Tag 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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A Cork on a Labour Tide

I’ve been very remiss in failing to keep up to date. Here’s my excuse: life has taken a slightly surprising turn.

In the local elections of 22 May many of the headlines were about the UK Independence Party. But, here in those unfashionable parts of south London, UKIP were barely to be seen. Here the story was of the growing strength of London’s Labour Party.

Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, and humble Candidate Barnham

Mayor of Lewisham, Sir Steve Bullock, and humble Candidate Barnham

Two elections ago, in 2006, Lewisham Council was finely balanced, with 26 Labour councillors, facing a rainbow opposition of 17 Liberal Democrats, 6 Greens, 3 Conservatives and 2 Socialists. A couple of weeks ago, Lewisham elected 53 Labour councillors, with an opposition of one lonely Green councillor.

Among the 53 was me, a cork bobbing on a Labour tide!

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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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The Olympics – Reasons To Be Cheerful


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.



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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