Category Archives: Progress

Dodging the moose

MOTORIST MISSES MOOSE BUT BASHES BROWN BEAR

A Norwegian driver who swerved to avoid a moose hit a bear instead. The motorist spotted the moose near Hanestad village in Rendalen, north of Oslo, at about midnight on Wednesday, and tried to go around the animal, not realising a bear was nearby.

I have this newspaper cutting pinned on the wall in front of me. It’s been there for some time (it is from the Guardian of 17th August 2012). It intrigues me, and recently it has been on my mind a lot.

The story goes on:

“The driver had lost a bit of speed as he tried to avoid the moose before hitting the bear,” said Svein-Erik Bjorke of the local wildlife authority. “We are tracking the bear and we have found traces of blood.”

The motorist escaped uninjured, although his car sustained some damage. The fate of the bear is unknown. It was obviously able to slip away into the woods, but those traces of blood don’t sound good.

The state of the moose is unrecorded. Presumably rather smug.

Why does this story stick in my mind? I think it’s because of what is currently going on in my life. After more than two decades I am about to leave a job I love and enjoy. I don’t have to leave, and it is tempting to stay. But I know it is time to strike out in a new direction.

Naturally I feel a mixture of emotion. I wonder if I am doing the right thing. But the tired old metaphor about frying pans and fires doesn’t truly apply, because things aren’t that bad right now, and they may not be worse after I leave. I don’t know exactly what I will do in the future, I just know it will be different. Maybe better, but I can’t guarantee that right now.

So why leave? Sometimes in life you just have to take a swerve, whatever the consequences. You need to change direction. It almost doesn’t matter whether the new direction works or not. You can’t carry on with the old one.

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Think of that Norwegian driver. He’s tooling along when he sees the moose in his headlights. He has the time and the presence of mind to steer around it, but bugger me there’s a bear in the way as well. But what could he do? If he had known the bear was there, would he have done anything different? Of course he wouldn’t.

Most of us would probably prefer to collide with a moose than a bear.  But it isn’t a choice you can realistically make. You can’t deliberately drive into a moose, whatever the alternative. You have to swerve to miss it and damn the consequences.

Even if you fear a bear may lurk behind it. Even if you know a bear is there. You have to avoid that moose.

So that’s why ‘dodging the moose’ feels an apt metaphor for what I am doing with my life. I am at a point in the road where I have to steer away from the moose that is my former career. It’s something I simply have to do.

Obviously I hope there is an open road beyond it. But even if there isn’t, I’m dodging that moose.

Let’s hope there are no bears.

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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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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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