Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Olympics – Reasons To Be Cheerful

I’M NOT HAVING IT.

Ready? Set?

 

Those of us who live in London have long had an ambivalent relationship with the 30th Olympiad, now under way in our home city. Sure we basked in the reflected glory when we won the competition to host it. Where better? we thought. We‘ll obviously put on a better show than Paris or New York. Which other city has such world credentials, such links with all the nations, cultures and languages of the world? What other city could show the world so many faces at once: modern metropolis; cradle of two thousand years of history; the enduring values of Englishness, mixed with the strength and creativity that comes from being home to dozens of nationalities and cultures. Let’s face it, if a typical south London school can have a hundred home languages, hosting two hundred teams of athletes should be a breeze.

But the shine was quickly taken off our status as Host City. The very next day after we got it in fact; when four young Yorkshire men stepped onto London tube trains and buses and blew themselves up to show that there was more to Britain’s complex heritage than Asian music with Jamaican dub beats, chicken tikka with chips and 24-hour bagel shops in Brick Lane.

In the seven years since that dark day in 2005 there has been a lot to test our patience: the swelling cost of the Games; their rampant over-commercialisation; the growing sense that our city is being taken over by a super-rich invading army that has ruined the parks, reserved large parts of the road network for its limousines, and put armed police on our streets in a way we’ve never seen before.

And so there has been a tendency among Londoners to dismiss the Olympics. Through this long early summer of almost constant rain some people have moaned about the cost and inequitable distribution of ticketing. Some have sneered at the odd spectacle of a succession of celebrities criss-crossing the country carrying flaming torches along with a cavalcade of corporate sponsors handing out rubbish to children. As the advance warnings of potential travel disruption have ramped up, some people have identified a subliminal message in all this for Londoners: pay for the Games, shut up and keep out of the way. Accordingly, some Londoners have been heard pledging to get out of the city as soon as possible, and give the whole thing a big fat swerveroo.

It is even possible that those close to me may observe that many of the complaints above might have been heard coming from me. But no more. The sun has now come out, it’s time to cast off the comfortable cloak of cynicism and count our blessings. To focus on what is good about the Games in London.

No more moaning and carping. I won’t have it. So here are my reasons to be cheerful.

1. Security

The 7 July bombers set the tone, and the preparations for the Games have been dominated by security anxieties. Some might assume that the deployment of armed police, thousands of soldiers fresh from Afghanistan, and a naval cruiser looming over Greenwich in the Thames, could suggest that we are somehow less safe. I say look on the bright side. There are now ground to air missiles on the hill not far from my house. Think how much more secure that makes me feel.

2. Work

Or, to be more accurate, the fact that many of us will not be able to work as much as usual during the Olympics period. It hasn’t been much publicised, but there seems to be a target in central London for many organisations to have no more than half the usual number of staff in the office. Obviously, many people can work perfectly productively from home (with or without the Olympics coverage on their television). But the Olympics fortnight appears to offer the prospect of repeated summer ’snow days’ – when no one begrudges us staying away from work, and there’s so much fun going on that no one really cares what work is getting done. All of which will help no end when we need to explain the next set of disappointing economic figures, or when bosses ask themselves whether they could get by with only half their staff on a more permanent basis.

3. Pubs

London – indeed the whole of Britain – has a much neglected heritage of fine boozers. Here’s one of them.

The Colonies, Westminster

(Olympics visitors note – it’s not far from the beach volleyball arena, if you need refreshment after watching those sweaty competitors in bikinis.)

True, we in Britain have a sometimes troubled relationship with alcohol. But I’ve never been to another country that has anything quite like the kind of pub that we still do so well here: cosy and snug in our (frequent) rainy and cold spells; cool and shady on our rare hot days; increasingly serving good quality and good value food, with a growing tendency to serve good English real ales.

They say that two pubs a day close in England right now. So get in quick, Olympic tourists. And if enough of you do, maybe some will stay open a bit longer. There’s no losers here.

4. That Unique London Atmosphere

One of the nicest things about living in London (once you’ve discounted the pollution, the traffic, the noise, the ugly neighbours and boorish residents, the expense, and so on), is the way every corner presents something of interest. For someone like me who has an interest in history, the full benefit of the London experience comes from walking the city’s streets, taking turnings you haven’t taken before.  That’s how you find the plaque that tells you Lawrence of Arabia lived in a street near Westminster Abbey, or that Samuel Smiles (author of the book ‘Self Help’, which is probably due a reprint in these days of new austerity) lived in a house not far from the place where Kitty O’Shea conducted the affair with Irish Nationalist Charles Parnell, which caused his ruin and probably changed forever the history of Ireland (and Britain).

So, just think how good it is that the impact of the Olympics on London’s transport means most of us will get to walk a lot more as the buses, trains and roads are overwhelmed with tourists, athletes and hanegrs-on. And when we do we are likely to stumble upon new delights like the various statues of mascots Wenlock and Mandeville, which are currently dotted around the streets.

Here’s one.

Manlock or Wenderville? Who knows?

5.  Better Use of Wasted Space

Visitors are often surprised by how much of London is made up of green space, partly caused by the city’s gradual growth and absorption of a chain of villages, and the happy result of the Queen’s ancestors’ appetite over the centuries for reserving vast swathes of countryside near their palaces for hunting. These old hunting grounds are now parks. I live near the best of them; Greenwich Park, a gem of hilly green space, straddling the Meridian Line between east and west hemispheres, containing the old Royal Observatory. It’s a fantastic place. But let’s be honest, most summers it’s wasted; full of nothing more important than local people having picnics, playing football and frisbee, taking their kids on the pedal boats.

Now, however, the park has been closed to the public for up to a year, and largely covered over so that rich people’s horses can dance on it. Here, incidentally, is an amusing clip about the dancing horse of US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, which I believe will be among those creatures putting Greenwich Park to a much better use than we local taxpayers ever did. Click here.

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Postscript.

All right, I confess. Maybe a little touch of cynicism did creep back in there. But now that I have seen the Olympics Opening Ceremony I am over all that.

Never can there have been such a gloriously bonkers few hours to lift the curtain on such a high-profile event. The Industrial Revolution set to music, Suffragettes and dancing nurses, the Queen parachuting from a helicopter with James Bond, Mr Bean mucking up ‘Chariots of Fire’. I have no idea how it came across to the rest of the world. But for us Londoners it was simultaneously funny, moving, puzzling and a stunning assertion of the modern potential of Britain (especially London).

The message for me was: ‘this is us – we’re the product of all that cliched history but we’re a lot more too. We can do all this: yes, we’re the warm beer and old maids bicycling across the common, but we’re also the snotty iconoclasts of punk and reggae and football fans with painted faces.’

Sure, the parade of athletes with their flags took most of the night, but even that had its delights. A personal favourite was the Czechs, who appeared to be the only team that fully joined in with the mad spirit of the ceremony. One end of the stadium contained a replica of Glastonbury Tor. The Czechs marched in as if they were going to the Glastonbury Festival, kitted out in striking electric blue wellies.

Czech Olympic Wellies

I think this was the moment I decided to put aside my cynicism for good and go with it. As local boy Samuel Smiles once said: ‘Life will always be to a large extent what we ourselves make it.’

At the climax of the ceremony I could hear the fireworks from my house. Luckily, they didn’t set off any of the ground to air missiles.

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Deptford – No Secret, Lots of History

Peter The Great

BBC television has been running an interesting series recently, called ‘The Secret History of our Streets’. The series looks at – and I quote the BBC website – ‘how London has changed since Charles Booth’s survey recording social conditions in 1886, returning to six archetypal London streets.’

Let’s not detain ourselves with argument about whether London streets such as Camberwell Grove or Caledonian Road really are archetypes (an ‘original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based‘, according to the kind of online dictionary that tends to be consulted by lazy bloggers).

Let’s not even bother with the side roads presented by the work of Charles Booth. Except to note that interesting as his poverty maps are, we should perhaps treat with caution a classification that colour codes some streets as ’Lowest Class – Vicious, semi-criminal’ (In detail: ‘The lowest class which consists of some occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals. Their life is the life of savages, with vicissitudes of extreme hardship and their only luxury is drink.’), while describing more middle class areas as: ‘Higher class labour and the best paid of the artisans…men of good character and much intelligence.’

These are not my reasons for writing today. In general the series is an entertaining look at some fascinating corners of London. My concern is more specific and parochial. The first programme in the series shone its spotlight on Deptford High Street. I live near Deptford and, while I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the events described (even I am not that old), I do have some familiarity with the street. And sadly, as so often seems to be the case, knowing something about the reality throws into relief the superficial and partial way in which television presents its version of that reality.

Others have commented on the Deptford programme (see the excellent Brockley Central blog, or the post on the equally enjoyable Caroline’s Miscellany.) The thesis of the programme, put crudely, was that Deptford High Street was once a thriving shopping street, the Oxford Street of south London. It was surrounded by streets of respectable working class housing, with extended families living close together and running market stalls or shops locally. In a fit of hyperactive and misguided town planning, Lewisham Council in the 1960s and 1970s demolished most of these streets, uprooted the families in them (some exiled to places like Eltham for heaven’s sake), and put in their place modern blocks of flats that soon became unpopular and hard to let. The inevitable result: a Deptford that lost its sense of community and connection, descending into poverty and rootlessness. Betting shops replaced pubs, winos replaced hard-working market traders. And so on.

At the heart of this is no doubt an accurate enough story. I have no doubt that ‘regeneration’ locally has been badly handled. The programme makes a convincing case that local people’s wishes came very low on the list of priorities. And modern Deptford does have an air of a district that time forgot (or, more accurately, time passed overhead with tons of bombs intended for the shipyards and then tried rebuilding with its eyes blindfolded, while social and economic change sucked money out of the area).

The problem for me was that I didn’t fully buy either of the main premises on which the story stood. The narrative of disreputable and unnecessary demolition, and poor-quality regeneration, is convincing enough. But I struggle to swallow the depiction of the former Deptford as this working class nirvana where everyone knew each other, all pulling together, playing hard and working hard, where you could leave your door unlocked and the worst your neighbours would do is come in and clean your house for you. A sepia-tinted lost world of jellied eels and street football and coach trips to Margate in summer.

Maybe I‘m wrong. Maybe it was once that great. But I know for certain I‘m not wrong on the other leg of the BBC‘s story. Whatever image problem Deptford may have, it simply is not the shit-hole that the programme would lead you to believe it became. It certainly has its rough edges. But it remains fascinating and enjoyable for a number of reasons. One is that it is a rare example of an urban high street that has neither succumbed to the clone chain stores that make most other town centres indistinguishable, nor has it given up and become a parade of pound shops and boarded-up properties.

True there are too many betting shops and no longer enough pubs. But it has a thriving street market and some fantastic fish and grocery shops. After a rough patch a few years back, some decent cafes and restaurants have established themselves. And it’s not just any old street market. Where else can you find a stall with an enormous box seething with giant African land snails? (People eat these, you know. Click here for an entertaining video on cooking them. You’re welcome to that, by the way.)

One of the comments on the Brockley Central blog captured my thoughts on how modern Deptford was being traduced. Southlondoner said: “what made me really sad, was that they didn’t show the lounge, or the albany, or laban just down the road or any of the cool and interesting cafes (like the railway carriage and big red). They showed the “dirty deptford” that people so love to see. how “working class people” aren’t as nice as they used to be, and it was a shocking representation of black people in deptford.”

My son and I had a fun walk through the area recently. We had coffee and home-made scones in the railway carriage café parked near the station.

Deptford’s Railway Carriage Cafe

That in itself was worth the trip, but even more enjoyable was finding traces of Deptford’s rich past. One of the things that makes living in London so fascinating is the small signs that crop up here and there of the city’s buried history. To many people (stuck in their cars on the perma-traffic jam of Deptford Broadway), Deptford High Street probably looks like a shabby patch of inner London with nothing to offer them. But get out of the car and walk and you quickly find the signs of the area’s history.

It goes back a long way. The Roman road from Dover to London crossed Deptford Creek at a ford near the Thames. More recently, the area became important after Henry VIII set up the Royal Naval Dockyard here. Explorers like Drake, Raleigh and Cook set off from here, and Elizabeth I addressed the sailors at Deptford before they left to fight the Spanish Armada. There aren’t many signs left of those events, but there are still some fascinating traces of the past, peeking through the modern facade.

I particularly enjoy the sight of the plaque above this charity shop, recording the fact that Tsar Peter the Great of Russia worshipped here in what was then a Quaker Meeting House, during his visit to England in 1698 to study its navy.

During the new building of yuppie homes on the river, a bizarre statue was partly-funded by Russia to commemorate Tsar Peter’s visit. It’s in the photo that heads this post. I confess I don’t know if Peter is the little guy or the tall one with the tiny head. Or maybe the little one went on the big one’s shoulders and they shared a big coat. That would earn you the title ‘The Great’, I guess!

Anyway, try Deptford on foot, and keep your eyes open.

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And Finally…Songs To Play At My Funeral – Part 3

IT’S TAKEN ME A WHILE to conclude my list of funeral songs (see 14 and 23 June). I fear it risks becoming a bit self-indulgent. And it’s emotional. So let’s wrap it up here.

Last time, I wrote about last times, specifically the difficulty of knowing when something actually is the last time. I suppose, in the scheme of things, when I come to meet my maker it won’t matter too much whether I listened to “You Can’t Always get What You Want” a month before, a year before or that very morning. Maybe I could even play it as I go (you could do a lot worse). I don’t suppose it would make a difference.

It isn’t so much that I may not listen to some of my favourite music many more times in my life, though that of course is bad enough. It is more that I will never know the last time that I hear some of my most treasured musical moments. That makes me sad. It’s hard enough facing up to the idea of your own mortality. But if you have to face going, you want to say goodbye to the people and things you loved.

If I was dying, I’m sure I’d want some extra time in order to play all my favourites again, and to seek out those potentially great albums I never got round to hearing. Life seems unlikely to grant such a neat ending. But the alternative would involve playing “Desolation Row” every day, along with hundreds of other classics. That doesn’t seem terribly practical either.

And obviously, if all I cared about was the music, that would make me a bit of a saddo. Even more so than I actually am. Of course, what makes the music special is often its association with the memories of people you love. Here then, to end, are some songs that get on my list because of the people they make me think about.

10. Smile – The Jayhawks

For my son, who heard this while still in the womb, as a heavily pregnant Laura came with me to see the Jayhawks in London. And who as a baby would fall asleep instantly if you played this, however fractious he was.

And because it was the song Laura was listening to on headphones in her hospital bed when I brought Sam from the special care unit, and she saw her baby properly for the first time (having been away on wings of sedation when he was delivered by caesarian section).

11. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper

For my older daughter, Kate, who sang this with me at a karaoke session on a caravan park in Scotland when she was six years old. (We also did Puff the Magic Dragon, but that has less appeal. Although there is that charming reggae version by Gregory Isaacs…)

It’s another song like Madonna’s Holiday or Bunny Wailer’s Dreamland. On the surface full of hope and optimism but some quality of dread or desperation in the singer’s voice undercuts that feeling.

I smile at the line: “Oh Daddy dear you know you’re still number one.” which is nice for a father to hear. But the zest with which Cyndi follows it up with “but girls just wanna have fun”, suggests there are plenty of other numbers on her phone. An impression reinforced as she repeats the line, but just can’t wait to complete it, interrupting herself as she sings: “they just wanna have – that’s all they really want – some fun”.

Which is all a dad wants for his girl really.

12. Don’t Stop – Fleetwood Mac

Oddly, it was hardest to choose a song for my younger daughter. Which surprised me because she’s probably the one most like me in magpie attraction to variety of music.

In the end I chose the relentless positivism of this song. There are two reasons for that.

The first is because I did another play list once, for Nicola’s 21st birthday. I intended to burn it on a CD and make it part of her present, but never completed the job. This song was on it, and I found it intriguing that many of the songs on the birthday list were the same ones as on my funeral list. I don‘t know what to make of that.

But the main reason for choosing this is because it is so genuinely optimistic, and it will always remind me of speeding down the motorway, in a rented white van with Nicola and Sam, bringing her home from three years at university, playing Fleetwood Mac and the Ramones at high volume.

13. Shadow on a Harvest Moon – Everything But the Girl

I’m not superstitious. I can have thirteen songs in my list if I want to.

In some ways this is just a straightforward sad ballad. I’m not even sure that it is my favourite Everything But the Girl song. But it has a place in my memory of how I fell in love with Laura and my life changed. (And, I have to be honest, how I changed the lives of other people around me.)

We used to play EBTG a lot together, early on. We didn’t know how serious this was, but we knew we had to see each other. The problem was that we were both married to other people. Neither of us planned for that to happen, to fall so inconveniently in love. If we had known it was likely, I suspect we would have found ways to avoid it. But by the time we realised, it was too late.

We were stuck for some months in this limbo world where on the surface our normal lives carried on unchanged. Most people we knew had no idea that anything was wrong. But in our hearts and minds everything was transformed and I found myself an actor playing a part in my own life. Pretending to be the person I was before it all changed. Somehow the longing I felt for Laura – the desire to be with her that started when I woke up and kept me lying awake when my wife and children were asleep – somehow that passion stayed off my face when it felt as if it must have changed my features forever. We knew we had to be together, but it felt impossible and we felt so guilty, because in order for us to be together it would cause other people we loved a lot of pain. All at once our lives were asking us a question that had no right answer. It isn’t a place I would wish on anyone.

I remember listening to this song repeatedly one night while my wife was out with a friend and my two young daughters were asleep. At some point that evening I remember I spoke to Laura on the phone. Our desire to be together – our frustration that we were each alone in our homes but out of reach of the other – made the telephone line hum in the silences between our words. I told her about this song, which is basically about one person missing another, and how much it made me want to be with her.

After we hung up I went upstairs to check on the children. I stood in each of their bedroom doorways to listen. Their breathing was quiet and regular. My older daughter had my old teddy bear beside her bed, cast carelessly on the floor in that way children do with things they love. She lay on her back, arms spread out as if she had been dropped asleep into the bed. It was a pose that advertised innocence and complete trust that her world was benign. The sun would come up every day as normal and nothing would disturb the loving home she had lived in all her life. Her younger sister lay curled up with her thumb in her mouth. As I watched her, she stirred slightly and a small frown momentarily crossed her brow, before she settled again.

As I stood there I felt I hung above a dark precipice. My children were here, innocent and asleep, knowing nothing in the world as strongly as they knew that their daddy would be there for them when they woke in the morning. But forty miles away, alone in her house, was a woman I missed so hard it was a physical pain. I couldn’t balance forever on this cliff edge. But it was so dark that I didn’t know which way to fall, which way was safe. I knew that either way it was a long way down, and I couldn’t see the ground.

“Put away that torch you carry”, sings Tracey Thorn, her voice breathy and forlorn. “It’s doing you no good.”

I think I knew that night that I would in the end have to do as the song said. Lay to rest the ghost of my unhappiness. I didn’t yet know which way I would jump, but jump I must. Maybe I could be with Laura for good, with all the pain and upheaval that entailed. Or else I had to end it with her, drown the torch I carried. I didn’t know which it would be. But I knew that before long I would have to close my eyes and leap one way or the other.

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It has become a bit of a trend for people to choose their own music for funerals. And why not? If you want to go out to the sound of a few of your favourite album tracks, that is fine by me. Especially if the alternative is the vicar’s selection from “Crematorium Classical Greats” or “20 Favourite Committal Hymns”. It’s a pity that the alternative for many funerals appears to be nothing more than endless replays of “I will Always Love You”, or the “Wind beneath My Wings”. I don’t want to have any of these on my conscience. And I don’t expect that my friends and family want to hear them. Especially on a day when I hope they will already have quite enough to be miserable about.

No, the music to be played at my funeral needs to be a last slice of the music that moved me while I was alive. The songs that made me happy or sad or just made me laugh. I don’t care whether they conform to some kind of funeral etiquette. They don’t have to be about loss or sorrow. I just want the people I love and leave behind to come along to say goodbye. And while they are there I want them to smile a bit as they remember the music I played. They can shed a tear too, of course. But after that, take the rest of my record collection and have a bloody good party, and comfort yourselves with this thought.

You may miss me when I‘m gone. But I’ll miss you more.

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Postscript

A short while after writing my list of songs for my funeral I went out for a run. I ran down the hill, past Lewisham station and up onto Blackheath. The weather was warm and bands of pale cloud were pasted loosely across a china blue sky above the green grass of the heath. I did what I usually did when I ran alone: I listened to music. I held my iPod in my hand and put on a thick headband to hold the earphones in place.

It can be tricky deciding exactly what to play when you go out for a run. You can never be entirely sure what your mood will be once you’ve been running for ten minutes. But you can bet it will be quite different to the mood you were in before you set out. This time I picked out an old play list I had made months before. I couldn’t remember the details of what was on there.

Fifteen minutes later I was running through Greenwich Park and it felt like my feet were barely touching the ground. I was running on a carpet of exhilarating music, song after beautiful song.  I remembered now that I had made the playlist the last time I got to thinking about songs for my funeral. On that occasion I didn’t just write a list. I got as far as digging the songs out and deciding on a running order. So “Constant Craving” by kd lang gave me wings of song across the open heath and “Fisherman’s Blues” by the Waterboys lifted me up a steep hill, my lips echoing in breathless whisper its small whoops of joy. I ran beneath chestnut trees as Ken Boothe crooned “Everything I Own” in a voice as clear and pure as the crystalline bowl of the sky which hung above me.

And the strange thing was, almost none of the dozen or so songs in that playlist was in the list I’ve set out here. Each time a new song started I cursed myself. Of course, I thought, how could I forget this one? How could I leave this off my list? Surely I have to have that track, “Two Hearts” by the Jayhawks, in my list? How could I not include Nick Cave’s echoingly gloomy and lovelorn “Lime Tree Arbor”?

I found it all oddly reassuring. It made me smile as I ran, in a way that people I ran past may have found even more unsettling than the sight of my deeply unfashionable headband. Of course I could compile two such different lists of favourite songs. Music is just like that isn’t it? One day a particular song is absolutely the best thing I have ever heard. A week later, I will have remembered that something else is actually the best. A week after that, it may be something else again.

A three minute pop song, at its best, is a time capsule of deep emotion, frozen forever at its feverish height. In a way, the very disposability of pop music adds to its emotional impact. A fragment of a lyric, a sigh in the singer’s voice, the way the drummer hits the snare just so on one beat but not on the next. All these things may mean nothing in isolation. But in the tornado of a song that just has to say something, and it just has to say it NOW, they can pack a punch. And of course the punch can be weaker or stronger depending on the mood of the listener.

So none of us should be surprised that last week the hollow weariness with which Ian Maculloch sings Echo and the Bunnymen’s achingly beautiful “Rust” was the perfect song for me to contemplate the end of my time. But today it feels like the ideal farewell would be something less defeated, more defiant like the Four Tops.

Music’s like that. A thing of beauty is indeed a joy forever. But sometimes one thing feels more of a joy than another. And other times the joy may rest elsewhere. To a great extent you get out of music what you put in, and the pleasure it gives can depend on what you bring with you, the angle you approach it from, and the way you look at it.

Life’s like that too. Isn’t it?

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Progress: No 1 in an occasional series

HERE IN THE SUPER, soaraway summertime UK we have no end of excitement to prevent us dwelling on the cruel joke that is the British Summer. The Olympics loom ahead, of course (and we may return to those later). Tennis at Wimbledon (now with roof to keep the rain off) is in full grunt.

The UK’s Jubilee Celebrations, June 2012 (image – orange.co.uk)

But the biggest deal so far was of course the celebrations last month for Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. Diamond jubilees don’t come round very often, so this one prompted comparisons with the last such occasion, which was in 1897, when Queen Victoria also reached sixty years on the throne.

1897: Victorian Values

The Royal Splendor blog (‘your guide to the world of royalty’) tells us that: “Alexandra, Princess of Wales, held the biggest banquet in the world and fed some 400,000 of London’s poor. She staged a series of vast Diamond Jubilee Feasts where everyone was welcome no matter what their background or what state their clothes were in. More than 700 tons of food was needed and 10,000 waiters with the meals sponsored by millionaire Sir Thomas Lipton. Diners ate roast ribs of beef and veal and ham pies, followed by dates, oranges and a drink of English ale or ginger beer and then pipes and tobacco.”

Meanwhile, the Kensington palace pages of the Historic Royal Palaces website tell us that: “With her husband and daughters the Princess visited four of these dinners, including one for crippled children held at the People’s Palace in east London.”

And in Manchester (according to the Daily Telegraph in February this year), there was a charitable breakfast party for 100,000 children.

2012: Modern Values

On 4 June 2012, the Guardian newspaper reported:

“A group of long-term unemployed jobseekers were bussed into London to work as unpaid stewards during the diamond jubilee celebrations and told to sleep under London Bridge before working on the river pageant.

Up to 30 jobseekers and another 50 people on apprentice wages were taken to London by coach from Bristol, Bath and Plymouth as part of the government’s Work Programme.

Two jobseekers, who did not want to be identified in case they lost their benefits, said they had to camp under London Bridge the night before the pageant. They told the Guardian they had to change into security gear in public, had no access to toilets for 24 hours, and were taken to a swampy campsite outside London after working a 14-hour shift in the pouring rain on the banks of the Thames on Sunday.

Close Protection UK confirmed that it was using up to 30 unpaid staff and 50 apprentices, who were paid £2.80 an hour, for the three-day event in London. A spokesman said the unpaid work was a trial for paid roles at the Olympics, which it had also won a contract to staff. Unpaid staff were expected to work two days out of the three-day holiday.

A 30-year-old steward told the Guardian that the conditions under the bridge were “cold and wet and we were told to get our head down [to sleep]”. He said that it was impossible to pitch a tent because of the concrete floor.

Another said: “London was supposed to be a nice experience, but they left us in the rain. They couldn’t give a crap … No one is supposed to be treated like that, [working] for free. I don’t want to be treated where I have to sleep under a bridge and wait for food.”

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You would, of course – to paraphrase the late, great Bill Hicks – be a fool and a communist to suggest that there is any conclusion to be drawn from these two entirely unrelated events. At all. Ever.

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Broadstairs – It’s Also About Time

Actually, I think I’ll take a short break from thoughts of funerals and music. The English Summer is here, in all its glorious singularity (floods in the north-east, hailstorms, etc) and the time is right to celebrate the great British seaside town.

I have two favourite English seaside towns. One of them awaits me after I have crawled through the next four weeks of work at the Fiction Factory, so I’ll deal with that later. The other is Broadstairs.

Broadstairs – The Sorrento of Thanet?

I recently visited Broadstairs and stayed a couple of nights and it reminded me, as it always does, how much I love the place. One thing that I love is that it appears not to have changed in any major respect since I used to come here as a child. So bringing my own children here has always acted on me the way the taste of cake did on Proust. It prompts an upswell of memories and half-remembered emotions from those childhood summer days. When the sun shone all day, the sea was always perfect, and ice creams were more delicious than is ever possible these days. As the sun sank low, exhaustion would finally allow my mother to catch me and scrub the sand from my arms and legs before leaving me in bed to lie awake and listen to the sea, my shoulders and limbs singing with sunburn.

It isn’t just nostalgia that powers my love for Broadstairs. You could go there now, having never been before, and you would love it too. Sit on the beach in the perfect sandy semi-circle of Viking Bay and look up at the town crowding the cliff-top above. In a certain light – squinting a bit maybe, and allowing your imagination to be just the tiniest bit promiscuous with reality – you could be looking at a small Italian town, with its uneven arc of houses painted in a variety of pale and pastel colours under a porcelain blue sky.

There are several beaches, but the main one in Viking Bay is perfect if you have children; prettily enclosed by the cliffs with the broad (ahem) stairs which give the town its name, sheltered from rough water by the harbour wall, on the end of which is a cafe where you can get fish and chips and fresh crab sandwiches. And on the beach itself there are swings and trampolines for the children to enjoy when you’re not throwing said children into the sea.

The Italian illusion is buttressed by the two excellent cafes overlooking the sea; Morelli’s and Chiappini’s, and by the excellent Posillipo restaurant (‘With its authentic Neapolitan dishes,’ its website gushes, Italian wines and breathtaking views of Viking Bay, Posillipo Broadstairs creates a classic Italian feel’… what did I tell you?).

Other things I love include several fine pubs and the unique Albion bookshop. This is a place I guess you either love or hate. For me, a second-hand bookshop in which the thousands of books are not only on shelves but piled in apparently random heaps all over the shop, upstairs and down, that’s heaven. I rarely visit the town without returning with a bag of books. They are usually unpredictable in title and content (a guide book to the Kentish Stour, a book on the Bush White House in the build-up to the Iraq War, a memoir of an IRA informer), and I have to confess that they often remain unread. The real fun is the hour spent in the Albion hunting them out and then examining them over a coffee and cake in Morelli’s.

Not everyone shares my love of this place, hard as that is for me to comprehend. My good friend Jerry has a completely different mental image of it. I mention Broadstairs and he remembers a dead rat falling off the cliff while he and his family were on the beach. It does no good to point out (as I continually do), that the rat incident happened on a different beach, not in Broadstairs at all. You know that way people make associations between places and memories? I’m Proust, so Broadstairs means cockles and beer and sitting on a wicker chair looking out to sea while sipping milky Chiappini’s coffee in one of those glasses inside a metal holder. He’s Orwell’s Winston Smith, so Broadstairs stirs memories of rats.

And I must admit also that the town is prone to the same higher forces that affect any seaside town in Britain. Hence on my recent visit we struggled to put up our beach tent against a frisky northeasterly that whipped up the waves enough in normally-placid Viking Bay that people were surfing. It rained frequently, and when it didn’t the lifeguards politely warned us out of the sea because a local sewage treatment station had accidentally polluted the whole coast. And a man who went swimming from the next bay along from us drowned in the rough seas, while we innocently played Boule with our jumpers on.

So I don’t claim it’s paradise. But you can’t let these things put you off, not even the weather. Broadstairs in any case has its own micro-climate. There have been times when we’ve left London in the rain, and it’s continued raining all the way down the M2, only for the skies to clear as we entered Thanet so that by lunchtime we were pretty much alone on a sunny beach as less brave or enthusiastic Londoners dipped their Rich Tea over the weekend papers, assuming we were sheltering miserably under the bandstand.

Broadstairs isn’t completely untouched by the modern world. On my recent visit I couldn’t help noticing that several shopfronts were empty in the narrow high street; broken teeth knocked out by the blows of a recession doing damage to every high street in the country. But I know it will survive and I confidently expect to bring my grandchildren here, if and when I have any. Their parents can laze on the sand while I lead another little one by the hand down the beach when the tide goes out, just as I did my two daughters and my son, and just as my parents did with me. Down the beach and out to the paddling pool that is only revealed at low tide. There we will drag our fishing nets among the rocks and weeds to pull out the baby crabs and tiny fish left behind by the sea.

Another small child’s eyes will widen at the sight of a crab scuttling round the bottom of a plastic bucket. The sun will slip behind the Dickens Museum on the cliff above the beach as the salt and sand dry on our legs and we eat fish and chips with wooden forks, and I will think about the many times I have done this before. And the unknown (but presumably smaller) number of times remaining to me to do it again. And it will be enough to know that others will come here after me.

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[Postscript: My Proustian delusions don’t extend to the old children’s TV programme, The Clangers, but I know that some people get misty-eyed over them. So those kind of folks will be thrilled to know that Oliver Postgate, the creator of the Clangers, lived in Broadstairs. There’s a plaque on his old house to tell you so. Fetchingly decorated with a mosaic picture of his creation.]

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