Archive for March 2009
Catching up with stuff, number two: I really don’t take much satisfaction in digging out an individual here; an individual who I suspect is probably engaged in work which is underfunded and under huge pressure from incompetents and a lousy administration further up the food chain. It’s the last refuge of an arse, frankly.
However, congratulations to Celia Johnson, an administration manager at Greenwich Council’s waste services team for sending the kind of e-mail you really shouldn’t send out to someone without doing your research properly. Sorry Celia, perhaps you should think twice before pulling this trick again. Hopefully this will act as a reminder.
Remember my humdinger of a post describing how it took four weeks and an e-mail to my local councillors and a senior manager for the council to pull its finger out and shift some dumped wheelie bins from my road? I complained about that along with the problem caused by neighbouring council tenants routinely leaving their bins on the pavement. Oh, it was a thriller. But there was a sort-of happy ending as the bins were finally shifted. Job done. I can forget about it. Well, so I thought.
There’s a sequel. One day into my holiday, I had an e-mail from Ms Johnson.
Your original request for action Ref: 346349 only stated the problem of the tenants at [address deleted] leaving their bins on the pavement.
Unfortunately for me, she’d cc’d this e-mail to her boss, neighbourhood services director Jim Wintour, and my three local councillors. Not nice to have it implied that I’m telling porkies.
Unfortunately for her, I can prove she’s wrong – I’d reported the problem via FixMyStreet, and my “original request for action” can be viewed here, including the words: “There are also wheelie bins dumped outside the north end of Harold Gibbons Court.”
I got a little angry at this, so counted to 30, then e-mailed her to point this out, and to ask that perhaps her and her colleagues would consider reading complaints properly before acting on them, and also that they could possibly refrain from cc’ing misleading e-mails like that to her boss and my local councillors, who I need to have an honest dialogue with. And then I returned to my holiday. Two weeks on, I haven’t had an apology; nor have I had any kind of reply. Shame.
But then again, this is Greenwich Council, where the council tax payer is always wrong. I don’t blame Ms Johnson personally – she’s clearly a cog in a hopelessly-run operation. But unfortunately, it’s us who bear the brunt of it, and pay for the privilege. And to be told we’re wrong by their staff.
Incidentally, Monday was bin day, which means doing wheelie-bin slalom around bins left out in the street by the council’s waste team, who uniquely manage to leave streets looking filthier after they’ve visited…
Nice work with the nappies, lads.
Catching up with stuff, number one: Remember the farcical public meeting I went to about the 2012 Olympics? You’ll recall me mentioning star reporter Andrew Gilligan was there in a fetching yellow t-shirt. The Evening Standard scribe popped his account of the meeting up on the greenwich.co.uk website, for which he keeps a weekly blog.
You may like to compare and contrast my version of events with his version of events. Yup, we can agree that the event was a farce, but… where’s the mention of the anti-Olympics campaigners being just as abusive and dismissive as the Labour party members there? And where’s the mention of the droning hack who decided to treat the event as a press conference, cutting off other people’s queries so he could ram home his own question? Yes, Mr Gilligan, that’s you. And you’re not doing your friends in NOGOE any favours by coming with this one-eyed nonsense.
I reiterate – I’ve no brief for Greenwich Council, whose handling of Olympics issues has been shoddy, undemocratic and patronising in the extreme. (Its latest wheeze is to want the park to be filled with a traffic jam while Blackheath Hill is shut for roadworks.) But their clod-hopping arrogance has been matched at every step by the opponents of Olympic events in Greenwich Park, with their refusal to listen and their presumption that their cause is backed by a majority, and anyone who somehow doesn’t back them is a bit dim.
Still, with Gilligan using his Evening Standard gig to stitch up a Brixton music academy, perhaps he’s perfectly at home in the “nah-nah-nah, we’re right, you’re wrong” extremes of the anti-Olympics protesters.
1630 GMT, Friday 27 March – first leg of the journey home is under way…
1710 GMT, Saturday 28 March – last leg of the journey home is under way…
See, which would you prefer, eh? My favourite moment on the entire Lisbon-Hendaye-Paris-central London-Charlton ride home (aside from having a woman swat a mosquito from my face on the Paris Metro) was getting a faceful of hail on platform one at London Bridge. Yeah, welcome home.
That said, I had a terrific time on my travels – everyone should share the exhilaration of Las Fallas in Valencia at least once in their lives; Madrid’s a terrific, cosmopolitan place to shop (when the euro/pound relationship improves) and enjoy yourself; and Lisbon was a world away from anything else I’ve experienced in western Europe (which isn’t saying much, admittedly). I should, actually, at this point plug the Solar Dos Mouros in Lisbon, possibly the best hotel I have ever stayed in, with rooms the size of studio flats and the nicest service I have ever come across. Take the one you love there (even if it’s just yourself) and give them a treat.
Doing the whole thing by train was expensive – I’ve not even started to tot up the fares – but made the whole thing into an adventure which just wouldn’t have been enjoyable by flying. And, of course, it pumps far less crap into the air too.
The downside? Well, trying to sleep on a train isn’t the easiest of things. Two out of the three sleepers were in shared compartments – Paris-Barcelona was shared with a Japanese tourist and a bloke from the Islamic Republic of oh-his-thumb’s-in-the-way-on-his-passport, Madrid to Lisbon with a Canadian photographer. I was a little more grateful to be with two non-English speakers, to be honest, although I probably pissed them off by heading to the bar, was bought beer by a man from Hong Kong for talking about football with him (“no, not Chelsea, Charlton – remember them?”) and then having to use the toilet 17 times upon my return. That aside, yes, the rocking motion of the train can lull you to sleep, but the clanging noises outside can be off-putting. If you’re tall, you might find the small beds a pain. Even on my own, and feeling tired and hungover, the Lisbon-Hendaye (on the French side of the border with Spain) train didn’t produce that much sleep for me. Then again, if you have another journey to come after a sleeper, you can catch up with sleep on that – Hendaye to Paris was first class on a TGV, and I quickly dozed off there; but Barcelona to Valencia in preferente class – free cava! free food! free in-train movie! – had such beautiful scenery that it was worth staying awake for. So be prepared to be not all there the next day, or to take a nap the next afternoon to catch up.
But the upsides are wonderful – watching Europe’s scenery change through sunny Portugal, waking up in the rain in the Basque country (and seeing the calm, blue Atlantic become an angry, grey beast as we slipped into France) and dozing off travelling from one end of France to another is a great experience. The service on most of the trains was terrific – it’s pretty cheap to go first class if you book early enough, and on a TGV you get a seat which feels like going back to bed. There’s a bar and restaurant on most sleeper trains – ones operated by/for Spain’s Renfe are usually pretty cheap, too, and chatting or eavesdropping in one of these makes the world feel a lot smaller. And, of course, you’re travelling city centre to city centre, and with none of the faff of airports, nor the idiots you find clogging them up. It’s a damn civilised way to travel.
Of course, with the planet’s future in the balance, it’d be great to have all this made easy for us, but… Eurostar sleepers were built, but never used, a legacy of successive governments eager to discourage any kind of sustainable living for fear they might disrupt their airline pals. Other countries are investing in high-speed rail, we want to build more airports. By 2012, Paris and Barcelona will be five-and-a-half hours apart – making it easy to do London-Barcelona within a day, without the pain of getting to/from airports. Even supposedly carbon-neutral Eurostar is part of the problem – its spookily-quiet Ebbsfleet International station was built to encourage car travellers from the M25, and was built without interchange with adjacent Northfleet rail station. With the help of the likes of The Man In Seat 61, it sometimes feels that travelling by train to Europe is sticking two fingers up at heads-in-sand politicians who’d rather we all just shut up and went by plane instead. Hey-ho.
There’s a couple of things to catch up on which I let simmer while I was away – and a few tweaks to be made to this blog now I’ve a bit of time on my hands. It was good to be away, but it’s good to be back…
Ah, yes. Cascais beach. Suddenly, Portugal falls into place, and I fancy going exploring – but I can’t, because I’m off home tomorrow. I depart at 4.06pm from Lisbon’s Saint Appolinia station, again at 7.53am CET on Saturday from Hendaye, France, for a TGV to Paris, then the 3.07pm CET Eurostar from Gare Du Nord. Back at St Pancras just before the football results come in. Sweet. Twenty-four and a half hours, capital to capital.
But – hold on – best check the trains on the last leg of the journey. Thameslink’s out, isn’t it? No easy way back to London Bridge, then. So does my Eurostar stop at Ebbsfleet? It doesn’t, but I find that’d be no good anyway since “buses replace trains between Dartford and Gravesend”. Oh lovely. So I’ve got to lump my stuff on the Northern Line.
But surely I could then get the Jubilee and treat myself to a cab from… “suspended between Green Park and Stratford”. Ah. So I’ll have to lump my stuff upstairs to rotten old London Bridge mainline, to wait for a service that’ll no doubt be reduced without warning because those engineering works in north Kent. I can take 14 hours in a three-country sleeper train. I’ve shared cabins with strangers and tried to fathom out all kinds of unfamiliar systems in the past 10 days. But the last 10 miles of my ride home worries me more than the other 1,000.
I might just stay out here after all…
(The towel was a leaving gift from my former colleagues – can you see a theme emerging there? I thought I’d demonstrate it was beng put to good use…)
I thought that, by being in Lisbon, I’d escaped all that, but alas… it’s a strange city, mind – feels a bit stuck in another age, it’s a pain to get around, but the people are friendly and the scenery is terrific. It’s maybe not one to visit solo, though. Hmmm.
Oh, and one other thing…
Why the hell would anyone want to read a day-old edition of the Evening Standard in Lisbon? “Oh look, the Tube’s in chaos again…” Probably a circulation wheeze, but a really odd sight nonetheless.
Last night I was starting to get angsty because travelling alone means I haven’t had a proper conversation in a week – a couple of snatched chats in Valencia, and not a peep here in Madrid, which is a bloody fabulous city. Then I got my super-snotty guide book out, had a wander down the back streets, and ended up sat in a couple of great bars, reading my book and musing on how I’ve suddenly gained a taste for rum and Coke.
It’s great here, not a Technicolor shock to the system like Barcelona, but a stately city which is great for going out in. Everyone here is heart-stoppingly beautiful which leaves me wondering how they let me in… time is already running out, though – in 12 hours I’ll be on another train, heading west. Before then, I think it’s a tour of the obvious sights…
They should prescribe Las Fallas on the NHS, you know. The train from Barcelona hugs the Mediterranean coast (and the sleeper before that contains a bloke from Hong Kong who buys you a beer for discussing Premier League football with him), and then you arrive in a city that’s buzzing-and going bang.
It’s been a great few days – I’ve only heard English voices twice all week and it’s been fabulous fun wandering around this agreeable city, taking in the hundreds of faller sculptures which went up in flames last night. The weirdest, which unfortunately I can’t present in any decent quality at the moment, features Victoria Beckham and a collection of dildos. Yup, it’s like that.
I adore Barcelona but know to my cost its downside of crime and general hassle; Valencia is less prepared for tourism but it’s a comfortable city that is easy both to get lost in and feel at home in.
Some 10 million euros were spent on Las Fallas this year, while Spain is gripped by what is called here La Crisis. (One of the first industries here to collapse was property – the city centre offices of Charlton’s now-defunct former sponsor Llanera are still up for sale, a year after my last visit.) They might not spend so much next year, but the festival of fire proves there’s more to life than worrying about money; there’s also having fun and enjoying each other’s company. The local media clears the decks for this – Canal Nou gleefully showing an Australian tourist telling its reporter the daytime fireworks were “better than sex”. (After a few bottles of Alhambra topped off with some agua de Valencia, he may be right.) Even for a solo-travelling Englishman, the mood’s infectious.
And guess who the only English person I spoke to was? A Crystal Palace supporter from West Norwood… with a Dutch bloke and his kids in tow. She was in town to learn Spanish. It’s time I did the same.
In the meantime, it’s time for my last night in Valencia – another train, another city awaits. But for now… isn’t this Tony Blair going up in flames here?
And at the end…
When the going gets tough, the tough bugger off out of it and throw themselves into a strange land where there’s loads of firecrackers being thrown.
Yup, I’ve yelled in the face of Her Majesty’s weakening sterling and hopped on a train to Valencia, to soak up the sights and sounds of Las Fallas, the city’s annual pyromaniac’s dream.
Sadly, my hotel, the Abba Acteon, has rubbish and overpriced wi-fi and there’s a general lack of the stuff in the city, so my plans for a lovingly-made multimedia travelogue haven’t really come to much. The vogueish among you could always make do with Twitter, if you’re really desperate to see what I’m seeing.
Or you could always call in at Hola Valencia, who shot the video above and actually live here, instead of coming here once a year, grunting “Hola!” and “Gracias!” and not bothering to learn any more of the language.
I’ll try to stick something up later, if I can, even if it is only the absurd muzak in the lift. In the meantime, it’s back out to join the throng!
And the final loose end to tie up, and it doesn’t involve complaining at all. Well, not much. I went to see Franz Ferdinand at the Hammersmith Apollo on Monday night – they were terrific, and refreshing too; a hit-laden main set, followed by an encore of mainly less familiar stuff. No bullshit, no time wasting. They’re great.
But one thing struck me. I wasn’t down where the video above was shot; I was up in the circle sat down. I’ve hardly ever done this at a gig – mainly because I usually steer clear of big-venue gigs. But it was pretty damn frustrating – I checked the people behind me and they seemed half-asleep and unlikely to rise, so decided to stay sat down. Next to me, a couple in front had stood up, which resulted in the bloke next to me losing his rag with them. It was a bit like watching a football match in the 89th minute when your team’s 4-0 up and not being able to stand up. A really weird experience. Next time, I might just check that I’m (literally) down with the kids instead…
It’s not just Greenwich Council that takes a long, long while to answer to complaints. One weekend early six months ago, what BBC London would call TRANSPORT CHAOS! hit this little corner of south-east London. For a whole weekend, there were no trains through Greenwich, Charlton or Woolwich. There were also no trains from Blackheath station, knocking out the alternative. And there were also no trains on the Jubilee Line, ky-boshing the third alternative. (This was before the DLR came to Woolwich.)
It was a grim weekend – my main memory of which is trying to get to Nottingham for a Charlton match; I just made it to St Pancras on time, my travelling companion didn’t and had to fork out a fortune for new tickets. I fear he’ll explode if he’s reminded of the episode. But with his mental health in mind, I dropped London Underground and Network Rail a line to see just what the bloody hell they thought they were playing at. LU responded quickly and thoroughly, saying the date had been scheduled for some six months and that Network Rail often planned their works at short notice, and the two did act to co-ordinate these things. Network Rail took three weeks, and responded with: “Network Rail plans railway closures based on a number of factors but our primary concern is safety.” Er, not good enough. It didn’t even explain why two different lines were closed (the Jubilee Line, meanwhile, is going through a badly-needed signal upgrade which will, supposedly, transform the service).
So, I complained to London Travelwatch, which is meant to be “the voice of London’s transport users”. A few weeks later, I got a response stating that they accepted London Underground scheduled its line closures carefully, but they would pursue Network Rail for a further explanation. A few more weeks passed. Months passed. Autumn ended, and winter came. Big Ben ushered in a new year. America elected a new president, and he took office. Michael Jackson announced a comeback. Some streets in Charlton got swept. And, finally, earlier this week… a response.
“May I begin by apologising for the delay there has been in dealing with your concerns as I note the incident in question occured in September 2008. Railtrack [sic] did not help with the situation by replying until February this year.”
Hmmm. Railtrack was effectively wound up six-and-a-half years ago, but let’s skip that. Apparently, the work was on the tracks between Charlton and Blackheath junctions, through that very long tunnel under Blackheath, which required hefty engineering trains which could be up to a quarter of a mile long, so both lines needed closing. It’d been nice if they’d told us this at the time.
“Network Rail… explain that as their engineering works are planned between 5-2 years [sic] in advance, other operators in London would have had ample opportunity to comment where LUL of [sic] DLR works would be likely to cause conflicting problems.”
So, both these works had been scheduled for at least six months. Did they meet to compare notes? We still don’t know.
“It is our understanding that LUL tries as hard to avoid closure clashes with Network Rail, although sometimes the volume of work is so great that this is not always possible.
“We believe that Network Rail tries as hard.”
Is that it? So Network Rail takes four months to reply to its enquiries, and London Travelwatch accepts its explanation – which conflicts with that of London Underground – without question? They clearly don’t try as hard, because Network Rail tried the same trick in January, this time closing the Greenwich line when the Jubilee line was also closed (but allowing some trains through just to serve people going to a gig at the O2).
So what is the point of London Travelwatch if it’s fed obvious cobblers by a unaccountable transport body, and then says “Well, that’s alright then” and replies with a typo-ridden letter? This isn’t a watchdog, it’s a lapdog, snoring while rail companies who greedily help themselves to our cash also steal hours of our time. It might as well be put down if that’s the best it can come up with.