobody that actually needs housing can afford, they are in the process annihilating anything that could be seen as fun – pub, music venues, sports grounds as well as historic structures like Earls Court. It’s a depressing, dismal outcome that offers the worst of all possible worlds.
It’s also entirely typical of the current state of London: could you possibly imagine a scheme as imaginative and as exciting and beneficial for the public as the conversion of Tate Modern happening today? Not a chance. It would be flattened and replaced by luxury glass apartments. What do we get instead? A bloody Garden Bridge, stupid cable car and shopping centres.One could perhaps blame Boris Johnson for that; or possibly the Tories' (and to a lesser extent, neo-Blairite Labour's) faith in trickle-down economics, to the extent that it's seen as an unquestionable credo that, if one serves those at the top (wealthy investors, property speculators, developers), overall prosperity will rise, and the little people will be served, as amply as they deserve, by the shower of crumbs from the high tables. The corollary to this is, of course, that anybody who questions it is really advocating a return to the Leninist five-year plan and the kolkhoz, the legacy of blood-stained failure and collective misery that bears the name “socialism”.
Also, new statistics reveal that people in their thirties are leaving London in droves, moving instead to regional cities where they can afford to do things other than pay a landlord for the privilege of having an address in a prestigious city; Birmingham seems to be the main recipient of disaffected ex-Londoners, followed by places like Manchester and Bristol. (Presumably Brighton counts as part of greater London.) There is still a net influx of twentysomethings; presumably, while one has youthful vigour, relatively few bulky physical possessions and no dependent family (or, indeed, not yet a long-term relationship), the benefits of living within staggering distance of the venues of a social life outweighs the costs of funnelling 60% of one's pay into a speculator's pocket for a shoebox-sized room. The attrition rate seems to be high, with few holding on into their 30s; presumably once they've got a partner, enough stuff to make sharehousing impractical, an aversion to working long hours and/or a tolerance to mephedrone, London no longer holds its charms, and they drop out, making room for more fresh meat, possibly of a more affluent nature. Meanwhile, the precincts associated with the young and with-it move further out (keep an eye on Newham/Waltham Forest/Barking being dubbed the “New Hackney” in media puff-pieces any day now), being pushed out by the centrifugal forces of hypergentrification. It may be that, in the fullness of time, they will be expelled beyond the M25, and London will, as prophesied by Alex Proud, become a city of rich old people, like Paris or Zurich. (But that can't happen, you say, because London is intrinsically, timelessly cool, before citing Britpop/Carnaby Street/Shoreditch or similar? Zurich, one must remember, was vibrant and edgy once; the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire (the establishment after which the Sheffield electro-industrial band named themselves) was there in 1919.)
As demand for every square inch of space within London keeps rising in the unrelenting property gold rush, the city's realtors have had to find creative ways of packaging the ever-declining scraps of space remaining for non-oligarchs, in a fashion allowing the tenants to maintain their state of denial and tell themselves that the London lifestyle, for all its constraints, is still brilliant. Case in point: this is apparently now a “studio flat” in London. And for £130 a week, it, and with it a slice of the London life, can be yours.The flat itself is located in Earl's Court; if the name sounds familiar it's because, a few decades ago, it was known as “kangaroo valley”, and full of cheap houses inhabited by Australian backpackers. Now, of course, the only Australians you'd find there would be well-heeled legal or financial professionals. Even with the high dollar, your average cashed-up bogan would struggle to find somewhere to hang their boxing kangaroo flag up in the area.
This phenomenon doesn't seem to show any signs of letting up; as long as London has its glamour (in the original mythological sense of the word, bewitching otherwise rational people into taking leave of their senses), as long as the world's oligarchs and princelings need a pied à terre in town and there are wealthy people in unstable places looking for somewhere safe to stash their wealth, the prices of land in London will keep rising. Meanwhile, for the UK's most active industries, Dubai-on-Thames is the only game in town, meaning that there will have to be some way of accommodating the non-super-rich within the constraints of the white-hot housing bubble. Of course, other places would suggest things like rent control or social housing, but that would be socialism, and socialism is wrong, so that's out of the question. So, assuming that the price per square foot of London real estate will keep rising, the London lifestyle will become, shall we say, increasingly space-efficient.
The first thing to disappear will be collections of physical media. Granted, this has already started, with the rise of digital media and the decline of physical formats; the space crunch, however, will accelerate it. When all you need is a Kindle and an iPod (or maybe not even one of those; a broadband connection and either a Spotify subscription or a high tolerance for ads will do), shelves of books, records and DVDs become an expensive luxury. (Doubly so if the overheated property market compels one to pack and move regularly.) On the other hand, they could become a status symbol for those who can afford the luxury; we may see high-flying professionals and trust-fund kids lining their London Fields pads with EXPEDIT bookcases full of vinyl records, like something a DJ in 1990s East Berlin might have, just to show that they can.
The shrinking size of modern technology will also help. We've seen hi-fi systems shrink from furniture to shelf-sized devices to ridiculously small plastic boxes. Desktop computers have gone from enormous under-desk towers to hockey-puck-sized devices; if those are still too large, a Raspberry Pi will browse the web just fine; or with a laptop, one can do away with a desk altogether and just use them on the sofa or the fold-away dining table. Televisions, meanwhile, can go away; an iPad held at arm's length will fill the same amount of one's field the roommates one's sharing with to make ends meet.
Other parts of the average urban house will also shrink. Kitchens are already shrinking to kitchenettes, and may soon be replaced with just a bench with a microwave and an electric kettle (or, if that's still too much space, just an electric coffee maker); or not even that; at some point, it becomes more affordable to order takeaway every day than to rent the extra space to prepare anything more complicated than a mug of instant noodles. Adam Smith would undoubtedly have approved of such an efficient division of labour. Meanwhile, bathrooms with actual baths are a relative rarity, but there remain untapped potential efficiencies in how closely one can pack a toilet, a sink and a shower cubicle. (As space rises in price, perhaps architects will take hints from the designers of sleeper train carriages and introduce folding multipurpose units.) Meanwhile, bedrooms will see a revival of bunk beds (especially for those less-affluent renters obliged to share). Clothing, too, takes up space, which is where technology can help; dirt-shedding and odour-neutralising nanotechnological materials may some day make having multiple changes of clothing less necessary.
Of course, if demand for a space in London continues to outstrip supply, shaving bits of space off here and there will not be enough, and one may soon see reconfigurable living spaces, along the lines of Gary Chang's famous Hong Kong apartment; all the various sleeping, eating and entertainment modules on sliding rails, with niches to store one's Kindle, iPad and three changes of clothing, allowing one to live a modern metropolitan aspirational-professional lifestyle in the most efficient of spaces.
Alex Proud, who previously wrote about the Shoreditch-modelled gentrification and sanitisation of the down-at-heel parts of London, has a new article about the end state of this process of gentrification and the future of hyper-gentrified London, a homogeneously rich, clean, and dull, place, with all the edginess and excitement of Geneva or central Paris, a city of "joyless Michelin starred restaurants and shops selling £3,000 chandeliers":
Two decades on and you can play a nostalgic little game where you remind yourself what groups London’s inner neighbourhoods were known for 20 years ago. Hampstead: intellectuals; Islington: media trendies; Camden: bohemians, goths and punks; Fulham: thick poshos who couldn’t afford Chelsea; Notting Hill: cool kids; Chelsea: rich people. Now, every single one of these is just rich people. If you want to own a house (or often just a flat) in these places, you need a six figure salary or you can forget it. And, for anyone normal, that means working in finance.
Inner Paris is a fairytale for wealthy people in their fifties (and outer Paris looks like Stalingrad with ethnic strife) while Geneva has dispensed with the poor altogether. As a result, both cities are safe, pretty and rather boring places to live – and soon London will be too.The article is a fine rant, dripping with bons mots like “Bitcoins for oligarchs”, “like Jay-Z as reimagined by someone who works at Goldman Sachs”, and “the bastard offspring of Kirstie Allsopp and Ayn Rand”; the prognosis is not hopeful for London either:
Why? Because the financiers who can afford inner London neighbourhoods are not cool. Visit Canary Wharf at on any weekday lunchtime and watch the braying, pink-shirted bankers disporting themselves. Not cool. Peruse the shops at Canary Wharf. From Gap to Tiffany’s, they’re all chains stores and you could be anywhere wealthy, safe and dull in the world. Rich people like making money and spending it on dull, expensive things. That’s what they do – and they’re very good it. But being a high-end cog in the machine is not cool.
In the short term, our city’s young creative class will continue to move further and further out. Is New Cross the new Peckham? Is Walthamstow the new Dalston? But there are limits to this: there’s not much of a vibe in Ruislip and there never will be; really, the cool inner suburb ship sailed in 2005. So, when you’re stuck out amongst the pebble-dashed semis of Zone 4, miles from a centre that’s mainly chain shops, boutiques for the tacky rich and restaurants you can’t afford or even book, you might start wondering if the World’s Greatest City (TM) really is for you. Then maybe you’ll visit friends, somewhere like Bristol or Newcastle or Leeds or Glasgow. And maybe you’ll discover that there you can buy a house that’s walking distance to a centre full of shops that cater to you, restaurants that want your custom and pubs and clubs whose prices wouldn’t make someone in Gstaad blanch... Perhaps London’s craven fealty to the ghastly rich will finally accomplish what no government policy ever has – it will rejuvenate our provincial cities.Though chances are, the cities with fast links to London will end up hypergentrified as well; Brighton (or “London-by-the-sea”, as some call it) is well on the way to going there, and some speculate that places like Margate (one hour from London along a partly high-speed railway, and already sprouting vintage shops and a modern art gallery amongst the everyday-is-like-Sunday shabbiness) could end up following suit. Birmingham, meanwhile, might jump from never-quite-fashionable to bourgeois luxury for the new-economy elite when HS2 arrives, allowing those who aren't fully-fledged partners to afford somewhere within an easy commute of Canary Wharf.
Proud blames this state of affairs on a system rigged to pander to the beneficiaries of this state of affairs—house-flippers, buy-to-let landlords, ex-Soviet oligarchs looking for somewhere to park their wealth—at the expense of the little people to whom it is made clear that the city does not belong, and who are gradually squeezed further out, towards the periphery and beyond; who still hold onto their shrinking, expensive foothold on the precious land inside the M25, believing that it's stil worth it because of the aura of brilliance surrounding the idea of London; an aura increasingly based in nostalgic delusion, and one which can't last.
Readers of the Guardian or New Statesman will have seen this story numerous times, from different angles and at different points in time, more or less the same, only with the place names moved slightly further out every year. However, part of the message here is in the medium; Proud is writing in the Daily Telegraph, a paper owned by the Barclay Brothers, long associated with the Conservative Party (it's often nicknamed the Torygraph), and one which one might imagine would be perfectly au fait with the ideals of the Thatcherite “property-owning democracy”. When the Torygraph is publishing articles bemoaning how gentrification is hollowing out and sterilising London, then perhaps it is time to be concerned.
I wonder how much this is due to one of the less-often-quited corollaries of the neoliberal/market-oriented mindset of the recent few decades: the idea that anything of value is traded on a market, and everything is a convertible hard currency, this time applied to cultural capital. It used to be that cultural capital and economic capital were separate spheres, and absolutely not interconvertible. There were no cool rich kids, or those who were hid their economic capital. (The word “cool”, in fact, originated with socially and politically disenfranchised African-Americans; in its original meaning, the word didn't mean chic, fashionable or at the top of the status hierarchy, but refered to an unflappability, an unwillingness to let the constant low-level (and not so low-level) insults and aggressions of an institutionally racist and classist system be seen to get you down; as such, it was, by definition, the riches of the poor, the exclusive capital of those excluded from capital.)
Fast forward to the present day; after Milton Friedman declared everything to be convertible goods in a market. Reagan and Thatcher applied this to economic goods, launching the “Big Bang” of deregulation and the 20-year economic bubble that followed. Then the Clinton/Blair era of the “Third Way” coincided with its own Big Bang, this time deregulating the cultural marketplace; starting off with Britpop and going on to Carling-sponsored landfill indie, New Rave, hipster electro (and indeed the recycling of the term “hipster”, originally meaning a habitué of the grimy jazz-and-heroin demimonde of the Beat Generation, now referring to trust fund kids in limited-edition trainers), yacht rock, chillwave and whatever. The old regulatory barriers between the mainstream and the underground were swept away as surely as the barriers between high-street and investment banks had been a decade earlier; the rise of the internet and the cultural globalisation played a part in it, though the mainstreaming of market values once seen as radical would also have had a hand. Soon everything was in a commodity available on the marketplace; 1960s guitar rock and Mod iconography was revived as Britpop, post-punk, stripped of unmarketable references to Marxism, Situationism and existentialist paperbacks and sexed up, as generic NME-cover “indie”, and we were faced with a multifaceted 80s revival that ran for longer than the 80s. Major-label pop producers used ProTools plug-ins to grunge up their protégés, giving them that authentically lo-fi “alternative” sound, while bedroom producers armed with cheap laptops and cracked software made tracks that sounded as expensively polished as anything heard in a Thatcher-era wine bar. Knowing about Joy Division or Black Flag was no longer a badge of being “hip”, as anyone with an internet connection could do the research; the new shibboleths were evanescent memes, like referencing Hall & Oates right down to the facial hair, or reviving New Jack Swing and calling it “PBR&B”, or the whole Seapunk subculture; currents one wouldn't have caught wind of in time without being connected, and whose cultural value became void once the wider world heard of them.
This coincided with the dismantling of free education, the rise in income inequality, and the gentrification of “cool” areas full of the young and creative, and soon it was a good thing that having economic and social capital didn't bar one from cultural capital, because having a trust fund was increasingly a prerequisite. If Mater and Pater bought you a flat near London Fields for your 18th birthday, and if you had a reserve of money to spend while you “found yourself”, and the likelihood of being able to land an internship on a career track in the media once your Southern-fried-hog-jowls-in-katsu-curry food truck failed or you got bored of playing festivals with your respectably rated bass-guitar-and-Microkorg duo, then you had the freedom to explore and develop, and that development could take a number of forms; travelling the world's thrift shops, picking up cool records and playing them at your DJ night, spending the time you don't need to work for money getting good at playing an instrument (and recent UK research shows that people in wealthier areas tend to have better musical aptitude), or just growing a really lush beard. With the rolling back of the welfare state and the "race to the bottom" in wages, these quests for self-actualisation are once again the preserve of the gentry; it's rather hard to develop your creative voice when you're on zero-hour contracts, and spend all your time either working in shitty jobs, looking for work, or commuting from where you can afford to live. And so economic capital has colonised cultural capital, and what passes for “cool” now belongs to those with money. It's not quite like a Gavin McInnes troll-piece about the coke-addicted bankers' scions who form the Brooklyn scene or a Vice_Is_Hip parody tweet about the coolest bar in the Hamptons or the latest sartorial trends from Kuwait's hippest princelings, but those are looking less and less unbelievable.
The question is, what happens in the end? Will cultural capital converge with economic capital, and “cool” be redefined to be a sort of cultural noblesse oblige, a manifestation of wealth and status, or will, as Proud suggest, the whole thing collapse into a cultural low-energy state of tidy tedium?
House prices in London keep rising; London housing is, after all, a de facto reserve currency, and most sales in the "super-prime" market—places like Chelsea, Mayfair and Belgravia—are done in cash to foreign buyers, often from economically or politically troubled regions whence getting one's wealth out is a sensible idea; also, if one wants to hobnob with the world's movers and shakers, a pied a terre in London is essential. One result of this is that demand from the unimaginably rich global titans pushes the merely locally rich further out, and triggers a wave of outward-moving gentrification ending in cash-strapped working stiffs moving out to remote corners of Norfolk and spending several hours a day commuting to their London jobs, collapsing exhausted when they get home, but not before setting the alarm for 4:45 the following morning to do it all again:
The "extreme commuter" appears so regularly in demographic updates these days that it will be a miracle if, like Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman before him, he doesn't become a prime target for next year's electoral pitch. A recent Radio 4 exposé of the phenomenon came crammed with horror stories of single mothers rising at 5am in the Essex hinterland to drive their offspring to the childminder's before proceeding, via train, Tube and pavement to some sweating house in Threadneedle Street or Holborn Circus. Ominously enough, there was very little in it about that search for the fulfilling rural lifestyle that we hear so much about, and a whole lot more about ground-down wage serfs forced into five- or six-hour daily round-trips by domestic circumstance or the lack of affordable housing near their place of work.While some resign themselves to the joyless grind of extreme commuting, others have found different solutions; such as living on no-frills floating slums on the Thames (the London property market's own answer to the Chinese zombie fishing trawlers), with a combination of low-wage service-industry workers, the economially desperate and a smattering the sorts of oddballs one finds drawn for one reason or another to the fringes:
The room I chose had a smashed window and was open to the elements, meaning I could see my breath when I was in bed (March 2013 was to prove one of the coldest on record). The only upside was that the draft offset the fumes from the stove, lessening the dread caused by the occasional sounding of the carbon monoxide alarm. Better to be cold, I reasoned, and wake up the next day.
This way of life inevitably attracts colourful characters. A few longer-term residents, some of whom had been on the boat for years, genuinely enjoyed the life of the river. They had pets, and were often heavy drinkers, chain smokers and drug users, partying until the early hours. The boats meant freedom from rules and regulations, and form-filling officialdom. Most residents bought bottled water rather than consume the drinking water that was filtered straight from the river, but one man told me it didn't bother him because he never drank water; his entire liquid intake came in a cider bottle. He once advised me to cover my food in the kitchen; not because of rats – they were dead – but because they had stuffed the ceiling full of poison and had no idea where it might fall out. Included in this group were some of the younger crowd on my boat, people who liked the communal living, sitting out on the deck in the summer with a barbecue and some beers. It was enough for them to forget the conditions. Some of them admitted that they could afford to live elsewhere. They worked full-time; one designed computer games; another was a football coach; one young woman worked for a local council. They had no plans to stay in the long term, but were saving money by tolerating the boats.Perhaps less romantically, some 289,000 families in England and Wales have taken to sharing homes with other families, in a laudable display of thrift of which George Osbourne would certainly approve. Fewer poor families selfishly demanding their own homes, after all, means more homes to be done up, sold, and left empty and "bubble-wrapped", the better to retain their investment value.
Meanwhile, one person has calculated that it is cheaper to rent a place in an upmarket district of Barcelona and commute to London each day than to rent one in London. The downside, of course, is spending several hours a day on Ryanair.
Finally, a Buzzfeed listicle, enumerating 14 signs you're house-hunting in London:
You need to consult your Oxford English Dictionary, because £720,000 for a flat certainly isn’t your definition of “affordable”.
You examine your finances and decide to delay buying for a couple of years in order to save up a bigger deposit. A year of working over time and living off baked beans later…and house prices have risen by £40,000. See ya later hesitater.
Writing in the Torygraph, Alex Proud (of Proud Galleries) bemoans the “Shoreditchification” of London, the process by which the phenomenon of hipster culture (by now, heavily leveraged with marketing) seizes rundown areas of the city and forcibly makes them over, raising rents, replacing local shops with gimmicky bars catering to affluent 26-35-year-olds, and ultimately leaving them open for the bankers and Foxtons to take over; sort of like the Shock Doctrine, only with ironic facial hair and upcycled furniture:
You find a previously unnoticed urban neighbourhood, ideally one that’s a bit down on its luck. Pioneer hipsters move in and coolhunters ensure it starts trending on Twitter. A year later, the mainstream media notices and, for the next 12 months, the neighbourhood is byword for urban cool. Soon property prices soar pushing the original residents out, the bankers (always a trailing indicator) begin to move in and a Foxtons opens. Finally, the New York Times runs a piece in which it “discovers” the area and the cycle is complete. The last hipsters move on and find a new neighbourhood to play with.Shoreditch, Proud asserts, is long past the terminal phases of this phenomenon, being a “cold-climate Aiya Napa”, frequented by stag-party tourists from Essex. Dalston, the hipster haunt of recent years, is past it as well (despite there still being completely unhip and unironic Turkish restaurants alongside the basement DJ bars and Giorgio Moroder-themed pizza joints; never mind, though, by the time Kanye West and Kim Kardashian open their matching fashion shops in Dalston and the Essex stag parties start negotiating the Overground in to take in its lad-mag-certified cool, it will doubtlessly be as dead as a doornail), with Peckham being about to be jettisoned for somewhere further out; possibly even, Proud reckons, Croydon.
Which more or less makes sense, until Proud posits a counterexample of “sustainable cool”: Camden.
So, what is the solution? The solution is to treat places like proper neighbourhoods rather than Apple products with a two-year upgrade cycle. Here I hold up Camden as an example. OK, I know I have a vested interest, but Camden was cool in 1994 (and even 1984) and it’s still cool in 2014. It has, dare I say it, sustainable coolness. True, at no point in time will be it be as achingly “now” as a speakeasy in a repurposed public loo in Camberwell selling dirty cocktails in jam jars, but that’s the point. Sustainable cool knows which bandwagons to ignore.Which is quite ironic, given that Camden seems to be as much a spent force, as far as any sort of living counterculture goes, as swinging Carnaby Street or the King's Road of Malcolm McLaren's day. Camden, of course, had been ground zero of Britpop, that third coming of Mod, that time as a hidebound and flag-draped back-to-basics conservative backlash. (In his book The Psychic Soviet, rock performer and cultural critic Ian Svenonius drew parallels between Britpop and the Southern Rock movement of the 1970s, in that both took a genre which had been free-wheeling and countercultural and remade it in the image of a flag-waving, reactionary traditionalism. More recently, Britpop has again been in the news, as Tory-affiliated cheesemonger Alex James has announced that he is registering the term as a trademark for a line of sugarwater.) And while Britpop might not have had the oversized folkbeards, mason-jar cocktails or overuse of the word “artisanal” that have made Hipster™ an easy target for jokes over the past decade or so*, Camden circa the mid-90s was pretty much the definition of “achingly “now””.
Britpop may not have started in Camden, but it gained critical mass there, in places like the Good Mixer; the resulting chain reaction sucked all the oxygen out, leaving behind pure marketing cranked up to 11. Camden these days is about raking through the rich seams of Britain's (and, to a lesser extent, the globalised Anglosphere's) history of post-rock'n'roll subcultural cool and producing tables of manufactured tat. Go to Camden Market, contend with the thronging masses of what William Gibson termed the Childrens' Crusade, and you will see what is essentially a meat market of dead subcultures, where well-preserved cuts of Punk, Goth, Emo and Belieber are served up to wide-eyed teenagers from smaller places all over the world, alongside the ubiquitous pirated T-shirts extolling the virtues of poor impulse control in series of three badly-drawn pictographs, identical to the ones in any Hot Topic in America or any tourist market in Thailand.
* One could, however, make the case that the two-stroke Italian motorscooters that became fashionable with the Mod-revival-revival phase of Britpop are, in today's time, a far more ridiculous affectation than the fixed-gear bikes beloved of the stereotypical “Shoreditch hipster”.
Spare a thought for the latest victims of London's runaway property prices, mid-ranking bankers on less than £500,000 a year, who find themselves priced out of the property market, whose super-prime properties are being snapped up by global oligarchs, with the merely rich moving further downmarket:
“People here are already carrying a lot more debt than they used to,” said a senior manager at one European investment bank in London – again speaking off the record. “A member of my team has a £750k mortgage on his house, which is a huge burden for him. A lot of other mid-ranking people here can’t afford to live in Zone 1 and are having to move out to Zones 3 or 4 – which is difficult when you’re a VP-level banker working very long hours.”
As for other Londoners, the crunch point reportedly comes when bankers hit their early 30s and start having families. Until then, they’re happy to live in house shares or small flats conveniently situated in central London. Once they have families, they need larger London properties and aspire to pay private school fees. “People suddenly see their disposable income pared down considerably,” said the European banker. Traditionally, the head of HR says senior bankers would have moved their wives and children into the cheaper British countryside and bought themselves a weekday pied-a-terre so that they could live in London. Now, however, she suggests that bankers’ wives often have jobs of their own and want to continue living in the city – even if they’re not contributing much towards the cost of doing so.However, help is at hand. The Tory-LibDem government has just announced a “help-to-buy” scheme which seems tailored to the squeezed bankers' very needs. Let it never be said that the Tories don't have the welfare of the little people at heart...
Bob Stanley, one third of indie-dance Londonists Saint Etienne and occasional music journalist, writes in The Quietus about the ideology of modern architecture:
I live in High Point. It was built in 1935 by the Tecton Group. Berthold Lubetkin was the architect. It's the best modernist block of flats in Britain. He deliberately designed it so that anyone who was sniffy about modernism would walk in and instantly be impressed by the huge lobby. The flats are blank canvases, it's got underfloor heating and there's no clutter. I can't imagine living anywhere better. There's so much light, which is really important. The Victorians thought having too much light was wrong, they equated it with a liberal lifestyle. So in the 80s when you got that architecture coming back it made sense, this Thatcherite, self-flagellating idea that you shouldn't have too much light in the house. That seems to have stuck with the Barrett Homes style of building.
There was a GLC plan to have all cars at ground floor level, and all people at first floor level, all across London, but it was kept secret, which is something we want to make a film about. It was called the pedway, and the only place you can really see it now is the Barbican. I don't think I'd have wanted the whole of London to be like that, but the areas that were completely decimated in East London, that would have been really interesting if they'd persisted. Instead it's a mess, one massive tower block in the middle of an area of grass, and then a little old Victorian street that goes around like that, and stops with a couple of bollards at the end. What a mess.
The economic difference between London, a global centre of finance, where wealth is conjured into being and every Russian oligarch and Saudi princeling worth his salt has to have a pied à terre, and the rest of Britain is drawn into sharp relief by a recent property value survey:
Research shows that the net value of properties in just 10 London boroughs – Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea, Wandsworth, Barnet, Camden, Richmond, Ealing, Bromley, Hammersmith & Fulham and Lambeth – now outstrips the worth of all the properties in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland combined.
The capital’s richest borough, Westminster, with 121,600 dwellings, is worth £95bn – more than twice the value of Edinburgh (pop 500,000) and three times that of England’s sixth most populous city, Bristol.That's one thing one forgets about living in London: that this isn't normal. The high property values (and rents), the billions of pounds poured into public transport, the presence of everything from world-class art exhibitions to lunch options more interesting than a supermarket sandwich: none of this would be here were London not a global city-state of its stature, alongside the Singapores and Dubais of this world.
Of course, the downside of this is that London is considerably less affordable for those who aren't oligarchs, princelings or otherwise loaded.
In 2004, typographical troublemaker Jonathan Barnbrook updated the Olympic pictographs to account for the unsavoury realities of the modern Olympics, from rampant commercialism to restrictions on civil liberties. Now, Barnbrook has updated his pictograms for the 2012 Olympics, producing Olympukes 2012:
Because it was in London, where I live, a place I love. So the issues we discussed in the first Olympukes are even more keenly felt by us because it affects us so directly. There are so many issues surrounding the Olympics – about what has happened to the communities where the games are being held, the draconian restrictions because of every atom of it has been defined by sponsorship, and as a graphic designer the missed chance of the logo and the ignoring of the wealth of talent in graphic design for commissions such as the Olympic posters. The original idea of Olympukes was prompted by the almost religious treatment of the Olympic pictograms by designers. There was a time when it was one of the top jobs in design, where it was felt it could unify the human spirit. Now rather than being at the forefront of design in interpretation and concept it has become a cynical marketing exercise. I also think the idea of speaking to all nations a bit of a redundant concept. The world has fragmented; we now celebrate difference. Our idea of the pictogram as a transparent vehicle for communicating and idea also feels rather dated, the classic pictograms are loaded with western assumptions about the structure of society from the role gender to the material objects people own. This project clearly uses these to formulate an opinion which I think is a least more honest.Olympukes 2012 is free for non-commercial use from FontShop.
In a few hours, Londoners will go to the polls to elect their next Mayor and councillors. The Mayor is that of Greater London, who administers matters above the separate boroughs but below the level of Westminster. The post was held by a younger and more radical Ken Livingstone in the 1980s, before Thatcher abolished it; when the Blair government restored it, Livingstone won it back and held it for a few terms, before being toppled, at the last election, by the floppy-haired, mildly eccentric Tory Boris Johnson.
A number of candidates are running this year; the Greens, the Lib Dems (running ex-police commissioner Brian Paddick), the far right, and an independent who, unlike most of the others, wants a third runway at Heathrow. The main race, however, is shaping up to be a rematch between Boris and Ken. Two likeable and/or loathsome outsized personalities, holding the banners of their respective tribes and ideologies. (A few days ago, Johnson had a lead in polling, though it's said to have narrowed somewhat since then.)
In the red corner, Ken Livingstone needs no introduction. While less radical than during the wars of the Thatcher Era, he still wears his socialist convictions on his sleeve. Which can be good, when it comes to commitment to public transport, forward planning of infrastructure (something the free market isn't all that good at) and attempting to mitigate some of the rising inequality in high-Gini London, though is somewhat more sketchy when it comes to grand sweeping statements on the public dime. Livingstone has, in the past, used his theoretically strictly local seat as a base for foreign policy, drawing the Greater London Authority into a (symbolic) alliance with Venezuela's autocratic Chavez regime, on the pretext of providing free transport to the poor. More recently, he seems to have taken a leaf out of George Galloway's playbook in trying to court the Islamist vote, expounding on Palestine whenever visiting constituencies with large Muslim populations, bashing Jews and making suspiciously dog-whistle-like statements about gays. Oh, and he held down a job presenting on the Iranian propaganda channel Press TV; perhaps we can expect those good honorary socialists, the Islamic Republic of Iran, to sponsor bus passes for the poor if he wins?
In the blue(-blooded) corner is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a character even more fanciful than his name would suggest, and not without his controversies. Upon election, he did scrap a lot of Livingstone-era public transport plans (such as the cross-river tram), though has avoided the sorts of red-meat pro-motorist culture-war policies some other right-wing mayors (such as the one in Toronto) have pursued. Not only did London's bike lanes remain, but Johnson, himself a cyclist, expanded support for cycling in the city (albeit with the sponsorship of Barclays, though that presumably ticks the piss-off-the-Left box). The Observer's architecture correspondent Rowan Moore has assessed Johnson's record on public works, and found it to be fairly moderate and generally sensible, if leaning a bit towards glitz and spectacle in places. Of course, one criticism has been that a lot of the projects were started by Ken Livingstone, with Johnson coasting by when they were finished for a photo opportunity. That is certainly a valid criticism of some things, such as the Overground and the launch of Crossrail; the case against Johnson's claim to the London cycle hire scheme, commonly known as the “Boris bikes” (though some earnestly right-on types call them “Ken's conveyance”) is less clear, though. While Livingstone did talk about setting up a Paris-style bike hire scheme, there is little evidence of anything having actually happened towards one until Johnson's term. And then there is the new Routemaster bus remake and the proposal for the “Boris Island” airport in the Thames Estuary to replace Heathrow (which is either a brilliant idea or utterly daft, depending on whom one asks).
More controversial are the symbolic statements. While Livingstone has allied his office with the actual and honorary socialist freedom fighters of the world, Johnson's statements have gone the other way. At times, he has taken up the cause of opposition to “political correctness” (commonly a way of ostensibly defending freedom of speech and the ability to take a robust joke whilst also dog-whistling to bigots that one stands with them) perhaps a little too enthusiastically at times, at one point, scrapping a multicultural festival because of its anti-racism message. Johnson has also denounced the Occupy protesters, calling them “hemp-smoking, fornicating hippies in crusty little tents”, a choice of words which, regardless of its accuracy, seems to show a haughty disdain for those who think that rising inequality is a bad thing. (Johnson's professed contempt for the Occupy movement, incidentally, is not shared by other members of the centre-right, including Germany's pro-austerity chancellor Angela Merkel.)
During the last election, this blog came out against Boris Johnson. This time, however, we will not be endorsing, or disendorsing, either candidate; there are good reasons for not voting for either. While Johnson is a Tory, and thus, as the common calculus goes, morally equivalent to Hitler, he is a far more moderate Tory than he looked before the last election. And while Livingstone's policy credentials are a bit bolder (with the exception of fancy buses and island airports, of course), some of his symbolic positions are somewhat concerning. For what it's worth, my first preference won't be going to either of them (the Greens are in with a chance, though).
With the recent Royal Wedding and the upcoming Olympics, London's public transport authority has declared war on underground explorers, whose activities have now become a matter of national security:
"Normally we would have been dished off to the graffiti squad," Otter says. "But because of the wedding we ended up with detectives much higher up."
Last month TfL applied to issue anti-social behaviour orders which would not only stop them undertaking further expeditions and blogging about urban exploration but also prohibit them from carrying equipment that could be used for exploring after dark. Extraordinarily, it also stipulates they should not be allowed to speak to each other for the duration of the order – 10 years.
Around Leicester Square and Chinatown, one sometimes sees a hoody with a traffic cone:
The figure, sitting there in the middle of pedestrian traffic, burbling into a traffic cone, seemingly oblivious to the comings and goings of tourists and Londoners, seems like some non-specific element of as-yet undifferentiated satire or social criticism, some amalgam of Hogarth and Banksy, Chris Morris and Thom Yorke. But what does he represent? Is he the feral Other, attired in the uniform of Britain's demonised youth, brazenly possessing a traffic cone he is unlikely to have acquired legitimately, and embodying threat? The drug-zombie, mouth clamped onto a pipe, oblivious to the morés of respectable society? Or the embattled Everyman, reacting to unreasonable circumstances in the only reasonable way, by curling up into a ball and gibbering? Is he a satire on the malaise of Broken Britain, or the mindset of the sorts of people who use the phrase "Broken Britain" in the mistaken belief that it was ever not, or both?
The question of tagging versus graffiti art came up at the trial of London tagger Daniel "Tox" Halpin, whose handiwork will be immediately familiar to many Tube commuters:
The 26-year-old, from Camden, north London, whose masked image and story of anarchism has featured on television documentaries and in magazines, was found guilty of a string of graffiti attacks across England after prosecutor Hugo Lodge told a jury: "He is no Banksy. He doesn't have the artistic skills, so he has to get his tag up as much as possible."
As he was remanded in custody for sentencing, his artistic merit was further questioned by the reformed guerilla graffiti artist turned establishment darling Ben "Eine" Flynn, whose work was presented to the US president, Barack Obama, by the prime minister, David Cameron, last year. "His statement is Tox, Tox, Tox, Tox, over and over again," said Flynn after the trial at Blackfriars crown court, in which he gave evidence as an expert witness. In his opinion, the Tox "tags" or signatures, and "dubs" (the larger, often bubble lettering) were "incredibly basic" and lacking "skill, flair or unique style".While Mr. Tox is not known for his artistic flair, that didn't stop him interrupting his criminal damage career top attempt to surf the post-Banksy hype boom, hoping that someone with more money than sense would interpret his tagging as a particularly "edgy", "real, innit" and "well fucking morocco, yeah?" form of street art and buy it on canvas:
Cashing in on his notoriety, he is said to have made £9,000 in two hours by selling pictures with his Tox tag. Reports in 2009 that he was selling 100 canvasses bearing his notorious mark, at £75 each, precipitated heated debate. Purists condemned him for "selling out", while legal experts mused over whether a loophole made him impervious to the Proceeds of Crime Act.
The appearance of Tox's tag in gilt-framed canvasses was "well funny", Flynn said, adding: "Art is worth what people are prepared to pay for it." People must have bought them as an investment, he added. "I can't imagine they bought them because they actually like them."Halpin's co-defendants include a students of ultra-hip art school Goldsmiths and an Edinburgh Collge of Art graduate; his own credentials are not on record. Halpin and two defendants await sentencing.
A few London transport map links: here there is a detailed, zoomable map of the London Underground and surface railways, showing the locations of stations (both operational and closed) and tracks.
Meanwhile, the Green Party's candidate for Mayor of London has an interactive map showing how far London's bicycle hire system would reach if it were the size of Paris's; which is to say, quite a bit further, particularly to the north and south. Perhaps it'd even be possible to live near a Boris Bike station without being made of money.
A group of urban explorers have infiltrated one of the holy grails of underground facilities: London's Post Office Railway, shut down in 2003 and now securely fenced off. Their account and photos are here:
One thing which has been demonstrated over recent years is that, in any city chosen to host the Olympics, the blessing of the International Olympic Committee is invariably followed by sweeping restrictions on the rights and liberties of the "little people" who live there, at least as far as their activities might plausibly impinge on corporate sponsors' right to make a profit. Unsurprisingly, London is no exception, and the latest group to find themselves an inconvenience to the Olympic powers are the people who live on houseboats along London's canals, who will now be moved on under new regulations:
Under the new proposals, people using a continuous cruising licence would not be allowed to spend more than 61 days in a year in each of six designated neighbourhoods across 40 miles of canal network, and they would be forced to move to a different neighbourhood every 14 days.
The canal boat residents fear they will be forced from the river if the proposals go ahead as drafted. Alice Wellbeloved, a freelance fashion designer, who has lived on the Lea for almost five years with her partner and baby, said the plan meant it was no longer feasible to live the family life they had built together. "For us it would be disastrous," she said. "We have a 10-month-old baby, and these proposals mean we could not work or get the childcare we need. We cannot afford to buy a new house. We feel we are being uprooted from our community."There is a page against the proposals here.
Sleepy City is a website run by someone who (a) is a very good photographer and (b) enjoys sneaking illicitly into underground railway tunnels, drainage systems, abandoned buildings and the like, illegally taking gorgeous photographs and posting them online. Most recently, they posted an epic feature on the Paris Métro, complete with some fantastic photographs:
(via Boing Boing)
The latest from the people behind Smoke: a London Peculiar, a periodic zine inspired by the city: Soho: A Most Peculiar Game, a board game set in the Soho area of London and inspired by two things: its pubs and its one-way system:
Each player is the editor of a small literary magazine. Before the next issue can be printed, six pieces of rashly commissioned copy need to be retrieved from a somewhat motley bunch of recalcitrant writers:
Travel blogger and author of "Leicester: City of Crisps", Toby D’Azure.
Girl-about-town and sparkly-heeled chick-lit tyro Sophie Blush.
Postmodern goremeister and connoisseur of noir Justin Slick.
Aga-endorsing barbour-clad romantic novelist Lavinia Snowe.
Former Para turned lad-mag agony uncle David “Dave” Green.
Otherworldly and oddly androgynous sci-fi bod CT Vermillion.
And, being writers, all six are currently holed up in six Soho pubs, cadging free drinks, chatting up people half their age (but with, oddly, twice their looks), and complaining vociferously about their agents, about dumbing down in the publishing industry, and about how they didn’t want that Eastenders gig anyway as it would have compromised their artistic integrity and also possibly involved buying a TV licence.
The noble editors’ thankless task is to contact all six writers and extricate their beer/sauvignon-stained prose from whichever unwholesome pocket or handbag it’s been stuffed in. The first to do so scores a small moral victory or, to borrow a phrase from Monopoly, wins.
More on the impending closure of the Luminaire, arguably London's best music venue today, in the Guardian:
Widely regarded as the best small independent music venue in London, the Luminaire had it all: a booking policy of rare love and eccentricity, a beautiful performing space resplendent with mirrorball, and knowledgeable staff. Uniquely, it also had signs on the walls reminding punters that "no one paid to listen to you talking to your pals. If you want to talk to your pals when the bands are on, please leave the venue." This – along with outbreaks of shushing if anyone had the cheek to disobey the sign – allowed quieter, more delicate bands to thrive in a way simply not possible at other, more sticky-floored spaces.
The closure seemed to be part of a disturbing trend. In recent months London has also lost The Flowerpot, Barden's Boudoir, and The Cross Kings, with the 100 Club also struggling for survival. Sometimes all one wants is to go to a gig that isn't sponsored by a brand of lager or a mobile phone company. With the corporate takeover of indie music, small and proudly independent venues such as these felt increasingly like little beacons of charm in a sea of monochrome.Various possible reasons for the closure are being advanced, from increases in onerous licensing requirements (now where have I heard that before?) to it, unfortunately, being too far north-west, implying that London's live music map is becoming homogeneously centralised around the stereotypically hipsterish areas of Shoreditch and Dalston, with all outside that area being fit only for naff cover bands. I wonder whether this could be a symptom of a deeper polarisation of London, with creative expression being confined to an inverse ghetto of sorts in the East End, and the rest of London becoming less receptive to such things.
The Hummingbirds, arguably the greatest Australian indiepop band of the 1990s, are reforming for a one-off set at Sydney's Big Day Out on the 27th of January. Well, so far it's a one-off set; perhaps they'll do some other Australian shows. I imagine that them playing Indie Tracks or the Gothenburg Popfest would be a bit of a stretch, though.
Meanwhile, Mess+Noise also has a two-part retrospective on the Punter's Club, the legendary Fitzroy music venue which closed its doors in 2002 (1, 2), interviewing many of the people involved, who went on to work in other Melbourne live music institutions.
The Punters Club closing was so final, though. We knew it was going to happen and that another business was going to move into the building, so it couldn’t be saved. It might have indirectly inspired the SLAM rally and all the outrage about The Tote, because it proved that people actually give a shit about music venues closing. I actually think The Punters Club was more loved than The Tote, but over the years, people came to realise that they didn’t want to lose another venue.
In hindsight it’s sad, and we miss that venue, but Brunswick Street really sucks these days anyway. I’m pleased that I don’t have to go and see gigs in that area anymore. Johnston Street and The Old Bar is about as close as I want to get. I don’t want to be with all the hipsters there. It’s like the gentrification of St Kilda. I remember when Brunswick Street only had three or four cafes: Bakers, Rhumbarella’s, Mario’s and The Fitz. That said, Melbourne has an extremely strong live music scene, so for every venue that closes, a new one opens somewhere.This weekend, for those in Melbourne, there is a series of Punter's Club reunion shows at the Corner Hotel in Richmond.
The spectre of closure, usually driven by gentrification and the increased rents coming from it, is seldom far away from live music venues; recently, Melbourne's favoured ex-neo-Nazi haunt turned band venue, Birmingham Hotel ceased putting on gigs, due to it losing money. Meanwhile, in London, increasing costs have forced the Luminaire to close at the end of the year. The Luminaire was one of London's better medium-sized venues; it will be fondly remembered, particularly the hand-painted signs on the walls informing punters in no uncertain terms that it is a music venue not a pub, and instructing those who wish to talk to their mates to leave.
Today, a Deutsche Bahn ICE3 high-speed train made an appearance at London's St. Pancras International. The train had been towed into the tunnel the previous night and used in an evacuation exercise, where some 300 volunteers (mostly British and German students) successfully evacuated it in four minutes. (Article with more details, in German.) From there it was towed along the high speed line (the train type does not yet have regulatory approval to run under its own power in Britain) and parked at St. Pancras for display. It was behind glass, in the secure area, and while journalists and VIPs (including, apparently, The Man In Seat 61) were shown around, the general public had to content themselves with viewing it through the glass wall, the train's red LED destination board tantalisingly scrolling destinations including Amsterdam, Cologne and Frankfurt.
Deutsche Bahn plan to start services through the tunnel in December 2013; that is apparently how long it'll take to get regulatory issues sorted out and a fleet of trains prepared. The service will run towards Brussels, where trains will split, with one half going up to Amsterdam via Rotterdam, and the other half going eastwards to Frankfurt. It'll be interesting to see whether this results in cheaper rail fares through the tunnel.
Some prankster has been stickering the Barclays branding on London's rental bicycles (a.k.a. the Boris Bikes), prefixing the imperative "fuck" to the sponsor's name:
A direct channel tunnel rail service from London to Germany is looking one step closer: on the 19th of October, Deutsche Bahn will drive a test train through the tunnel, and into London St. Pancras. The train, one of DB's ICE3 high-speed trains, won't be carrying passengers; it will be participating in a safety exercise in the Tunnel, part of stringent tests which will need to be completed before such a service can be approved, and then being exhibited at St. Pancras in a publicity exercise.
There are a lot of tests which need to be undertaken, especially for trains which were not designed specifically with the tunnel in mind (as the Eurostar fleet were). However, if all goes well, Deutsche Bahn are expecting to run a service from London to Frankfurt, via Brussels and Cologne, from the end of 2013. The service is is expected to take 4-5 hours between the two financial capitals, about the same time as London to Edinburgh; while conventional wisdom says that rail is not competitive against air travel for journeys longer than four hours, this may no longer be the case, thanks partly to longer air check-ins and tighter security restrictions, and partly to Deutsche Bahn's exceedingly comfortable trains, or so Mark Smith (of The Man In Seat 61 claims):
A direct train could cut London-Cologne to 3 hrs 55 mins. This would compete with air not only on speed and convenience, but on comfort – DB's ICE trains are among the most comfortable trains in the world, being designed to tempt German businessmen out of their BMWs and Mercedes, with power sockets for laptops at every seat and WiFi on many routes. And using DB's current ICE fares to neighbouring countries as a guide, I'd expect a London-Cologne or London-Frankfurt journey on any new service to start at a very affordable €49 (£41) or even €39 each way, with no need to pay to get add the cost of getting to and from airports.I'm not convinced it'd be that cheap; the tunnel, after all, is a privately-run monopoly, with steep access fees, which would be factored into the ticket prices, though I imagine that it might well end up cannibalising the air travel market between London and Frankfurt (at least for scheduled flights; high-powered businessmen with private jets would presumably keep those), much as Eurostar did to air routes between London and Paris and Brussels.
Under the new Tory/LibDem coalition government, Britain has become the first country to clamp down on airport expansion because of climate considerations; the government scrapped the third runway at Heathrow, and has committed to refusing Gatwick and Stansted new runways.
“The emissions were a significant factor” in the decision to cancel the runway-building plans, Teresa Villiers, Britain’s minister of state for transport, said in an interview. “The 220,000 or so flights that might well come with a third runway would make it difficult to meet the targets we’d set for ourselves.” She said that local environmental concerns like noise and pollution around Heathrow also weighed into the decision.The air travel industry is, expectedly, crying betrayal, while environmental activists are pleased, though uncomfortable with the decision coming from the despised Tories.
From what I understand it, the opposition to airport expansion was actually driven by the Tories, rather than having been grudgingly ceded to the Lib Dems. Could there be a Nixon-in-China thing happening here? New Labour, keen to not be mistaken for Old Labour, were anxious to avoid anything that seemed left-wing, such as opposing air travel. (It may not just have been Blairite triangulation; perhaps there was also a calculation that an ongoing age of cheap flights to credit-bought second homes in the Essex end of Spain, stag weekends in Estonia and Ecstasy-fuelled raves in the Balearics would keep the public's cool-Britannia love affair with New Labour burning, at least until the oil ran out.) The Tories, however, have less to prove as far as being pro-business goes, and can afford to pass by some of the more short-termist decisions.
A high-speed railway network is planned to replace domestic flights across Britain; it should be ready in about 20 years.
The Mayor of London is now talking about wiring the entire city, including the Tube, for wireless internet. Of course, it's unlikely to be free, as once mentioned; for one, it'll cost a fair bit, and also, with the Digital Economy Act, it's likely that proof of identity (or at least a credit card) will be required for copyright-enforcement purposes.
An interesting piece by Financial Times writer Simon Kuper on the cultural impact of Eurostar; how the cross-channel train service between London and Paris (Brussels doesn't rate a mention) has transformed the cultures of both cities; before, things used to be much different:
Until the 1990s, To Britons Paris seemed almost as exotic as Jakarta, and more so than Sydney or San Francisco. There was that famous smell of the French Métro, the mix of perfume and Gauloises cigarettes. There was the bizarre sight of people drinking wine on pavements. There was all that philosophy. The exoticism of Paris became such a staple of English-language writing that comedians began to parody it. “I come upon a man at an outdoor café,” writes Woody Allen. “It is André Malraux. Oddly, he thinks that I am André Malraux.”
Those first trains connected two fairly insular cities. I had returned to Britain from Boston the summer before the Eurostar was launched, and after the Technicolor US, I was shocked by dingy London. Tired people in grey clothes waited eternities on packed platforms for 1950s Tube trains. Coffee was an exotic drink that barely existed, like ambrosia. Having a meal outside was illegal. The city centre was uninhabited, and closed at 11pm anyway. Air travel was heavily regulated, and so flying to Paris was expensive. Going by ferry took a whole miserable day. If you did get across, and only spoke the bad French most of us learnt at school, it was hard to communicate with any natives.Now, London and Paris have converged somewhat; London has shaken off some of its Anglo-Saxon austerity and embraced a more Continental lifestyle, with outdoor bdining, late-closing bars and gourmet food markets, and even got a taste for French-style grands projets, not least of all St. Pancras International, the Eurostar terminus. (As for coffee, I can only imagine that, before 1994 or so, anyone requesting coffee rather than tea would be met with a mug of Nescafé Blend 43 or similar.) Meanwhile, Paris has shed some of its Gallic hauteur and become more London-like:
But with the inventions of the internet and Eurostar, and globalisation in general, many Parisians began to see that there was a wonderful new life to be seized if you spoke English. Paris could choose to become an inhabited museum, a sort of chilly Rome, but if it wanted to remain in touch with the latest ideas, the Parisian establishment would have to learn English. By and large, the younger members did. The canard that Parisians refuse to speak English is a decade out of date. As I write, every car on the street outside my office is festooned with a flyer for English lessons for children. Parisian parents are now so keen to induct their toddlers into the global language that speaking English has become a weapon for us Anglophone parents in the battle for a spot in a crèche.Of course, some differences remain (French children are apparently quieter and cleaner than the mowfy brats of Britain, while Britons dress more colourfully, in "weird youth-culture outfits"), but they're becoming less distinct, as more people commute or travel between the two cities. (London is apparently now, by population, the sixth-largest French city.)
Kuper goes on to describe a bright future for western Europe, largely due to its compact geography, further amplified by the promise of high-speed rail. Indeed, shiny, aerodynamic high-speed trains seem to be the unchallenged future of travel, with air travel, that darling of the 1990s, looking a bit shabby, between rising oil prices, the Long Siege and things like the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud.
Some good news from London: Transport For London, who run the city's public transport networks, have announced that they will be opening access to all their data by the end of June. The data will include station locations, bus routes and timetable information, and will be free from restrictions for commercial or noncommercial use.
The data will be hosted at the London DataStore, a site set up to give the public access to data from public-sector organisations serving London. A few sets are already up, as well as a beta API which returns the locations of Tube trains heading for a specific station. Which could probably be worked into a mobile app to tell you when to start walking to the station. If they had something like this giving the positions and estimated arrival times of buses (whose travel times are considerably more chaotic than those of trains, and which often run less frequently, especially at night), that would be even more useful. (Some approximation of this facility exists in the LED displays, which are installed at some bus stops and sometimes are operational; a XML feed and a mobile web app would probably be a more cost-effective way of getting this information into the hands of commuters.)
Another thing that would be useful would be an API for the Transport for London Journey Planner; being able to ping a URL, passing an some postcodes or station names, a departure/arrival time and some other constraints, and get back, at your option, a maximum journey time or a list of suitable journeys, in XML or JSON format, would be useful in a lot of applications, from device- or application-specific front ends (i.e., a "take me home from here" mobile app) to ways of calculating the "inconvenience distance" between two points by counting travel time and changes (i.e.,in terms of travel convenience, Stratford is closer to Notting Hill than Stoke Newington, despite being further in geographical terms, as it's a straight trip on the Central Line).
Data visualisation of the day: Locals and Tourists. Location data was harvested from geotagged photos on Flickr and plotted on maps; the points were colour-coded: blue if the poster was a local (i.e., had been in the city for more than a period of time), red if they were tourists (recent visitors with no prior history), and yellow if it was ambiguous. Here, for example, is London, with the Thames and the West End ablaze with red and the East End blue (which means that there are fewer tourists but still plenty of photographers, think Hackney art hipsters and/or kids with iPhones):Paris; tourists flock to the obvious parts (the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Elysees, the Seine and the Île-de-Cité), whereas the locals who tend to post photos gravitate to the east, around the Bastille and such; the affluent, conservative southern arrondisements are largely a wasteland, photographically at least. In Berlin, meanwhile, tourists fill the city's broad central boulevards, the Tiergarten and Alexanderplatz and Karl-Marx-Allee, and visit the East Side Gallery, but there's a lot of local photography happening around Kreuzberg/Neukolln.
In fact, one could use the frequency of non-tourist photography for an area as a predictor of cultural vibrancy. Areas where a lot of photos are taken by people who live in the same city and not by tourists could be the kinds of broad areas where local scenes form, and the kinds of people who engage in cultural activity beyond passive consumption (sometimes referred to as "hipsters") are more likely to be found. This is borne out by other maps: Melbourne (there are specks of blue around the inner north, while the sprawling suburbs are largely empty). In New York, meanwhile, Manhattan glows with tourist activity but Brooklyn is veined with blue.
Of course, the amount of blue space on these maps is considerably larger than any nexus of cultural activity would be; it'd cover the areas where events take place, where the participants live and work, and spaces in between. However, it does make one wonder whether one could data-mine the buzz of a city by correlating Flickr photo geodata or other indices of participation with other data; possibly transport routes?
Citing falling sales in science fiction and fantasy, Charlie Stross unveils his new direction: supernatural romance novels about sparkly unicorns:
Harlequin Romance will publish my first paranormal romance, "Unicorn School™: The Sparkling", in Q1/2012. US:TS is the first book of the projected series, and introduces Avril Poisson, who moves with her family from Phoenix, Arizona, to Forks, Washington with her divorced father, and finds her life in danger when she falls in love with a Sparkly Unicorn™ called Bob. Stalked by and in fear of a mysterious horse-mutilator, Avril must practice her dressage skills with Bob and qualify her steed for a scholarship to the elite Unicorn School™, where he will be safe to grow (and sparkle) without fear of the vampires who infest the senior's common room.Meanwhile, Transport For London is in talks with CERN about adapting the Circle Line into a hadron collider (which, thanks to miniaturisation, could be done without affecting existing services), and the embattled Labour Party takes an aggressive new direction in its campaign materials, hoping to turn Gordon Brown's reputation for bullying into a selling point, with slogans like "Step Outside, Posh Boy":
The Brown team has been buoyed by focus group results suggesting that an outbreak of physical fighting during the campaign, preferably involving bloodshed and broken limbs, could re-engage an electorate increasingly apathetic about politics. They also hope they can exploit the so-called "Putin effect", and are said to be exploring opportunities for Brown to be photographed killing a wild animal, though advisers have recommended that weather, and other considerations, mean Brown should not remove his shirt.
Details have emerged of the suspensions of civil liberties to be brought in for the 2012 Olympics in London, and even by the standards of New Labour Britain, they are severe. Police will have the power to enter private homes and seize posters (so no putting a "Free Tibet" poster on your window then) and, to keep sponsors placated, will prevent the public from carrying "non-sponsor items" to sporting events. Not sure if it'll apply just inside stadia or inside an "Olympic Zone" of London as in Sydney in 2000, so if, say, KFC are a sponsor, whether it'll be an offense to be seen eating a box of Sheriff Sam's Al-Halal Texas Fried Chicken ("Tender and Tasty!") in the streets of Stratford. Or, indeed, whether the laws will stay on the books afterward, to be brought out when expedient (as happened in Sydney, where Olympic laws were later used to suppress protests against the Catholic Church's "World Youth Day").
Given that the Olympics are a merchandising exercise which invariably involves notionally liberal states bending over to placate corporate sponsors by suspending civil liberties, perhaps it would be better if future Olympics were held only in totalitarian states, where the legal frameworks are already in place. Pyongyang 2016 perhaps? I hear the North Koreans put on a killer show...
(via Boing Boing)
Apparently, London is experiencing somewhat of a coffee renaissance, with a number of good cafés having opened over the past two years or so, many of them run by Australians or New Zealanders. Time Out has a helpful map of notable cafés in London here.
Having said this, London's still the sort of city where one has to go out of one's way to look for drinkable espresso; whereas in Melbourne or Sydney (or, by all accounts, in New Zealand), the baseline of what a café can offer without going out of business is fairly high, here one takes one chances. (I still remember the cup of bitter, watery bilge and overboiled milk that passed for a cappucino according to the haircut behind the bar in Hoxton who made it.)
Anyway, it appears that, like most interesting activity in London, most of the action is happening around the East End, with places like Climpson, Prufrock, Taste Of Bitter Love and Tina, We Salute You (which, it seems, is within walking distance of my previous residence) getting mentioned.
From a Guardian piece on Massive Attack's artwork, this interesting fact:
"We can't use any of the Heligoland artwork I've painted for the posters on London Underground. They won't allow anything on the tube that looks like 'street art'. They want us to remove all drips and fuzz from it so it doesn't look like it's been spray-painted, which is fucking ridiculous. It's the most absurd censorship I've ever seen. "
Another nail in the coffin of the notion of Shoreditch as an artistic area: The Foundry, a bar and underground art gallery, is to be demolished, and replaced with a boutique hotel and shopping complex. Hackney Council has refused to designate the area as an "artistic space", which would have required them to seek to resettle it elsewhere; however, before it is demolished, a section of wall containing a Banksy stencil will be preserved, for later inclusion in Park Plaza's new hotel complex.
"If you go there you realise that it's not like any other space in London," said Turk. "Shoreditch has become so commercialised, like the new West End, and there isn't really anywhere that runs like the Foundry does."If the owners of the Foundry do relocate, I wonder where they'll go; whether they'll stay in the east end, moving outward to Dalston or Bethnal Green, or whether they'll leap the Thames and set up in Peckham, said to be the new "blank canvas" for up-and-coming artists in London.
A Russian ecologist has found that the fierce pressure of living in a hostile urban environment is causing Moscow's stray dogs to evolve increased intelligence, including abilities to negotiate the city's subway system:
Poyarkov has studied the dogs, which number about 35,000, for the last 30 years. Over that time, he observed the stray dog population lose the spotted coats, wagging tails, and friendliness that separate dogs from wolves, while at the same time evolving social structures and behaviors optimized to four ecological niches occupied by what Poyarkov calls guard dogs, scavengers, wild dogs, and beggars.
But beggar dogs have evolved the most specialized behavior. Relying on scraps of food from commuters, the beggar dogs can not only recognize which humans are most likely to give them something to eat, but have evolved to ride the subway. Using scents, and the ability to recognize the train conductor's names for different stops, they incorporate many stations into their territories.
Additionally, Poyarkov says the pack structure of the beggars reflects a reliance on brain over brawn for survival. In the beggar packs, the smartest dog, not the most physically dominant, occupies the alpha male position.I wonder whether similar evolutions of animal intelligence, driven by the conditions of living in cities, have occurred in other cities; there have been anecdotal reports of pigeons deliberately catching the Tube in London, with speculation that they commute in to the tourist-rich city to feed before returning to the suburbs. (As such, one could probably refer to them as passenger pigeons.) Not to mention two instances of cats deliberately catching buses (both in England).
From a Momus blog post, in which he, on departing from Osaka, speculates on how he might possibly live there:
I've never seriously thought about living in Osaka before. I love Tokyo best of all. But increasingly, my outlook has Berlinified, by which I mean I regard expensive cities like New York, London and Tokyo as unsuited to subculture. They're essentially uncreative because creative people living there have to put too much of their time and effort into the meaningless hackwork which allows them to meet the city's high rents and prices. So disciplines like graphic design and television thrive, but more interesting types of art are throttled in the cradle.Momus raises an interesting observation, and one which may seem somewhat paradoxical at first. First-tier global cities, like London, New York, Paris and Tokyo are less creative than second-tier cities, largely due to the increased pressure of their dynamic economies making all but the most commercial creative endeavours unsustainable. I have noticed this myself, having lived both in Melbourne (Australia's "Second City" and home of the country's most vibrant art and music scenes; generally seen by almost everyone to be ahead of Sydney in this regard) and London (a city associated, in the public eye, with pop-cultural cool, from the Swingin' Sixties, through punk rock and Britpop, but now more concerned with marketing and repackaging than creating; it also serves as the headquarters of numerous media companies and advertising agencies). In London, it seems that people are too busy working for a living to make art in the way they do in Melbourne or Berlin, and the arts London leads in are the commercial ones Momus names Tokyo as leading in: graphic design, the media, and countless onslaughts of meticulously market-researched "indie" bands. Those who thrive in London (and presumably New York, Paris and Tokyo) tend to be not the free-wheeling bricoleurs but the repackagers and cool-hunters, one eye on the stock market of trends and another on the repository of past culture, looking for just the right thing to pick up and just the right way to market it. (Examples: various revivals (Mod, Punk, New Wave), each more cartoonish and superficial than the last.) "Moving to London" is an artistic cliché, shorthand for wanting to hit the commercial mainstream, to surf the big waves.
There are, of course, counter-examples, but they tend to be scattered. For one, the more vibrant a cultural marketplace a city is, the more money is floating around, the more rents and prices are driven up, and the more those who are not driven by a commercial killer instinct find themselves unable to keep up, without either channeling their energies into money-spinning hackwork or whoring themselves to the marketing ecosystem, subordinating their creative decisions to its meretricious logic.
Also, as Paul Graham pointed out, cities have their own emphases encoded in their cultures; a city is made up as much of cultural assumptions as buildings and roads, and there is only space for one main emphasis in a city. If it's about commerce or status, it's not going to be about creative bricolage. (This was earlier discussed in this blog, here.) The message of a city is subtle but pervasive, replicating through the attitudes and activities of its inhabitants, subtly encouraging or discouraging particular decisions (not through any system of coercion, but simply through the interest or disinterest of its inhabitants). As Graham writes, Renaissance Florence was full of artists, wherea Milan wasn't, despite both being of around the same size; Florence, it seems, had an established culture encouraging the arts and attracting artists, whereas Milan didn't.
When a city is said to be first-tier—in the same club of world cities as London and New York—the implication is that its focus is on status and success, and the city attracts those drawn to these values, starting the feedback loop. Second-tier cities (like Melbourne and Berlin and, according to Momus, Osaka) are largely shielded from this by their place in the shadows of first-tier cities and their relatively cooler economic temperature. (There's a reason why music scenes flourish disproportionately in places like Manchester and Portland, often eclipsing the Londons and New Yorks for a time.) Of course, as second-tier cities are recognised as "cool", they begin to heat up and aspire towards first-tier status. (One example is San Francisco; formerly the hub of the 1960s counterculture (which, of course, birthed the personal computing revolution), then the seat of the dot-com boom, and now promoting itself as the Manhattan of the West Coast.) Cities, however, fill niches; they can't all be New York, and the number of first-tier "world cities" is, by its nature, limited.
The Independent has an article about what Copenhagen can teach the world about sustainable urban planning, in particular the promotion of cycling:
Forty years ago, London and Copenhagen had similar ratios of car to bicycle use, and both faced an exodus of workers moving out of the centre and into the suburbs. But after ' the energy crises of the 1970s, the two cities diverged. Danes were restricted in how much they could use their cars and commuters began to campaign for a better infrastructure for cyclists. Today, there are almost 200 miles of bicycle lanes in the city, and 40 per cent of its 5.5 million inhabitants cycle to work. The city has evolved cyclist-friendly policies, such as the Green Wave – a sequence of favourable traffic signals for cyclists at rush hour.
Melbourne is one of Gehl's most significant successes. From 1994 to 2004, he studied the city and, working with Professor Rob Adams at the city government, introduced major changes to the city's public spaces. Gehl recommended promoting the city's café culture, improving the waterfront area, opening up the historic laneways to pedestrians and adding more urban plazas. After a decade of work, there were 275 per cent more cafés and 71 per cent more people-oriented spaces. Wider, lighter walkways, lined with 3,000 more trees, enticed 39 per cent more daytime pedestrian traffic and 98 per cent more at night. Of course, the city expanded during this time, but more people also returned to live in the inner city (to almost 10 times more apartments). Once a classic doughnut-shaped modern city, in which the centre empties at night as workers return to the suburbs, Melbourne is now regularly rated one of the most liveable cities in the world.One point that comes up is that, while in the Anglosphere, cycling is a purer-than-thou subculture with its own uniforms and ideological machismo, in Denmark, it is completely mainstream and without pretention:
In Britain we have been conditioned to believe that cycling is something that can be done only in special places while wearing specialist safety equipment and clothing. Yet here were men, women and children cycling to work or school, looking stylish and feeling safe. It was cycling as transport, not sport.
He's no fan of the culture of hardcore cyclists that has evolved in the UK. "Once you get past the cycle subculture and make it mainstream, when you have grandmothers picking up their grandchildren from school on bikes, the aggressive riders become less noticeable. You still get people running red lights here but you just don't notice them." And he believes Critical Mass-style activism is counter-productive: "Is this selling cycling to drivers? No."
Getting around Copenhagen has been simplified over the past 30 years, from insurance (stolen bikes are registered by the police and cheques are sent out within a week) to gear. "There are a lot of companies selling 'cycling clothes' in the UK. Is it overcomplicating it, as the sports industry has for 40 years? I think it might be. Open your closet, it's full of cycling clothes. Anything you can walk in, you can cycle in. Let's move on."Of course, the "your closet is full of cycling clothes" line only works when you have Copenhagen-style cycle paths separated from motor traffic. In Britain, where cyclists have to contend with cars, especially in the winter when it gets dark early, high-visibility clothing is a must.
There is now an electronic version of Rail Alphabet, the high-Modernist typeface designed in 1965 by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert for British Rail and used extensively on signage of British public institutions of the period (the NHS and various airports also used it). And just in time to ride the wave of nostalgia for pre-Thatcherite public institutions.
Unfortunately, at £100 per weight (and £1,000 for the whole set!), it is a bit on the pricy side; if that's out of your price range, you may wish to consider just using Helvetica and hoping that nobody notices. (And, to be honest, few people would be able to tell the difference.)
(Note that if you decide to be even more thrifty and use Arial, people will laugh at you.)
And here is a detailed article on the evolution of the London Underground typeface, from Edward Johnston's 1920s original (which influenced the design of Gill Sans), to its subtle redesign by Japanese typographer Elichi Kono in the 1970s (Kono's account appears here), and other adaptations made recently as it was adopted across the entire London transport system.
An artist has placed 30 street pianos in the City of London. The pianos are padlocked to prevent antisocial people from vandalising them and bear the legend "Play Me, I'm Yours".
Your Humble Correspondent saw one such piano this afternoon at Liverpool Street station, adjacent to the exit to the station plaza. I walked up to it, and, before I could approach it, was approached by a beggar, who presumably had found a lucrative pitch around the piano. I, of course, did what any decent person would have done and gave the poor wretch a crisp ten-pound note.* After he was off, I approached the piano, wondering whether it actually worked.
Before I could touch the keyboard, I heard another voice. Another man, with bad skin and beady eyes, had walked up to me, and was pointing to a discarded Tesco bag on the ground near the piano.
"Is this your bag?"
I assured him that it wasn't, and returned my attentions to the piano. I managed to find that the lowermost D key did actually work. My unwelcome companion, however, would not be ignored.
"It's a disgrace, that's what it is! People leaving shopping bags around."
It seems that he had a chip on his shoulder and a lot to say, and had found someone to say it to, or at least to say it at. In any case, he didn't have an audience for long; I abandoned the piano and left. The piano went unplayed; the only people who found it useful, it seems, were Trevor the Tramp and Mr. Cranky.
I suspect that ideas like street pianos, while they may well work in, say, Berlin or Copenhagen or somewhere, don't work in London; because of the culture of London and/or England, they would attract the antisocial who would render them unusable for their intended purpose; i.e., awakening the spirit of creative play in random passers-by. This comes down to the social contract of London.
To live in London for any length of time is to learn the rule that other people are at best an annoyance. There are too many of them and too little space to go around. When they're not assaulting your hearing with their tinny music-playing mobile phones, accosting you for money or subjecting you to their inanities and prejudices, they're taking up space you want to move into, or looking like they might well threaten to do one of these things. One deliberately avoids eye contact, avoids acknowledging other people as anything more than roughly human-sized obstacles, lest the barrier come down and one find oneself subjected to the outflowings of the (quite probably disagreeable) personality of the entity sitting across the Tube carriage. That is, in the event that they don't start moving away from the weirdo who's making eye contact with them. People in general are, the belief goes, not very nice. (There is a technical term used for this state of being; it starts with C.)
Of course, the flipside of believing that people are, as a rule, unpleasant is to believe that being unpleasant is the accepted behaviour, part of the social contract. The only people who are conspicuously nice are charity muggers and con artists, i.e., people who are up to something. Unpleasantry is honesty.
Why this is so is not clear. The Left might claim that it's the legacy of Thatcherism and the dog-eat-dog market society, whereas the Right may pronounce gloomily that it is part of mankind's Hobbesian nature, the eternal war of all against all which can only be quelled with suppressive force from above. Perhaps it has something to do with England being what anthropologists call a "negative politeness" society (where politeness is about leaving people alone, rather than reaching out to them, as in a "positive politeness" society), and thus the only people who deign to enter the bubbles of mutually agreed isolation people were are outsiders, those with little to lose. Well, them and chuggers, but I digress. And some (including author Stuart Maconie) claim that it is only London that is like this, that if you head far enough north, or far enough south, people become actually quite agreeable.
* Actually, I lie. I headbutted him to the ground, kicked him repeatedly in the groin and told him, firmly, to be off lest I give him a proper hiding.
Various Australian states are selling their wares in London, with the New South Wales government constructing a somewhat ridiculous simulacrum of Bondi Beach on the south bank of the Thames, and South Australia sticking to a more sensible wine tasting. It's not clear what Victoria's entry, showcasing the "sights and sounds of Melbourne" will be like; perhaps they built a laneway somewhere, covered it with stencil art, set up a street café (staffed by authentic Melburnian baristas flown in from Carlton or Fitzroy) and set up a tram line running back and forth outside it?
The Economist Intelligence Unit has published its annual list of the world's most liveable cities (presumably behind a billgate somewhere); the top 3 are Vancouver (again), Vienna and Melbourne. London failed to make the top 50, appearing at #51, having been beaten by Manchester at #46. Australia, New Zealand and Canada all did well; Toronto was #4, and Sydney, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane are all in the top 20; the US's most liveable city is apparently Pittsburgh, at #29.
The least livable city this year is Harare, in Zimbabwe, though it's not clear whether other candidates (such as, say, Mogadishu or Pyongyang) managed to beat it, or didn't even make the chart.
More dispatches from the War on the Unexpected: London police forced an Austrian tourist to delete photographs of a bus station, on the grounds that photographing transport infrastructure was "strictly forbidden". Which sounds like something more befitting of, say, Belarus or North Korea than of an ostensibly free country:
Matkza, a 69-year-old retired television cameraman with a taste for modern architecture, was told that photographing anything to do with transport was "strictly forbidden". The policemen also recorded the pair's details, including passport numbers and hotel addresses.
In a telephone interview from his home in Vienna, Matka said: "I've never had these experiences anywhere, never in the world, not even in Communist countries."Meanwhile, in the United States, police seized a student's computers on the grounds that he was using a suspicious operating system (i.e., Linux), and thus probably up to no good:
_________ reported that Mr. Calixte uses two different operating systems to hide his illegal activities. One is the regular [Boston College] operating system and the other is a black screen with white font which he uses prompt commands on.Which sounds like he's guilty of some kind of technological witchcraft.
A group of squatters has taken over an opulent property in Mayfair. The Da! Collective plans to turn 18 Upper Grosvenor St., a Grade 2-listed property near Hyde Park, the US Embassy and some of London's most expensive restaurants, into an art installation:
Behind the white pillars and imposing wooden door of the grade II-listed residence, the 30-plus rooms are now scattered with sleeping bags, grubby mattresses, rucksacks spilling over with clothes and endless half-finished art installations. While their neighbours' walls are lined with priceless paintings, No 18 now exhibits a room full of tree branches and another with a pink baby bath above which dangle test tubes filled with capers. Spooky foetuses line one fireplace.
hey had been watching the building for "at least six months" before they decided to try moving in, she said. "We had put tape on the keyhole, and kept looking through the letterbox to see if anyone had been there." Then, one October night, five of the group decided to go in. Some of them wore high-visibility jackets to look like builders; Smith had a clipboard and fur coat. They propped their rented ladder up against the front of the building, and one man climbed on to the dilapidated balcony. "I went across to the window and I couldn't believe it when it was unlocked," said the squatter, who declined to give his name. "I was so happy. We didn't really expect it to be open, so it was a really exciting moment."
The group has had a mixed reception from the other residents of Upper Grosvenor Street. "Our next-door neighbours have been really nice; they've even let us use their wireless internet," said Smith. Another neighbour, a man called Alexander, has offered the services of his maid to cook them food, she added.
From 7pm to 11pm, the Da! gang will be projecting images on to each of the 19 windows at the front of the squat. "It's going to look like a doll's house," said Smith, "and there is going to be a harpist and a cellist and performance artists."Under English law, the squatters (who have reconnected the electricity and claim to be maintaining the property and paying bills) are entitled to stay until they are formally evicted by the owners. These owners, a concern known as Deltaland Resources Ltd., based in the British Virgin Islands, do not seem to have made any attempt to contact the squatters; they have 11 years and 11 months to do so before the building legally becomes the property of the Da! Collective.
London mayor Boris Johnson is the latest voice calling for a new airport to be built in the Thames estuary to replace Heathrow:
The Mayor envisages building the airport on reclaimed sand banks two miles off Sheerness, Kent, in waters 10 to 13ft deep. It would have four runways and could be expanded to six, dwarfing the capacity of Heathrow's two fully operational runways. Planes would take off and land over the sea, solving the blight of noisy engines at Heathrow and allowing the airport to operate around the clock.
Throughout its 62-year life, London's main airport has been derided as a monument to Britain's make-do-and-mend approach to planning. Its origin was inauspicious – it opened in 1946 from an army surplus tent and had to wait until 1955 for its first permanent building. The site was only chosen as an airfield in 1943 because it was a good spot from which to scramble fighter planes to protect the capital during the war. Since then, it has grown piecemeal while the capital has sprawled around it. The east-west runways ensure that the largest built-up area possible is affected by noise pollution.The new airport would cost about £40bn to build (including the costs of running high-speed rail lines and road tunnels to it), though the default alternative mooted, expanding Heathrow, would cost £13bn and come up against noise complaints.
How much one needs to expand airport capacity, of course, is another question; there is increasing demand for flights (or has been before the recession), though that's inflated by Britain's lack of high-speed rail links, meaning that Britons, by default, fly over any distance greater than London to Birmingham. This is because flying is both faster and cheaper than catching a train. (In contrast, very few people choose flying over the train when travelling between London and Paris or Brussels.) A solution to this could be to levy a tax on domestic flights within Britain, using the revenue to fast-track modern TGV-style high-speed rail links going north and west.
Having said that, London (a hub of global trade, business and tourism) does need an airport suitable for international travel, and Heathrow does have its problems. An airport on an artificial island seems more fit for purpose.
Author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair (best known for his somewhat hermetic writings about walks around greater London) has apparently been banned by Hackney Council from launching a book at Stoke Newington Library, seemingly because of critical remarks he made about the 2012 Olympics:
Then, last Friday night, I had a call to say sorry, but the invitation was withdrawn. It seemed a diktat had come down from above that I was a non-person and should be barred from the library for the crime of writing an off-message piece on the Olympics. This essay, published in the London Review of Books, responded to aspects of the creation of the Olympic Park in the Lower Lea Valley: the destruction of the Manor Garden allotments, the eviction of travellers, and the famous "legacy" revealed as nothing more than a gigantic shopping mall in Stratford.
The essay had very little to do with the book I was invited to launch. Challenged, the council shifted its ground: I was controversial. Controversy was not allowed in libraries. There could, presumably, be no discussion of stem-cell research or Afghanistan. And Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire fell into that category. A conclusion Hackney was miraculously able to reach without reading a line of a book that won't be published for another three months.
While researching my memoir, I walked back to the Stoke Newington Library and asked for the local history section. They told me that there wasn't one. History had been declared redundant. All that was left were half a dozen pamphlets in a box kept under the desk.More proof that the Olympics is, by its essential nature, a totalitarian project incompatible with free speech?
Today was the launch of the Atheist Bus Campaign, a project to put advertisements on buses in London telling people that there is probably no god and no reason to worry. (The project was inspired by Christian groups' ads on public transport, which inform the reader that they are doomed to eternal torment unless they submit to the advertiser's particular beliefs, an altogether less friendly message.)
The campaign opened this morning, with a goal of attracting £5,500; half the amount required to run such an ad on 30 buses over four weeks. (Outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins had offered to provide the other half.) It reached its goal just after 10am, and kept snowballing like Craig Shergold's postcards; shortly before 11:30pm, it had passed the £45,000 mark, and was still rising. That's a lot of non-faith.
Looking at the donations and their comments is interesting; a lot of people have an issue with the phrasing containing the qualifying "probably" (which was there to keep from falling foul of truth-in-advertising regulations), finding it insufficiently strident, or likely to lead people into the fallacy of Pascal's Wager. More donors, buoyed by the success of the drive, have called for the ads to be run elsewhere in the UK (Manchester, for some reason, has a lot of demand). There are also a lot of calls for similar ads to be run in the United States; I wonder whether anyone will start such a campaign over there, or whether anyone would agree to run the ads.
The response from Christian groups (who seem to be the only theists interviewed; couldn't they get a rabbi or imam to weigh in?) has been mixed; one pressure group named Christian Voice has equated atheism and bendy buses as "dangers to the public" and predicted that they would be attacked with graffiti, whilst the Methodist Church has taken the view that publicity is good and thanked Professor Dawkins for encouraging a "continued interest in God".
It's not clear what will be done with the surplus £41,000 or so; putting ads inside the buses was one suggestion.
Atheist and Guardian blogger Ariane Sherine took offense at those ads religious groups have on the sides of buses, and decided to start a campaign to put a similar atheistic ad on buses in London. After some wrangling with advertising companies (who were reluctant), one has agreed to run the ad (which reads "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life"; I think Douglas Adams would have approved, don't you?) if their sponsors can raise £1,100. As such, Sherine is looking for 1,100 atheists, agnostics or fellow travellers to pledge £5 each.
Yesterday, Your Humble Correspondent went to the south bank of the Thames and took part in an unreliable tour of
London Tokyo, given by the performance artist/writer/musician Momus and his partner Hisae.
I only saw part of it, joining the tour in the afternoon. Momus and Hisae were attired in what looked like Japanese or Korean uniforms (which, Momus stressed, were not trendy-minimalist Muji products) and carrying 1950s-vintage megaphones through which they talked to a small crowd which had assembled around them, describing to them which part of Tokyo they are in. Well, Momus did most of the talking, with Hisae adding a native Japanese perspective; some of the time (particularly towards the end, when things got a bit more absurd), their act seemed like a traditional comic/straight-man music-hall duo.
The actual content was fairly interesting; we were informed that the National Theatre was actually a trendy shopping centre whose top floor was an art gallery/museum, where yesterday's unsold fashions ended up, and that the mayor of Tokyo makes his way up the river by speedboat at 6pm every day. Other than that, Momus expounded on his theories on Japanese culture and its similarities/differences with British and European cultures (European individualism vs. Asian collectivism/"superlegitimacy", the British stiff upper lip and the Japanese bushidō (which is apparently making a resurgence), the falsehood of the assumption that modernism is Westernism, and the rising Gini index in Japan and declining originality of Japanese street fashion (apparently it's all Uniqlo and The Gap in Tokyo nowadays)).
There is controversy after London mayor Boris "watermelon smiles" Johnson made the Rise music festival drop its anti-racism message, in favour of a less contentious statement about "culture" and "community". It's not clear what happened there. Was he repaying a debt to the pro-racism lobby? Shoring up his support among Daily Mail readers? Or was this a case of his anti-leftist cold-warrior instincts deciding that "anti-racism" is a codeword for "Marxist socialism" or somesuch? (The latter could hold water, with Johnson banning the Cuba Solidarity Campaign's stage from the festival, though one could argue that such an event could be propaganda for what is a totalitarian regime, albeit one with splendidly good PR.)
Quelle surprise; it turns out that, after all, Boris Johnson's replacement of bendy buses with magical
flying Routemasters, a key plank in his election campaign, might not actually happen.
Kulveer Ranger, Boris Johnson's director of transport policy, said that a design competition would be launched - but if no bid was good enough they would look again at the pledge.
He added that although Mr Johnson is very keen to bring in a new-style bus in place of bendy buses, they would not press ahead with the idea for the sake of it.
Mr Johnson made phasing out bendy buses a priority, initially saying new Routemasters would cost £8million to run with conductors. However, he later admitted the figure would be nearer £100million.The magic Routemasters, it seems, were what Johnson's strategist, Lynton Crosby, would call a "non-core promise". It is not clear exactly how many Londoners voted for Johnson primarily because they wanted to see the return of those friendly red buses. As John Lydon once said, "ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
Petrolheads and Chelsea tractor drivers can rejoice, though, as the congestion charge looks set to be "reviewed" (i.e., cut back); the western extension looks set to be scrapped altogether. Jeremy Clarkson, however, will be disappointed that a £500/day congestion charge on bicycles is not on the agenda.
Last night, Your Humble Correspondent made his way out to deepest darkest Richmond to see Momus' performance at the Richmond Lending Library. (This was the second ever performance in a public library I had seen; the previous one was also by Momus, only somewhere around Balham or Tooting, in the southernmost reaches of the Northern Line.)
This performance, which I only found out about yesterday, was ostensibly about the restless spirits trapped inside books. Momus (attired all in black, including a hood) played the role of a spirit medium specialising in spirit media, as it were, or more precisely in the spirits of dead people trapped in books.
He invited attendees (of whom there were perhaps 10, presumably because those attending only had a day's notice of the event) to choose books at random and read a sentence from them, which he then would spin into a tangent, philosophical reflection or evidence of eldritch and unholy things beyond the veil between worlds. (In the first example, a cheerily banal line in colloquial English turned out to really be in "Ukrainian", and a portent of grim things indeed. Later, a book of knitting patterns revealed the battle between Jesus Christ and the tamagotchi—perhaps an echo of Momus' writings about the dualism between the Judaeochristian sex-death-guilt culture and the Shinto fertility religion, though he didn't labour that point.)
In between the entertainment, he performed a few songs, including Beowulf (which he did from under a blanket) and Robin Hood (with a dig at
Thatcher Blair Brown's devil-take-the-hindmost Britain), singing over an iPod playing through PC speakers, and playing the odd stylophone solo.
He also played one of the songs from the new album he's working on with one of the chaps from Gay Against You; it was built up from a Magazine sample (and thus, he said, possessed by Howard Devoto's restless spirit), and sounded quite good, in a glitchy breakcore sort of way; not too unlike Kid606 or Talkshow Boy.
Anyway, Momus' own account of the gig, with more details, is here.
Momus will be back in London in late June, when he will be wandering the south bank of the Thames and telling tourists that they're in Tokyo or something like that. Which should be worth going along to.
This weekend, your humble correspondent went to the Cans Festival, a huge stencil art exhibition in a tunnel under the former Eurostar platforms of Waterloo Station. The festival organisers took the entire road tunnel and transformed it into a gallery, with artists from all over the world painting pieces (most involving stencilling, though a few being paste-ups) along its length. The most publicised name attached to the exhibition was, of course, Banksy, and he had a number of works there; as well as some stencils, he was responsible for a sitting-room installation with derelict sofas and an old piano made available to the public and a number of "remixed" classical statues. Though there were several dozen more artists, and indeed, anyone could come along, register and add their artwork to the exhibition. (On Saturday evening, a section of the passageway was sealed off from the general public and made available only to registered artists, who were busily adorning it with stencils.)
Anyway, here are a few photos; the entire set is here:
Boris Johnson, Tory joke candidate, has just won the London mayoral election by some 140,000 votes. As of now, Londoners have forfeited the right to make smug remarks about Americans having voted for Bush.
Johnson didn't have any positive policies (other than the bizarre magic-Routemaster promise, which can be translated as either "let's divert a few million pounds from boring things like housing and education into designing a cool-looking retro bus" or "let's play a game: you pretend you're an idiot and I'll entertain you"), but got elected on (a) his raffish, loveable-buffoon image, and (b) dog-whistles to reactionary resentment (too hard/expensive to drive into London, too many unruly coloured youths/scary Muslims, "It's political correctness gone mad!"). In fact, he had expert coaching in the art of dog-whistle politics, having been managed by Lynton Crosby, who helped keep a right-wing government in power in Australia for 11 years, tapping into much the same reactionary sentiments and unspoken but popularly accepted bigotries.
It's overwhelmingly likely that the next four or so years won't be an era of innovative initiatives in London. Don't expect things like the Paris bicycle hire scheme, bold new green initiatives, pioneering public transport policy (something Ken Livingstone was actually really good at) or forward-looking visions for a metropolis at the centre of global culture. We can almost certainly expect the congestion charge to be abolished or "rationalised" to the point where nobody has to actually pay it (except perhaps for those pesky cyclists who get in everyone's way), and the axe to fall on Ken Livingstone's public-transport expansion programmes (you can forget about the city tram or the East London Overground reaching Clapham Junction), and quite possibly on Transport For London itself, abolishing this Inefficient Socialist Bureaucracy and flogging off individual tube lines to bus companies. The daily commute won't get any less slow or cramped, though at least those who own cars will have the option to drive. Also, if Crosby's previous client is anything to go by, expect the ugly politics of division and the "culture war" to come out, to see Johnson publicly beating up on cosmopolitan elites and "un-British" foreigners, to mass applause from the Daily Mail readers who voted for him. Certainly, Ken's celebrations of multiculturalism will be replaced by fields of Union Jacks, with Land Of Hope And Glory blaring through the tannoy. But the good side is that it'll be really easy to find parking at the Olympics.
The gist of this is that it now looks like, over the next few years, London will become an even less attractive place to live, even more paranoid and mean and self-absorbed, a backward-looking place whose glories are all in the past, with Boris Johnson's rhetorical Routemasters. And in four years' time, Londoners will look over their dirty, traffic-choked city and Ken Livingstone's reign will look like a golden age in comparison.
Today, Britain will go to the polls to elect local councils. In London, this als o involves an election for the Mayor of London, a powerful executive post with powers encompassing the entire city, which has been held since its inception by Ken Livingstone.
The election will involve a limited form of preferential voting, in which voters get two preferences; in essence, one's ideal candidate, and whom one regards as the lesser evil. (You can vote otherwise, of course; you could put down your two favourite fringe parties, in order of preference, but then once they had been eliminated, your vote would not have any input into the race between the two major-party candidates who are all but guaranteed to square off for the title.)
The two major candidates are, of course, Ken Livingstone in the Labour corner and, in the Tory corner, Boris Johnson, the outrageously outspoken party clown of the Conservative Party. Johnson is best known for his gaffes (such as talking about black areas as being full of "piccaninnies with watermelon smiles" and asking New Guineans whether they have stopped eating each other yet), though has been uncharacteristically restrained in recent months—some say by his campaign manager, none other than Lynton Crosbie, the Australian Karl Rove who kept John Howard's conservative government in power for 11 years and has since become a sort of soldier of fortune to rightwingers seeking office across the English-speaking world. Or, perhaps, by medication; for the most part, his policy pronouncements have been rather vague and not demonstrated much of a grasp on how exactly he intends to manage London (except for hinting that there'll be less management going on, and more power devolved).
Whom would I vote for? Well, naturally, Boris Johnson—if the election was for the post of Mascot of London, that is. His loveable-buffoon act is considerably more entertaining than anything Ken Livingstone has been able to come up with, and since no more suitable candidates (such as, say, a professional wrestler or Leoncie) are running, he'd be the best person for that job. However, since the election is not about choosing whom you'd most like to have a drink with at the pub but whom you'd want managing the metropolis of London, electing Johnson would be at best dismal, and quite probably disastrous.
Johnson has not revealed much of what he would actually do in office. He has issued a few policy ideas, all of which were very sketchy. There was his plan to replace the (much-maligned) bendy buses with something called "21st-century Routemasters", which nobody has actually seen, though we are supposed to believe that Boris will somehow conjure them up once he takes office; the proposal could scarcely sound less reassuring if we were promised flying Routemasters fuelled by pixie dust. (If—if—one were to take Johnson's word at face value, this would presumably involve allocating a big chunk of London council tax revenue to researching and developing a new retro-styled bus; which would be a jolly good boy's-own adventure, though hardly the most efficient use for tens of millions of taxpayers' pounds.) Other policies are either hopelessly ill-costed (such as the commitment to putting attendants on buses, whose costing turned out to be off by an order of magnitude) or else amount to little more than vague motherhood statements, promises to do something about crime or give power back to the people. If you squint hard enough, and hate the thought of Ken Livingstone getting back in enough, you can almost convince yourself that there is something there to vote for. Though you'd really need to believe that anything would be better than Livingstone.
Chances are what would happen if Johnson got in is that he'd pose for a few photo opportunities, pass a few populist pieces of legislation, play a bit with the giant model train set he has won and then, like Toad of Toad Hall, get bored of it and go off to pursue the next distraction. He already would be dividing his time with a seat in Parliament if he got in, so London couldn't expect more than half of his time. Of course, he would remain Mayor of London, but the real decisions would be made by the men behind the curtain, i.e., various nameless apparatchiks.
What these would be we can only guess at. While Johnson hasn't spoken about abolishing the successful Congestion Charge (a policy left publicly to the extreme right—the isolationist UKIP and the neo-fascist BNP—one of whose candidates is also on record as saying that rape cannot be an ordeal because women enjoy sex), he has hinted at rationalising it. It's quite likely that the rationalisation could involve filling it with the sorts of loopholes one could literally drive a SUV through. The recurring theme of "power to the people" could indicate dismantling a lot of the powers of the Mayor of London's office, the breaking up and privatisation of Transport for London, and could mean the end for projects such as Crossrail or the ongoing renewals of the Tube. As for cultural diversity, while Johnson (whom Crosbie has undoubtedly coached well in the art of dog-whistle politics) hasn't outspokenly condemned multiculturalism or championed a Daily Mail-approved brand of John Bull Englishness, he has in interviews said that the best thing about London's diversity was that one could find mangetout in the supermarket. That may or may not mean anything, but it doesn't sound promising. And let's remember that Lynton Crosbie's previous client also seemed like an affable moderate until he was safely in office and the gloves came off in a vicious, dirty culture war.
So yes, I'll be putting Ken Livingstone second. I'm still not sure whom I'll be putting first (I'm leaning towards either Siân Berry or Brian Paddick), though it won't be BoJo the Clown.
Charlie Brooker weighs into the London mayoral election; he's voting for Ken Livingstone, if only to stop Boris Johnson from winning:
A few years back, during the run-up to the Nathan Barley TV series, my co-author Chris Morris and I briefly kicked around a storyline about an animated MP running for election. When I say "animated", I mean literally animated. He was a cartoon - the political equivalent of Gorillaz - fashioned from state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery so that he could move and talk in real time, like Max Headroom. His speech would be provided on-the-fly by a professional cartoon voice artist working in conjunction with a team of political advisers and comedy writers, so he'd have an impish personality not dissimilar to the genie in Disney's Aladdin. Debating against him would be impossible because he'd make outrageously goonish statements one minute and trot out cunning political platitudes the next. Because he wasn't real, he'd never age, die, or be bogged down in scandal - and huge swathes of the population would vote for him just because they found him cool or fun or different.
Fast-forward to now. On May 1 London chooses its mayor, and I've got a horrible feeling it might pick Boris Johnson for similar reasons. Johnson - or to give him his full name, Boris LOL!!!! what a legernd!! Johnson!!! - is a TV character loved by millions for his cheeky, bumbling persona. Unlike the cartoon MP, he's magnetically prone to scandal, but this somehow only makes him more adorable each time. Tee hee! Boris has had an affair! Arf! Now he's offended the whole of Liverpool! Crumbs! He used the word "picaninnies"! Yuk yuk! He's been caught on tape agreeing to give the address of a reporter to a friend who wants him beaten up! Ho ho! Look at his funny blond hair! HA HA BORIS LOL!!!! WHAT A LEGERND!!!!!!Brooker then suggests that, should Johnson win the mayorality and not end up destroying London, that could open the doors to all parties running novelty candidates in the following election:
Basil Brush would be a shoo-in. Churchill, the nodding dog from the car insurance ads - he'll do. Or if we're after the ironic vote, how about Gene Hunt from Life on Mars? Or Phil Mitchell? At least he's a Londoner.
The colossal, ongoing cock-up of Heathrow's new Terminal 5 has been a boon to London's homeless community, who have taken to disguising themselves as delayed travellers and sleeping in the terminal:
Each night, scores of London's homeless men and women take advantage of modern travel delays by posing as stranded passengers in order to sleep in a warm and safe place. They play a cat-and-mouse game with police, often donning floral shirts, fanny packs and other travel accessories to blend in. And their increasing creativity — and ability to disappear in Heathrow's swelling crowds of delayed passengers — has prompted the airport to try a new approach.
"Rough sleepers," as homeless people are known in Britain, disguise themselves at all major airports, says Sandie Cox of Heathrow Travel Care, the social care organization overseeing the one-year pilot scheme. Indeed, Chicago's O'Hare airport instituted a homeless outreach in the 1990s. But while the problem may not be unique to Heathrow, several factors make it easier for rough sleepers to blend in. It is the busiest airport in Europe, has more delays than other major hubs, and while it doesn't serve Europe's low-cost carriers, it has still seen the effects of the democratization of air travel: gone are the days when you could identify a British air passenger by their suit and shiny shoes. Indeed, on Wednesday, the two scruffy passengers curled in the corner of a remote bathroom turned out to be holding tickets to LAX; they had chosen their spot because it was the only place they could find an outlet to charge their hand-held video game console.
Seen in the comments for a blog piece about the renaming of a London Underground station, this piece of trivia and/or folklore:
The name Surrey Quays was coined by civil servants as a way of embarrassing the then Minister of Transport, Cecil Parkinson. The name alludes to his deserted mistress, Sarah Keys. It would be a pity to lose this snippet of history.I have no idea whether or not there is any truth in this, or whether it's one of those things that somebody made up because the world would be more interesting if it were true.
Ken Livingstone has promised, should he be reelected, to ban all traffic from Oxford Street and replace it with a tram line, turning the shopping thoroughfare into something like Melbourne's Bourke Street, presumably paved in red bricks and containing tramp-proof public seating and such. Unlike Bourke Street, the traffic ban will be absolute, with no exemption for taxis.
A pedestrianised Oxford St. could be a good thing, turning a congested thoroughfare into a genuine public space. On the other hand, bus routes which go through it would either be rerouted through adjacent streets (which are already quite busy) or chopped in two.
Meanwhile, Tory clown prince Boris Johnson has vowed that, should he be elected, he will allow motorbikes to use bus lanes, just as cyclists do. Finally the petrolheads have a candidate they can rely on, since Jeremy Clarkson (who proposed abolishing the congestion charge for cars but imposing a £500/day congestion charge on bicycles, on the grounds that they are a nuisance to decent motorists everywhere and the smug, politically-correct Guardian-reading vegan types who cycle are annoying) declined to run.
Alas, if Livingstone (who has done an OK job, when he's not being George Galloway Lite) doesn't get reelected, it looks like Johnson will get up, as the other candidates (Brian Paddick and Sian Berry) do not look like having a chance. And, if Johnson becomes Mayor of London, I wonder how long it'll take until the fun-loving buffoonery gives way to hardline tory policies.
Looking out from a London-bound train from Brighton today, I noticed a peculiar sight to the west of the railway line. At one point, in the area between two railway lines, there is a lot containing a large number of old red telephone boxes, in varying states of rust and decay.
Examining the line in Google Maps, the location appears to be here, just south of the M25, and in the vicinity of Redhill and Merstham.
As Camden Market (and the celebrity-infested Hawley Arms) burned this weekend, somebody took advantage of the commotion to paint over the famous Banksy maid up the road, leaving only a stencil saying "all the best".
The culture jammer calling himself The Decapitator has released a video of his latest stunt—hijacking a consignment of copies of free commuter tabloid TheLondonPaper, modifying them by gruesomely beheading David Beckham in a mobile phone ad, and then droplifting the doctored copies near Old Street, all in the space of 3 hours.
(via Wired News)
The latest thing to do on the London Underground: swapping station names around on maps, confusing tourists:
In March, the British Library is hosting hosting a futurist banquet, based on Futurist Manifesto author Filippo Marinetti's 1932 La Cucina Futurista:
The starter makes it clear that this will be no ordinary meal. Expect to be served an olive, a quartered fennel bulb and a kumquat, while the fingers of your free hand stroke morsels of velvet, silk and sandpaper. At the same time the scent of carnations will be sprayed into the room and your ears will be assailed by “wild jazz”, Wagner and aeroplane noise.
Typical Futurist dishes included meat broth sprinkled with champagne and liquor and decorated with rose petals, or the deliberately obscene-looking porco eccittato, a whole cooked salami upended on a plate with coffee sauce mixed with eau de cologne.
Benito Fiore, chairman of the Italian Academy of Cuisine in London, is hosting the event to support the British Library exhibition Breaking The Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937. He said: “Marinetti was a really fantastic person but his food was awful to eat. We are trying to make it edible.”Entry to the banquet is £75; dress code is "classic or 1930s with a Futurist twist".
Scientists have found a rat-eating plant in far north Queensland. Perhaps they could start exporting them to London (where, folklore has it, one is never more than either six or 20 feet away from a rat, depending on whom you ask)?
Such as the following: 1) simulate how a crowd flees from a burning car toward a single evacuation point; 2) test out how a pathogen might be transmitted through a mobile pedestrian over a short period of time; 3) see how the existing urban grid facilitate or does not facilitate mass evacuation prior to a hurricane landfall or in the event of dirty bomb detonation; 4) design a mall which can compel customers to shop to the point of bankruptcy, to walk obliviously for miles and miles and miles, endlessly to the point of physical exhaustion and even death; 5) identify, if possible, the tell-tale signs of a peaceful crowd about to metamorphosize into a hellish mob; 6) determine how various urban typologies, such as plazas, parks, major arterial streets and banlieues, can be reconfigured in situ into a neutralizing force when crowds do become riotous; and 7) conversely, figure out how one could, through spatial manipulation, inflame a crowd, even a very small one, to set in motion a series of events that culminates into a full scale Revolution or just your average everyday Southeast Asian coup d'état -- regime change through landscape architecture.
Or you quadruple the population of Chicago. How about 200 million? And into its historic Emerald Necklace system of parks, you drop an al-Qaeda sleeper cell, a pedophile, an Ebola patient, an illegal migrant worker, a swarm of zombies, and Paris Hilton. Then grab a cold one, sit back and watch the landscape descend into chaos. It'll be better than any megablockbuster movie you'll see this summer.And here are emotional maps of various urban areas, including parts of London and San Francisco, created by having volunteers walk around them with GPS units and galvanic skin response meters.
(via schneier, mind hacks)
Some anonymous guerilla artist has been hacking the heads off models in advertising posters in London. Dubbed the "East London Decapitator", he or she creates meticulously photoshopped overlays, with the figures' heads replaced with gory stumps and the surroundings splattered with blood, and pastes them over the advertisements. Nobody — not squeaky-clean Disney stars, not pop singers, not even computer-animated characters — is safe.here. It's pretty entertaining, as long as he/she doesn't escalate into beheading actual live models or something.
(via Wired News)
Charlie Stross visits London and devises a foolproof means of preventing terrorist suicide bombings in the capital:
The solution to protecting the London Underground from terrorist suicide bombers can be summed up in one word: Daleks. One Dalek per tube platform, behind a door at the end. Fit them with cameras and remote controls and run them from Ken Livingstone's office. Any sign of terrorism on the platform? Whoosh! The doors open and the Dalek comes out, shrieking "exterminate!" in a demented rasp reminiscent of Michael Howard during his tenure as Home Secretary, only less merciful.
The British are trained from birth to know the two tactics for surviving a Dalek attack; run up the stairs (or escalator), or hide behind the sofa. There are no sofas in the underground, but there are plenty of escalators. Switch them to run upwards when the Dalek is out, and you can clear a platform in seconds.
Suicide bombers are by definition Un-British, and will therefore be unable to pass a citizenship test, much less deal with the Menace from Skaro. And as for motivating the Daleks, one need only mention that the current crop of would-be British suicide bombers are doctors ...
In a few years, there may be direct trains from London to Germany; Deutsche Bahn is applying to run trains through the Channel Tunnel to St. Pancras. Eurotunnel, who own the tunnel, are apparently keen for them to do so, being considerably in debt and having capacity to spare. There remains a question of safety standards, though, which DB may want amended somewhat:
At present, passenger trains using the tunnel have to be capable of being divided in two in the case of a fire. The safety rules also require operators to use a special locomotive capable of coping with the signals and power supply on both sides of the Channel. Under European Union open access rules for railways, the £5.7 billion High Speed One, due to open in a fortnight between the Channel Tunnel and St Pancras, has been built to accommodate trains from across Europe.If DB get permission to run services to London, trains could reach Cologne in 4 hours and Frankfurt in under 5. The article doesn't say whether all services would be during daytime hours (as are the current Eurostar services, which, after all, are considerably shorter in duration) or whether there would be overnight sleeper trains from London to the heart of Europe.
This afternoon, I was walking through Notting Hill when I noticed that the fronts of various shops had changed. Jack Wills, the "geezer" couturier on the corner of Portobello Road and Talbot Road (near Rough Trade) had become "Fowler and Green Hardware", and had racks of old boxes out the front. Meanwhile, the café diagonally across the road had been transformed into an old radio shop, its windows full of black-and-white TVs and such. The First Floor bar was in the process of being done up to look like a no-nonsense old pub.
It turned out that they were filming some scenes from a film titled "Hippy Hippy Shake", which is set in London in the early 1960s. I'm not sure whether they were using Portobello Road to stand in for a generic street in early-60s London (which would presumably have been quite expensive), or whether they were actually filming a scene set in Portobello Road, and in which case, whether the shops they had reconstructed had actually once existed there. (Then again, there was someone carrying a Blenheim Crescent street sign, which presumably had been temporarily taken down, so perhaps they were actually reconstructing the intersection two blocks down circa 1962 or something?)
The Times has the poignant story of the death of a 42-year-old loner, whose body was not found until, two months after his death, a neighbour (who did not know him) noticed an odd smell coming from his north London council flat:
For some, the decision to disappear is gradual. It begins with an impulse, a desire to disconnect. It could mean turning the phone off and retreating under the duvet. For most people, it’s a fleeting escape. Family and friends are what keep them tethered. But what happens to those who become untethered? Or let go on purpose? Days, months, even years can pass. They have slipped through the cracks. Despite the presence of CCTV cameras and telecoms technology, which make most of us feel we are constantly monitored, it has become easier for those who live alone to avoid human contact altogether.
The pharmacist said he was always dressed neatly. He described him as “shy and pleasant – nothing mentally ill about him”, and admitted that when he didn’t see him for a while, he just assumed that Smith had moved away.
A few doors down from his flat, at No 168, Andrew’s neighbour, a postman, described Andrew as quiet, tall and thin. They lived near each other for 13 years but had only spoken to say hello when they passed each other coming and going on the stairs. In all the years he lived there, he said, he had seen no friends, ever. Andrew kept to himself.
An anonymous author has droplifted a book into bookshops in the West End of London. The book in question, "The Idiocy of Idears" by "schoolboy Gustav Claudius" purported to be the jottings of a dyslexic schoolboy; further investigation revealed it to be an upcoming work by prolific poet, painter and punk rocker Billy Childish, founder of the art movement Stuckism.
Car bomb found and disarmed near Piccadilly Circus. Could this be the "Hiroshima and Nagasaki-scale" al-Qaeda atrocity meant to "shake the Roman throne"?
Somebody has been going around the London Underground with specially printed transparency stickers, adding a station named "Brown Punk" to the Hammersmith & City line:
And then there's the graffiti all over town, reading "Alphabet of Brooke Shields" or its variations.
For those reading this in (the vicinity of) London: next Wednesday evening, the Open Rights Group is having a party at Bar Kick in Shoreditch, from 6 to 11pm. There will be "free culture" music and visuals, guest speakers and a raffle, with prizes including signed copies of books by copyfight luminaries like Lawrence Lessig and Bruce Schneier, a PC keyboard signed by Neil Gaiman, and the chance to be written into a Cory Doctorow novel. Your Humble Blogger will sort of be DJing there (there aren't DJs as the place doesn't have a live music licence, but I will be preparing a mix CD of freely distributable music and such that will be queued up on the PA). Attendance is free, if you bring one new ORG supporter.
For years, map historians have been puzzled by the so-called "London Underground Map", and have speculated on what it could possibly represent. Now a new theory claims that, when rotated and adjusted appropriately, the map corresponds with the map of Australia:
Captain Columbus set sail from Whitby in the "Beagle" soon after he had routed the Armada at Trafalgar, in 1215, and reached Australia a few months later. It is thought that he had the map drawn for him, by one Harry Beck, to remind him where he had buried the treasure. Not wanting the map to lead other explorers to find the loot, should the map have fallen into the wrong hands, he instructed Beck to insert all kinds of fictitious roads and placenames -- even airports!
In Beck's hands, Port Philip is renamed Watford -- presumably in an attempt to deter would-be looters -- Botany Bay is renamed Uxbridge, Perth: Upminster and Albany: Epping. Mystery still remains about the purpose of the zonal markings, but Professor Bovlomov speculates that they might indicate the friendliness -- or hostility -- of the natives. The Professor believes that Beck may have included a coded message within the map to identify the location of the treasure. "Bank" is dismissed as "too obvious", and is probably intended to lead the unauthorised holder of the map to a certain death. West Finchley, though, may prove to be the site of the hidden treasure because, as the professor says: "It is obviously a made up name, and was probably invented by Beck as a kind of joke. No one would ever think of going to such a place, let alone living there!" When asked to comment, other experts said it was Barking.
After Oxfam started selling Oyster card wallets to the sorts of Independent-reading Londoners who wear their consciences on their sleeves, two malcontents have launched their own range, in the fine Londinian tradition of grumbling about the Tube:
I woke up this morning to find London covered with snow:
Not surprisingly, there were severe delays on the Tube.
While London's transport system shut down for Christmas, gangs of graffitiists made their way into the tunnels and spray-painted Camden Town tube station. Unfortunately, we're not talking about Banksy-esque acts of carefully measured artistic subversion here, but just tagging and covering as much space with big ugly letters as possible. (Bonus points for obliterating information boards; those commuters unable to see where their train is going from will be deeply aware that they are your bitch and You Da Man. Wanker.) Anyway, there are pictures here and here).
Meanwhile, someone else stole into Brixton tube station and did their own bit of redecorating; they seem to have been somewhat less destructive and more concerned with actual aesthetics, rather than just pissing all over everything; photos here and here.
Last week, a tornado hit an otherwise ordinary North London street, destroying a few houses. One of those rendered homeless was Caroline Phillips, a freelance writer for the Evening Standard. Her story is here:
If you dream of your home, it symbolises your psyche, what makes you you. It's your security. My soul was in that house. For three years, I'd indulged my passion for perfect decor. In January, it was to have been shot for Homes & Property. On Saturday Ella is, no, that's was, having three friends for a birthday sleepover. I am crying as I write this.
Simon Willsmer, our loss adjustor, hasn't yet broken that news to us. The insurance companies have taken a recent slating, but he was sensitive and honourable. He said we could stay in a hotel. Adrian explained that there is only one hotel in London: Claridge's. Simon did not demur. And he loved what's left of our specialist-polished plaster walls.
We took Anya, 11, "home" on Friday. Her room was virtually untouched, being at the front of the house. But she feels displaced and traumatised. On Sunday we took Ella. She was devastated that her cat, Happy, was missing, possibly killed. She surveyed the destruction wreaked on her spotty Cath Kidson carpet, rosebud blinds and soft toys. "You always say my room looks like a bomb site," she said, smiling bravely.
As water levels in Britain's reservoirs decline, a London local government is taking action to improve efficiency. Among new planning measures announced by Barnet borough council is a plan to require new homes to have only showers and not baths. The Times weighs in on why this is a threat to the British way of life and a cherished institution alongside tea and the Shipping Forecast:
Bathing is a therapy, a way of easing aches and pains, relaxing weary muscles and helping a tired brain to expand after a day of contracting. We don't expect that we will suddenly come up with a modern Archimedes principle. Or, indeed, remember exactly what it was about bodies and fluids that Archimedes puzzled out. But Eureka moments do come in the bath. A blast under a shower is better for displacing cobwebs and helping the brain to focus on immediate tasks at the start of the day. But if you need to ponder a knottier, big-picture problem, a long evening wallow in the bath is the best way of going about it.
Friends of the Earth say that the Barnet bath initiative "is probably the shape of things to come". But is it really? We are always being told that showers use less water than baths. Thames Water says that one bath uses 80 litres of water and is the equivalent of two five-minute showers. But power showers can use more water than baths. I doubt many people will trade in their power showers, and why should they? Ordinary showers are a false economy. Trying to get clean under the feeble jet can take all day.The odd thing is that, while councils are talking about measures such as eliminating baths from homes, most British houses still don't have water meters, and whenever the introduction of such meters is mooted, a vocal minority raise a fuss as if their fundamental human rights were about to be violated.
Overheard In London, a repository for amusing things overheard in, well, London:
"The Central Line is quite fast, though?"
"Yeah, one every two minutes. And that's real minutes, not Northern Line minutes."
Two business talking in the tube, one said : "Went over to Sydney the other day, was asked by customs clearance 'Do you have a criminal record, Sir ?', I answered 'Sorry, I did not know it is still required'"
In a library in Hackney
"I'm sorry sir, all the books on pit bull terriers in all the public libraries of Hackney have been stolen"
Girl 1: "What are you doing for your birthday?"
Girl 2: "I was planning a David Hasselhoff dance party but it didn't work out. A few of the people from the magazine gave me a Cher doll. I love Cher. She's like Shakespeare. I'll have an anti-fur, Cher party instead."
Girl 1: "Are you from Shoreditch?"
While Ken Livingstone prepares to slap punitive charges on oversized SUVs and gloats over the drop in SUV sales, Westminster City Council has installed free recharging stations for electric cars and bicycles. These are devices that look like parking meters, and are located in Covent Garden (where London's first hydrogen fuel cell bus also goes). Both parking and electricity are free (albeit there's a 3 hour limit), so in addition to not having to pay the congestion charge, you get your fuel paid for by the council. Assuming that someone else with an electric vehicle hasn't gotten there before you.
I suspect that free charging stations won't last after electric cars become more popular; after all, someone has to pay the bill. I guess there's sustainability and then there's sustainability.
While the spooks have their hands full keeping tabs on a terrifying proliferation of terrorists and extremists, they apparently have some help from a shadowy unofficial organisation named Vigil, comprised of retired intelligence personnel, amateur sleuths and other interested parties:
The group's director Dominic Whiteman said he set up Vigil with two other businessmen last year to act as an interface between retired spies who were still party to good, raw intelligence, and the police and security services. "This evidence was just getting lost in the system," Whiteman said in a telephone interview.
Sixty per cent of Vigil's work involves gaining information via the internet, by infiltrating online chatrooms, while the remainder is face-to-face or telephone work. The information gleaned is passed on to authorities like the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, the New York Intelligence Unit and British police's Counter Terrorism Command (CTC).
A CTC spokeswoman said the group was treated seriously.
One member of Vigil is credited with helping bring about the conviction of cleric Hamza, jailed in London in February for inciting racial hatred and soliciting murder, and wanted in the United States on terrorism charges.The same article contains this factoid:
Whiteman said a very trusted contact who had a "key security role in the UK" had revealed that 70 per cent of information given in a daily briefing to President Bush by US intelligence chief John Negroponte centred on the British capital.Which is sobering, assuming that you take the article's claims at face value. It could be true, or it could be fantasy. Neither would surprise me.
It has emerged that the Church of Scientology has been feteing the City of London police with lunches and regular invitations to Scientologist-connected entertainment events, including Tom Cruise blockbusters and an all-Clam "hot jive" band.
A spokeswoman for the Church has claimed that the hospitality is completely benign, part of a constructive relationship stemming from the Church's clean-up campaigns in drug-ridden areas. Meanwhile, a London-based
psychlo psychiatrist has claimed that there are sinister motivations to it; though, given that psychiatrists are evil puppets of Xenu, he would, wouldn't he?
Stephen Bayley, an prominent design critic, has issued a scathing indictment of conditions in London, speaking to a Conservative Party policy group:
"Most of them are getting worse. London is filthy, lawless and expensive. These are not great conditions for civility to flourish."
"Putting 10 million aggressive hominids into close proximity and inviting them to engage in serial acts of competitive individualism ... for jobs, schools or parking spaces, could not be considered a reasonable idea," Bayley said.
"You put rats in claustrophobic circumstances and they become homosexual, murderous and cannibalistic in no time at all.I wonder whether he threw in the word "homosexual" to appeal to the reactionary elements in his audience.
Though has London ever been anything other than filthy, lawless and expensive?
The Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu goes into London's sewers with the "flushers" who work there:
There is one story that many flushers in London like to recount. It concerns a fat iceberg that had been building up below Leicester Square over the course of a whole decade. Eventually, this 150-square-foot "slug of hardened fat" grew so large that it was impassable. A gang of flushers armed with supersucker machines spent six weeks one blazing summer trying to dislodge it. By the time they finished they were reduced to using ice picks to hack away at the white mountain.
"It looks like a huge packet of lard. It shines in the dark and gives off this phenomenal transparent heat. Within ten minutes, as soon as you stick a shovel in it, you could slide through. The water comes at you like a dyke. The risks are colossal. Later, an animal food company got in touch because they wanted to buy and recirculate the fat."
London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, now claims that global warming may soon make the Tube unusable in summer, with temperatures in the uncoolable, Victorian-era system becoming threatening to life:
Ken said "You reach a point where the underground will become literally intolerable and you could face the prospect of loss of life." Although he's offered hundreds of thousands of pounds as a reward to find workable air conditioning for the underground, it sounds like the heat will eventually defeat the system. He believes we will have to resign ourselves to closures "if the temperature goes up faster than we fear it's going to".
In London, there are official notices everywhere from local councils and the Home Office warning the reader to beware of the criminality of their fellow man:has not failed to notice this (and, indeed, being an Emotional Communist, he sees it as evidence of the vicious winner-takes-all culture of Thatcherite-Blairite Britain):
It seemed to chime with the odd attitude expressed in an article I read in a British newspaper about an elderly couple who'd been murdered by robbers in their home. While everybody interviewed said what a sweet old pair they'd been, walking into town arm in arm, they were unanimous: these were people you'd almost expect to get robbed and killed, considering what an affluent area they lived in and how old and sweetly defenseless they were. It was almost some sort of Darwinian inevitability that such folks would get chopped up.Momus picks up on the slogan "leave it on show, expect it to go", and suggests some additional rhyming slogans warning people of the ubiquitous danger around them, whilst at the same time making it clear that they have only themselves to blame if they're insufficiently paranoid:
Walk visibly breasted, get quickly molested.And in the comments, others make their contributions:
Say something clever, get ready for bovver.
You died having sex? What did you expect?
Come to Berlin, you won't get done in!
peace, love and understanding? we're going to a hangin'Though not all take as gloomy a view of contemporary British life as Momus does. His old foil, Rhodri Marsden, has a different take:
get paid to make art??? we'll just buy it at wal-mart.
take the ipod for a jog, get murdered like a dog.
If you're not waving a flag, they'll call you a fag.
Get on the bus - you'll have no fuss!
Pop out for a beer, for fun and good cheer!
Let's all have a lark at Finsbury Park!
A London artist has produced a noise-level map of London, showing where the quiet places in this noisy city are.
(via Boing Boing)
This past weekend, Your Humble Narrator went to see The Sultan's Elephant, a series of fantastic street-theatre pieces put on by French street theatre group Royal De Luxe and involving enormous puppets on industrial cranes, teams of Liliputian puppeteers in red livery and a 40-foot robot elephant. Photos are here.
I took photos on two occasions: once using a digital SLR and once using my small compact camera (a Canon PowerShot A620). Oddly enough, more of the ones with the compact came out well, because, being behind a large crowd meant that the only way I could get a good shot was to hold the camera up over my head, and doing that, aiming is a lot easier with a fold-out LCD screen than using a SLR.
It's occasions like this that made me wish that someone would make a hybrid digital camera, which takes standard SLR lenses (like, say, the Canon EF ones) but is not a SLR, instead having a foldout screen like the PowerShot G series. This would give most of the advantages of a SLR, whilst making it possible to aim without having one's eye to the eyepiece.
The family of the French-born al-Qaeda terrorist and/or raving lunatic Zacarias Moussaoui, who recently failed to escape solitary confinement for life, are claiming that living in London turned him from a nice young man into a murderous zealot.
It has emerged that the 7/7 suicide bombers acted alone, working from plans from the internet and financing their attacks themselves. There was no "fifth bomber", and as for the al-Qaeda fixer who indoctrinated them, instructed them in the finer points of bomb-making and flew out a few hours before the bombs went off, well, he didn't exist either.
The upshot of this, of course, is that it is possible for a small group of individuals with a few hundred pounds to make bombs and kill more than 50 people without any help whatsoever. And as long as there are pissed-off people with militant views and beliefs in a glorious afterlife, such things could happen again. As, indeed, could suicide-bomb-based high-school massacres and the like.
A few photos I took recently:
Reflections on the London Underground:
A walk along Regent Canal:
And an uncommonly pedantic piece of graffiti on a Microsoft Office ad:
The Silly Tube Maps page has apparently received a nastygram from Transport for London's lawyers, keen to protect their precious intellectual property, and will be shutting down on Monday. If you wanted to grab a map of which stations are within walking distance, or which ones are underground, or with the station names translated into German or rotated about the Thames, do so quickly.
Budget airline Ryanair, known for flying to cheap airports hours away from the cities they nominally serve, has outdone itself. The airline ran ads in Norway offering flights to "London Prestwick" airport. Prestwick, on the outskirts of Glasgow, is 400 miles (and some 5 hours by train) from London, and technically not even in the same country; chances are that, if you're already at said airport, the quickest and cheapest way of getting to London would be to catch another flight.
The Londonist reveals a list of places equivalent to Notting Hill around the world. (That's Notting Hill as in the part of West London, not as in the Working Title romcom.) These places include The Marais in Paris, Paddington in Sydney (though wouldn't Glebe be more Notting Hill?) and Christianshavn in Copenhagen; Manchester and Glasgow get two Notting Hill equivalents each: The Cliff and West Didsbury and Strathbungo and Garnethill respectively.
This research was carried out by the simple expedient of doing a Google search for "answer to notting hill". This technique can, of course, be extended to finding equivalents for other iconic districts: for example, Camden Town apparently has equivalents in Tokyo's Harajuku, San Francisco's Haight Ashbury (so that's full of brightly-coloured teenagers and mohician punks with "PUNK" in big letters on their clothing?), Stockholm's Hornstull and Buenos Aires' San Telmo. Running it for Melbourne locales was less fruitful; there are apparently no Brunswick Street equivalents anywhere, though there is one Chapel Street equivalent (Geelong's Packington Street).
Incidentally, there is no Melbourne equivalent of Notting Hill listed. Melbourne does have a locale named Notting Hill, but it is a rather desolate stretch of urban sprawl north of Monash University, where there are enough industrial estates to keep the student-infested 1970s bungalows spread out. Perhaps Carlton or Williamstown would be a more accurate equivalent?
8. Devout Orthodox Jews are three times as likely to jaywalk as other people, according to an Israeli survey reported in the New Scientist. The researchers say it's possibly because religious people have less fear of death.
59. Oliver Twist is very popular in China, where its title is translated as Foggy City Orphan.
74. It takes a gallon of oil to make three fake fur coats.
81. George Bernard Shaw named his shed after the UK capital so that when visitors called they could be told he was away in London.
99. The Japanese word "chokuegambo" describes the wish that there were more designer-brand shops on a given street.
100. Musical instrument shops must pay an annual royalty to cover shoppers who perform a recognisable riff before they buy, thereby making a "public performance".
It now emerges that London's win of the 2012 Olympics may have been due to a voting error. Apparently one member who had meant to vote for Madrid in the third round voted for Paris, which won second place by one vote. Had Madrid won, it is speculated that the votes of the Latin American countries would have easily won it the Olympics in the final round.
Staff from the US embassy in London are asserting their God-given right as Americans to drive where and as they please by refusing to pay London's congestion charge. The staff claim that the charge is a tax, from which, as diplomats, they are exempt; Transport for London asserts that it is not a tax but a road toll, for which no exemptions apply. The Tories, opposed to both taxation and the abridgment of private transport, are making hay:
"Most of us have been making this point for some time. The Americans may only just be waking up to the reality of having Ken Livingstone for Mayor."The US Embassy has run up about £142,500 of unpaid congestion charge fines since stopping paying the charge in July; there is no means for the government to collect payment other than by threat of sending diplomats back. More recently, the German embassy has joined the revolt.
London's ill-starred Underground took another battering today with the Northern Line being shut down indefinitely. Apparently drivers walked off the job after emergency brakes failed for the fifth time, and, despite the private operators' implorations to get back to work and pretend that everything's OK, have remained on strike. More details here, and technical details from a Tube driver here.
There will soon be a children's TV series about the London Underground. Underground Ernie, being made for the BBC, will be set on the iconic underground system, and will feature a cast of anthropomorphised tube trains named after lines:
Each of the trains has a different character, with Bakerloo being a detective, Circle a hippy chick, Victoria a caring grandmother, Jubilee a gadget-mad teenager and Hammersmith and City competitive twins.There will also be visiting trains from the US, Russia and Australia. (Maybe the Australian one will be an Akubra-hatted roadtrain named Bruce or something.)
The press are having a field day with this, in light of ongoing commuter misery on the creaking system. Metro suggests some plot lines, involving characters fixing the dodgy brakes on Northern Line trains and rescuing fainting commuters in an episode named "Summer Fun" and a maintenance man using the wrong spanner to fix tracks. Meanwhile, the Times article on the series is quite sarcastic.
2. You have never been to The Tower of London or Madame Tussauds but love Brighton
4. Hookers and the homeless are invisible.
9. You consider eye contact an act of overt aggression.
19. The UK west of Heathrow is still theoretical to you.
24. You don't hear sirens anymore.
25. You've mentally blocked out all thoughts of the city's air/water quality and what it's doing to your insides.
29. You roll your eyes and say 'tsk' at the news that someone has thrown themselves under a tube train.
A beautiful and evocative piece of writing from Suw Charman about the subjective psychogeography of a city (in her case, London):
London is not a city. It's not a place. Not anymore. It's a mosaic of memories, as scattered through time as they are over the landscape. Five years of inhabitation followed by another five of constant visitation. Experience layered upon experience like thick coats of paint on old walls. Chip at it, pick at it, see what colour lies underneath.
Suddenly, a memory of the fish I saw on the pavement in Rotherhithe. There it was, a huge fish, still twitching, gasping, wanting water. It sat on the pavement in it's own little puddle of water in the middle of a hot summer's day, just yards from the Thames. There was no one in sight. When I come out of the corner shop, it's gone. Just a damp patch to show it was ever there. But still no one around.
I wonder if I'll remember that when I am old. I wonder how far into the future my past stretches. How much that is gone forever will be here forever? Where does my past end?
The official marketing restrictions for the London Olympics have been announced; in order to protect sponsors' investment, other businesses in London will be prohibited from using in their names or marketing not only the word 'Olympic', but also a host of other words, among them 'games', "gold', 'silver', 'bronze', '2012' or 'summer', as well as facsimiles of the Olympic logo (Audi dealerships can't be too happy about this) or the as yet undesigned mascots. No word on whether it will be illegal to wear T-shirts with political slogans in public spaces in London, as was apparently the case in Sydney in 2000.
Dust off your anoraks, because a new alternative club night is opening in London; the night, Feeling Gloomy, will play only miserablist anthems. Patrons can probably expect the usuals: The Smiths, Leonard Cohen, and such, as well as a few surprises:
And Wake Up Boo, by the Boo Radleys, which far from being an end-of-the-summer anthem is apparently "about death". But just when you think the play list sounds like a trip down memory lane for those who were students or Indie kids in the mid 90s, he adds that East 17's Stay Another Day puts in an appearance. When I suggest that that particular song is just 'slushy stuff' I am told it qualifies because it is about the suicide of the songwriter's brother.
"I just created a night that I would want to go to and for people who maybe have stopped going to clubs because they don't like the music. When a flyer for a club says 'sexy, funky, fun', it makes me annoyed. It's not sexy, it's drunk girls in mini-skirts being sick."The night will also serve cheese and pickle sandwiches and cups of tea; part of the proceeds will go to the Depression Alliance.
There is an enormous writing desk on Hampstead Heath; it is there until the 9th of October:
More photos here.
Londoners probably shouldn't relax too soon, if The Times' claim that a third terror cell is poised to strike are correct. The claims apparently come from a Special Branch conference at Scotland Yard, though elsewhere, the authorities have been downplaying them. In any case, this matter is far from over, and it may take months to find those behind the bombings. The fact that one of them managed to slip through the net and leave the country a few days after the alarm was raised doesn't raise one's confidence.
In other news: it emerges that the Oval bomber tried to have an imam sacked for being too moderate, and the bomber held in Rome tells all to an Italian newspaper, claiming that they only planned a "demonstration attack" and didn't intend to kill anyone; perhaps his handlers told him that the backpack he was carrying contained a large red flag with "BANG!" printed on it or something? Meanwhile, the youth wing of a mainstream UK Muslim group is calling for jihad against the infidels (i.e., us), and details are emerging about the psychology of the failed suicide bombers. And if there's one phrase that says "loser in the game of life", it would be "failed suicide bomber":
Elie Godsi, a consultant clinical psychologist, says that there is a huge stigma attached to terrorists who fail which means they are unable to return to their communities.
"There is a great deal of stigma in having not succeeded," said the forensic psychologist from the University of Nottingham and author of Making Sense of Madness and Badness. "They will regroup and try again or try to take their own lives."
All four July 21 bombing suspects have been captured; two were taken down, using SAS tactics, in Notting Hill (just off Portobello Road) and Kensington, and a third was nabbed by Italian anti-terrorism units in Rome (perhaps he was going to hook up with the Grey Wolves, who apparently maintain a presence in the Eternal City and have connections to Islamist radical groups?). And then there's the alleged mastermind, who has been picked up in Zambia; the US also want him, so he may well end up in Gitmo or farmed out to the Syrians or someone for "extraordinary rendition"; couldn't happen to a nicer guy...
The police have announced that the investigation and the threat are far from over, and that the assumption is that there may be other suicide teams and/or cells at large. Quite a few other people have been arrested, and the authorities are still appealing for information.
It's a mind-game being played out all over the Tube network, and indeed on many trains and buses throughout the country. It's performed in silence, with people unsure of their neighbours' motives and guilty about their own feelings of suspicion.
Even though people say little when they're travelling, there's plenty going on inside - fears of danger, changed routes, calculations to avoid risks, guilt at making stereotypical assumptions, anger at being unfairly distrusted.
"I do not take my rucksack to work anymore, which had my lunch and work shirt. I would rather wear a dirty shirt left at work than be looked at suspiciously. I also wear a T-shirt to work now, as I am afraid to wear too much, after the shooting," he writes.
"As I got on the tube with my rucksack, a fellow passenger saw me, waited a second then got up, to wait on the platform for the next train," writes Dev.South Asian and Middle Eastern-looking commuters with large bags, as one might imagine, are feeling the brunt of the distrust:
Marcus, who says his family are Greek-Cypriot, has devised a strategy to avoid "odd looks" on the Tube (which he attributes to his Mediterranean appearance). To make himself seem non-threatening, he now wears a Make Poverty History wristband and makes a point of reading the Economist.
I can't avoid carrying a big rucksack with my mobile office in when I travel. As I'm an Asian male that's been getting suspicious looks, I've taken to carrying a bottle of wine as if I'm taking it home for dinner. It's ironic, I don't even like wine, but it's a clear visual symbol that says I'm not a fanatic Islamic bomber.
Of course, now that the secret's out, the next crop of suicide bombers could well be queueing up for Make Poverty History armbands, wine bottles and other non-threatening-looking props.
There are also people who have stopped wearing their MP3 players or iPods because of worries about trailing wires or not hearing orders from the police.
Though, OTOH, one of the original bombing victims reportedly retained her hearing because of the iPod earphones she was wearing shielding her ears (and her life because the laptop on her back took the brunt of the blast). Perhaps Apple should use her in an ad campaign?
More explosions on the Tube, this time using only detonators. Which is either the terrorists showing that they can strike again, the terrorists showing that they can't strike again because they don't have explosives, or bored teenagers thinking it'd be a fun prank. No casualties are reported.
(Apparently the devices exploded at Warren Street, Shepherd's Bush, Oval and on a bus in Bethnal Green. Shepherd's Bush and Bethnal Green are both areas with many South Asian immigrants living in them. Could it be neo-Nazi skinheads or football hooligan types deciding to "avenge" the 7/7 bombings, in typically moronic fashion?)
The BBC has a special feature on Battersea Power Station (you know, the upside-down-coffee-table-shaped structure in south London, best known from Pink Floyd and Orb cover artwork), including panoramic views (the Art Deco control room looks fantastic, like something from a retrofuturistic scifi film), photographs from its past and sketches of development plans (apparently it is set to become a shopping centre/restaurant complex; let's hope they redevelop it sensitively).
It has been confirmed that the tube bombings were carried out by British-born suicide bombers. This is something pretty much everyone was hoping not to hear: for one, it is next to impossible to defend against suicide bombers (the admonitions to look out for unaccompanied bags are, of course, useless; meanwhile, some claim that the body-scanning machines to be installed on the Tube at massive expense will only provide suicide bombers with long queues to blow themselves up near). In Israel, they have metal detectors and explosive detectors everywhere (you can't enter a reasonable-sized public space without being scanned), and that doesn't seem to have stemmed the tide of carnage. And guess what: we're all Israelis now.
The fact that the bombers were British-born, showed no sign of association with Islamist extremists, and were known, among other things, to good-naturedly play cricket at a local club in Leeds is even more chilling. It can't be good for relations between Britain's Islamic communities and the rest of the country; already, those neo-Nazi hatemongers, the British National Party, have been making hay from the tragedy.
Word of the day: Londonistan, or the US press's term for London-as-the-Jihadist-hub-of-Europe:
In articles with headlines such as "For decades London thrived as a busy crossroads for terror" (New York Times) and "Continent's Issues include Geography and Open borders: Bombers travel freely, police cannot" (Wall Street Journal), the American press argue that London is a global hub for Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist cells.
"If London became a magnet for fiery preachers, it also became a destination for men willing to carry out their threats," said a front page report in the Times on Sunday. "For a decade, the city has been a crossroads for would-be terrorists who used it as a home base, where they could raise money, recruit members and draw inspiration from the militant messages."There is now debate in the US about whether Britons should be able to enter the US without a visa.
Link via hairyears, who points out that, more than that, London is a hub of open debate of the sort suppressed in the Middle East, and the liberals and reformists greatly outnumber the Wahhabi exterminationists:
This is the world's largest population of educated middle-class Arabs in an open society. As a consequence of our tolerance, all shades of opinion are expressed here, from Hamza and the exterminationists to governments-in-waiting, to exiled monarchs and all manner of opposition newspapers that are banned and smuggled into the 'home' country by travellers and relatives. Small cabals of nutcases in bedsits with bombing videos and extremist tracts, attending Arabic-speaking private mosques? Yes, we've got them, too. What's Arabic for Unabomber? Madmen have existed here since the Anarchists came to London a century ago, with their futile factional extremism and their bombs, but it never amounted to anything much. London's politically lively - raw and strident, if you know where to look - but it's no hotbed of violence: politics, not warfare.
It is also well worth pointing out that the suppression of moderate Arabic opinion has been condoned by successive Washington administrations, who do not grant political asylum to embarrassing critics of strategically-useful despots. That's why the moderates are here, not in New York's great melting-pot.
It looks like the OXO OVO graffiti may have made it to London:
Then again, there aren't any cryptic slogans about literacy, religion or what have you, so it could be fake.
According to the Wikipedia entry on the terrorist attacks, there was also a bombing in South Kensington, and a suicide bomber was shot dead in Canary Wharf.
Some group claiming to be al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the attacks. Which could well be true; initially it didn't look quite spectacular enough to be them, though it could well be a group of radical Islamist copycats; a franchise operation, as it were. Or a feint to draw out the emergency response services and analyse their plans in preparation for a later, more devastating, attack. It's probably not the IRA, anti-globalisation groups, animal-rights militants or anyone else.
Then again, after such an attack, nutters usually come out of the woodwork to claim responsibility and get some free publicity. The militant Islamist group who claimed responsibility may or may not be connected to whoever actually carried out the attacks.
One thing that seems striking about the incidents is the apparent lack of panic. Commentators are talking about the people's stoical resolve, hardened by IRA bobings past, and the spirit of the Blitz. As such, if the aim was to terrorise the public, it doesn't seem to have worked.
It's official: it's a terrorist attack, or so Blair has said anyway.
Bombs go off all over London, at Tube stations and on a bus, at 8:50am. The Tube and bus services have been suspended. Details are still vague, though there are reportedly many seriously injured people. Initial reports said that it was a
very severe signal failure power surge, though now it's looking like a terrorist attack.
Update: there are rumours that 20 people are dead and >90 injured, though the BBC hasn't confirmed them.
London has won the 2012 Olympics. Which means that Londoners can look forward to public transport improvements (read: entire tube lines being shut down for many months at a time to get them ready for the five-ring circus), not to mention the standard curbs on civil liberties when the event does happen. (For example, wearing a T-shirt bearing a political slogan, such as "FREE TIBET" or "US OUT OF VENEZUELA", or indeed the logo of the rival of an official Olympic sponsor, will probably be an arrestable offense within large parts of normally public space in the city. In Sydney in 2000, it was also forbidden to allow friends to park on one's property, as it would cut into the official parking providers' profits or somesuch; somehow, this probably won't be as big an issue in London.)