Category Archives: London

Fleet on Foot

I haven’t made any new year resolutions, but if I had, one of them would be to make more time for walking. It almost doesn’t matter where. Rebecca Solnit, in her fascinating book ‘Wanderlust’, talks about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot:

‘…people nowadays live in a series of interiors – home, car, gym, office, shops – disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one…lives in the whole world rather than in the interiors built up against it.’

Whenever I can, I love to be out of London with mud on my boots. But that obviously requires time and organisation. And you can enjoy the freedom and ease of a good walk without even leaving London.

So, with a free morning early in the new year, I took the train up to Hampstead and walked back into central London.

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Novel use for an old phone box

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this, but I live in an unfashionable part of London.

Or so I have always assumed…

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Lewisham Hospital – Still Standing

Lewisham Victory ParadeOne piece of excellent news filtered through while I was away on holiday: the successful judicial review that has (so far, and at least temporarily) put a large spoke in the Government’s plans to buttress health services in Conservative-voting areas of suburban south-east London at the expense of a successful and thriving hospital in Labour-voting Lewisham.

Which gives me an excuse to publish again the picture of the lovely Laura and Max doing their bit for the cause.

2013-01-26 13.00.40I’ve written briefly about this before (see January 2013). The arguments remain valid now. For more information see the campaign website. I own up to a personal interest, having had two children brought into the world at the hospital, a broken leg healed and my wife’s life nearly lost and then saved.

So far so good. But those of us with experience of the way government departments operate would not assume that victory in this battle means the war is won. The Government may still choose to appeal, and legislation in England is usually drafted in a way that gives government ministers very wide discretion to do what they like, however unreasonable it looks to the average punter.

So by all means enjoy the Victory Parade on 14 September. But let’s keep our powder dry. And you can sign the petition to urge Jeremy Hunt to accept the wishes of the people and not appeal by going to the 38 Degrees website.

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Lovecraft, Ladywell…and the Void

“…the gulfs… Someday you too may traverse them, but if you are wise you will beware such folly, for of those mortals who have been and returned, only one preserves a mind unshattered by the pounding, clawing horrors of the void.”

HP Lovecraft – The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath

Here in sunny Ladywell, south east London, we have been having streetscape improvements. They involve street closures and a lot of road and pavement digging. This has caused distress to those folks who like to use our local streets as a motorists’ rat run to avoid the horror that is the A2. It has caused less distress to those of us who like to walk in our neighbourhood without dodging white vans.

The works have taken longer than planned. Lewisham Council dutifully sent residents a helpful newsletter to keep us up to date with progress. In doing so, they unwittingly provided a clue to the links between Ladywell and the works of H P Lovecraft, one of the most influential (and weirdest) of Twentieth Century horror writers. Links that have until now been completely unsuspected.*

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Guns, bombs and city life

51LbTm6AK4L._SL500_AA300_I’ve been trying hard recently not to follow the news. (The reason? To shift the balance so that I spend less time on urgent things and more on important things, but that’s another story.)

But however hard you try, some stories are unavoidable. A few weeks ago, there were two explosions at the Boston Marathon. They killed three people and injured hundreds more.

In the days after the bombings, we witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of Boston in what was described (by journalists who may have watched too many episodes of ’24’) as a ’lockdown’. The heavy mobilisation of armed forces, combined with a city’s population confined to their homes, eventually resulted in the capture of one suspected bomber and the death of his brother in a shootout.

It was impressive and scary. And no one would argue that the bombings were not a terrible event, demanding a strenuous response. Yet some people also remarked upon an interesting contrast: on the one hand the no-holds-barred, Die-Hard-in-Boston, heavy discipline in response to a terrorist event; on the other hand the continuing lack of any effective action to counter the routine shooting of tens of thousands of Americans every year, and the almost commonplace nature of gun crime.

Just recently I caught up with a two-part episode of the excellent ‘This American Life’ podcast. It featured Harper High School, on Chicago’s South Side. It was a fascinating portrait of a school in which 29 students were shot over the last year.

The two stories made me think back over the years, to the time I lived in Chicago in the 1990s. Coming from London, I thought I was pretty streetwise and wordly. I had a fantastic year. I loved the city and I still miss it. But nothing had prepared me for the darker aspects of America’s urban areas.

I never went to Harper High School, but the very first Chicago school I visited in Chicago was also on the city’s south side, a place called Du Sable. This school of 1300 students had four armed Chicago police officers on site and seven other security staff. It was by no means a ‘bad school’ – in many ways it was a success story. I met bright and ambitious students, and ferociously dedicated teachers. But it was located amidst the notorious Robert Taylor Homes housing project. This has since been demolished, but a couple of years before my visit, the Project, with 0.5 per cent of Chicago’s population, had 11 per cent of the city’s murders and nine per cent of its rapes.


A block of the Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago

Eleven per cent of Chicago’s murders was (and still is) a lot. The year I visited, there were well over 900 homicides in Chicago. This was substantially more in a city of three million people than in the whole of Britain – a murder rate of nearly 34 per 100,000 people against Britain’s 1.4 per 100,000.

That year nearly 60 children under the age of 15 were murdered in the Chicago area.

Over the Labor Day weekend – which my family spent  at the beach and at the city’s famous jazz festival – 28 murder victims died across the city.

A  month later, a seven-year old boy was shot dead by a sniper outside his home in Cabrini Green, a housing project where residents had to pass through metal detectors to get into their homes. He was leaving his apartment block with his mother to go to school. A youth confessed immediately, claiming he had not intended to hit the boy but had been shooting at someone else. Some commentators accordingly referred to it as an ‘accidental’ shooting.

Another month later a 15-year old boy was shot dead in school. The school principal copped some grief for that one – the school had metal detectors at the entrance to search for weapons, but they hadn’t been used that day.

It was striking how easy it was to take this carnage for granted. I vividly remember telling colleagues back at my university about my visit to Du Sable. One said she had lived in Chicago all her life and never been to the South Side. Another – when I expressed my surprise at how violent and racially segregated the city was – said: “Isn’t London like that?”

“Er, no,” I said. “Call me naive, but I really don’t think it is.”

Which brings me to the third news story that caught my eye recently, closer to home. A few weeks ago, something called the UK Peace Index was published, and a lot of headlines round my way picked up on the rating of the borough of Lewisham as the least peaceful place in the UK.

This caused a frisson locally. So we were the top local area for violent crime and murder? How come we hadn’t noticed that while we were sipping coffee in the park cafe?

In fact, the real story was that violence had declined substantially across the whole UK in the last decade. Including in Lewisham.

But even if it hadn’t, our murder rate of 2.5 per 100,000 remains half that of the whole USA (which itself has experienced a sharp decline in violent crime in the past decade). And way behind Chicago, which still has nearly 19 murders per 100,000.

Lewisham - the UK's violent crime capital - yesterday

Lewisham – the UK’s violent crime capital – yesterday

So, coming back to my resolution to avoid too much news, we should remember to look beyond the headlines and the easy assumptions.

Despite the Boston bombs, in America you are much more likely to be shot by someone you know than blown up by anonymous fanatics.

And I may live in the borough that is statistically the most violent in the UK. But it’s much more peaceful than it was a decade ago.

And it seemed OK then.

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B RSONBL – Mrgncy Covr with no A and E mks no sns

2013-01-26 13.00.40My gorgeous wife Laura marched in support of Lewisham Hospital in her own unique way. As she does in all things. Max, who is with her in the photo, was gorgeous too.

I won’t go into the details of the campaign to save services at Lewisham Hospital. You can read about it at the campaign’s website here. Just two comments.

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Snow Time. Like the Present.

It happens once or twice a year, and it’s always glorious. The temperature drops and out of the dreary overcast of the normal British winter sky comes the snow.

Nothing special about snow, you might think. It’s winter, in the northern hemisphere, it snows. Get over it.

P1000305Well, call me parochial but there’s something special about snow in England, perhaps especially in London.

For a start, we don’t get much of it. When it comes, it’s always a surprise and a thrill.

Add to that the fact that we’re always thoroughly unprepared for it.

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