Archive for April 2009
It’s almost become a cliche to muse on just how right Charlie Brooker is, but he scored a bullseye on last night’s Newswipe with this rant about wossface off that show I don’t watch because I’m usually out or doing something else. In words I could never find at the time, it’s neatly summed up why I slammed the brakes on my own career, out of exhaustion with a world where the ins and outs of television talent shows gradually assumed such importance that you could simply follow them by reading the news, not watching the shows.
(Not that I’m contributing much else to the world at present, other than sitting at a keyboard ranting, but hey, give it time. Once I’ve come back from delivering some leaflets, that is…)
Looks like the Evening Standard’s getting back into its role as cheerleader-in-chief for Boris Johnson:
Mayor Boris Johnson today backed an extraordinary attempt by London councils to grab power for the people.
A new City Charter would give them the right to choose local police commanders and have a crucial say on health and transport policies.
Uh-oh. The plans include letting councils appoint their own police chiefs, control bus routes and take back Transport for London’s power over major roads. Basically, this looks like an attempt to whittle away at the powers of the mayor and London assembly, giving a future government an excuse to abolish it.
This is madness – London boroughs are hardly the most democratic of organisations, elected on low turnouts (Greenwich managed 35.81% in 2006) under a first-past-the-post system, while the London mayoral and assembly elections last year had a turn-out of 45% on proportional representation, which has meant a wide range of views are represented there and no vote is wasted. Some councils are basically one-party states, where opposition finds it hard to get off the ground, while Greater London is finely balanced between the left and right, meaning power has swung fairly evenly between Labour and the Conservatives since the boundaries were established in the mid-1960s. And London’s often-arbitary borough boundaries cut through communities and create administrative difficulties for even the most simplest of things.
An example – at the end of Crystal Palace Parade, four boroughs meet. Walk from the bus stops, around the mini-roundabout, and into the park, and you’ll go from Southwark, to Lambeth, to Croydon, and to Bromley. Walk to the rear of the park and you’ll end up in Lewisham. When Bromley Council wanted to redevelop the site of the old Crystal Palace, there was outrage from its neighbours. Lambeth Council has a set of recycling bins at the end of Crystal Palace Parade. Twenty steps away, there’s a Southwark “recycling centre”. A mayor should be there to smooth over those differences, not encourage them under some misleading claim of “democracy”.
A further example – the recent closure of the A2 at Blackheath Hill, west Greenwich. A boundary quirk means this stretch of road is in the borough of Lewisham – there’s the boundary stone on the right, next to a (Greenwich) sign. Greenwich’s light green wheelie bins face the dark green of Lewisham on opposite sides of the road. However, it is maintained by Transport for London, so the divide doesn’t really matter so much. But left to their own devices, Lewisham and Greenwich don’t have the best of records on co-operation. In the early 1990s, they had a big falling-out about Greenwich imposing a lorry ban in Greenwich town centre, forcing HGVs onto Lewisham’s A2. While the A2 was closed, Lewisham refused to allow buses use some of its roads as a diversion route, sending the problem to Greenwich. Likewise, Greenwich recently declined to involve neighbouring Lewisham residents in consultation about the Olympic Games in Greenwich. Left to their own devices, could you really trust these organisations to work together?
The most hare-brained idea is allowing councils control of bus services – even though very few routes stay wholly in one borough. What is there to stop, say, Greenwich from re-routing services away from Lewisham to give its own shopping centres a boost?
Most of our lives aren’t spent just in one borough. I live in Greenwich, used to work in Hammersmith & Fulham, do some of my shopping in Lewisham and Tower Hamlets, and visit family in Bexley. If anything, boroughs need less power so they can concentrate on nitty-gritty issues like local housing, cleaning streets, and running leisure facilities; and leave the big-ticket stuff to London-wide authorities. Or if they must have more power, then they need to be reformed with redrawn boundaries, properly elected, not on outdated first-past-the-post elections which see them elected by tiny minorities.
If you’re fan of Boris and you’re not convinced – imagine having the current Greenwich Council run everything for the next few years, without the mayor you backed last year to keep them in check. There, not such a good idea now, is it?
The train companies are finally discovering what we all knew 15 years ago – privatising the damn things was a disaster. But they still have to squeeze money out of them to tide their shareholders over, so they’re commissioning the nation’s best and brightest to help promote their 2-for-1 deals to get families into London’s attractions. (That’s 2 for 1 in the attractions, not on the trains themselves. Of course not.)
The bright idea these Nathan Barleys came up with? Why not spam Twitter users with generous offers to haul the family into the capital’s top tourist sites? So, this morning, I woke up to find I’m being followed by @Days_Out_Guide. Unfortunately, the multi-media nodes who created this haven’t got it quite right, and have set it up to spew out news agency stories about London.
Which don’t exactly present a flattering view of the city…
(Screen grab taken at 10.45am on 29 April 2009)
So, let me see – two stories about the capital’s most grisly terrorist attack (one from US campaign website FreeDetainees.org, surely not one that’s top of Stagecoach boss Brian Souter‘s favourites), an Irish Times story about an Evening Standard poll, a stabbing in Stockwell, and, er, something about a new high school principal in a Connecticut city called New London. Well, after seeing that lot, I’m taking the kids to see the sights!
Oh dear – I wonder how much farepayers’ money went on that daft promotion? Talking of fares, I read something on the FT’s website yesterday about journalist Matthew Engel’s new book where he travelled by train around Great Britain for a fortnight to see the sights and, well, because he likes riding on trains. He did it on a little-promoted ticket called an All Line Rail Rover – almost-unlimited travel for a fortnight from £565 (or £375 for a week). Turns out transport minister Lord Adonis did just that a couple of weeks back, an experience he found an eye-opener (although not enough for him to apologise for privatising them in the first place). Suddenly, the thought of a wander across the country by train – up to Scotland, down to Cornwall, through the Lakes, the Peaks, into Wales, not going anywhere near Birmingham New Street… suddenly seemed rather seductive. I began to look at my diary.
And then I found, almost by accident… news which you won’t find on National Rail’s website. They’re hiking the price up by nearly 15% to £430 (for 7 days) from next month. The current rate of inflation is -0.4%. Suddenly the idea doesn’t seem such good value. Maybe I won’t do it after all. Still, I hope the goons who are spamming Twitter users on the train firms’ behalf will get their share of the rise.
One of the upsides about not having to commute anywhere at the moment is that I don’t have to see the free newspapers which clog up London’s transport networks each evening rush hour – partly because I knew what would be in them anyway, having been across newswires as part of my job, and partly because London Lite was, and, remains, the most awful, prissy, spiteful, trivial publication known to mankind. The London Paper, by contrast, has at least a spark of imagination to it, even if its news coverage sometimes leaves something to be desired. Tuesday’s paper, however, left me wondering what the hell they must have been on – who on earth thought scaremongering about the swine flu outbreak would be a good idea? I had to make a quick journey in and out of the West End and all I could see was that bloody headline everywhere. It’s crap like that which makes people panic, and when even the Mail takes a cautious line, someone, somewhere, should have known much better.
Oddly, though, The London Paper covered the kind of story which it can do well, about an epidemic that can kill thousands in London each year – and it’s something we choose to do nothing about, even though it’s entirely within our control. It says a report due this week claims 3,000 people a year die in the capital because of our high pollution levels. That’s a real scandal, and something we can stop. Naturally, though, the story was buried deep in the paper and doesn’t even appear on its website. It’s basic stuff, of course – papers like to whip up hysteria about things we have little control over, and play down positive things we can do to improve the place we live in; but I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast.
Is there a moral to this? Don’t just run to the hills, get in your 4×4 and speed the way there, I suppose.
The second chunk of my round-London-on-foot odyssey wasn’t, to be honest, a soaraway success. I had company this time, but my strolling companion found his feet ripped to shreds by his walking boots. The suburban calm of Penge was punctuated with the sounds of OW! as he battled bravely to the end. And my camera obligingly conked out somewhere around Beckenham, so some of the shots here have been given a crude bit of Photoshopping to pep them up a bit.
Picking up from where I left off at Baring Road, Grove Park, the walk passes down Railway Children Walk – author Edith Nesbit lived nearby – and into a little nature reserve. Up and over the railway line, and into Downham, now a largely unloved suburb, but built between the wars as a development of neat council houses. Until the 1920s, it really was all fields around here – this being the old London/Kent boundary – and while the area these days doesn’t have the best of reputations, the back streets are neat, tidy, and innocuous enough.
It does have one hidden gem, though – the Downham Woodland Walk, a narrow strip which is a remnant of the old Great North Wood, which covered a great chunk of what’s now south London. A lot of thought’s clearly gone into maintaining the wood and making it a space for the community – from little tracks on the ground to tree stumps shaped like tea cups. It’s all rather sweet.
Across the Bromley Road, down some back roads, and into Beckenham Place Park, an impressive open space which is part grassland, part woodland, and part golf course. Unfortunately, the signage for the Capital Ring is pretty dire here and we ended up marching off in the wrong direction, although we soon picked up our steps again. Beckenham Place, dating back to the 18th century, isn’t the prettiest of old houses, but it’s a reminder of how south London’s gentry – in this case timber merchant John Cator – used to live. Some of the materials in Beckenham Place, including its portico, came from Wricklemarsh House, Blackheath, which Cator had bought some years earlier and demolished, and whose family later developed the still-private Cator Estate on the land.
Out of the park, down gravelly Stumps Hill Lane and to Kent County Cricket Club’s sleepy south London ground. The team’s main base is in Canterbury, but some Twenty20 matches are played here and there’s a fair bit of community work done here. Less welcome is the sight of Crystal Palace‘s training ground next door. And after that, the walk becomes little more than a meander through neat suburban streets, with diversions to go through well-kept parks. It’s all very agreeable, but it’s a bit like completing a dot-to-dot puzzle on foot.
It was at this point my camera gave up the ghost, but to be honest there isn’t too much to record here. Cator Park is very nice and contains the Beck – the stream which gives Beckenham its name – and the Chaffinch Brook, which had a bright blue kids’ bike dumped in the middle. A little alley contains two stern warnings from the borough of Beckenham’s town clerk that cycling will incur a £5 fine, and at Alexandra Recreation Ground, the Crystal Palace TV mast looms into view. The end is nigh. Over Penge East station, past Penge West, into the park, and that’s it.
I like Crystal Palace Park – the remnants of the old glass palace give the place a haunted feel, even if it’s a bright, sunny day. Incredibly, Bromley Council wanted to build a multiplex here. It commands great views out towards Kent and Surrey and, for me, it marks the end of familiar territory. From here, the next steps are into Norbury, and into Streatham. When the sun starts shining again, that is. And hopefully with a working camera…
A bit tardy with this, but better late than never. Annoyingly, my really bloody good camera conked out on Friday and so the compact was wheeled into action for Marathon Sunday. This is the 29th London Marathon I’ve lived through – anyone else remember the first, in 1981? – and it still doesn’t get boring.
t’s the only Sunday of the year I’ll happily clamber out of bed before 9am. It’s habit, from being woken up by preparations (and bands) from when I lived within water bottle-throwing distance of the route. Now it’s a leisurely stroll through the fun-runners at the one mile mark before wandering downhill to see the elite men at five miles – and hear the drummers under the flyover – and into Greenwich for a morning Guinness at six miles.
As an event which brings people together, it just can’t be beat.
I couldn’t help thinking the police were a bit on the officious side this year – nagging a bloke stood on a bit of street furniture seemed a bit sour but may have been justified, insisting crowds stand on the pavement even at the end of the race wasn’t, though.
At the back of the field, everyone gets their own personal cheer, although I’m not sure they’re helped by seeing marathon officials dismantle the race around them.
And then… peace and quiet, with no cars allowed onto the course until it’s cleaned up. One day, maybe, the marathon street closure will last all day and people will be free to walk the streets of Greenwich. Until then, those couple of hours after the marathon are the best we’ve got.
Technically, this is my local – The Valley, which has sat in Elliscombe Road, Charlton for over 40 years. It’s only an estate pub, but it was my grandad’s local, and was fondly remembered by Charlton fans who went there for a pre-match pint. I remember it having a decent beer garden when I was little. It was opened in the mid-1960s by former Charlton and England winger Harold Hobbis, who was its first landlord. The last time I was in there, it still had an impressive picture of The Valley (the ground) inside, from the days when Hobbis was working his way to being one of the club’s all-time top goalscores.
I used it a bit when I moved here, but it went downhill shortly afterwards when it changed hands – I remember popping in to watch football on TV, finding my pint of Guinness tasting like it’d come from the sewer and the match switched off at half-time so the bar staff could watch Blind Date on TV. It was like that.
The pub closed last summer – apparently there was a robbery – and has remained “closed until further notice” since. The chances of it ever reopening are very slim indeed. A few years back a planning application to turn the site into flats was rejected, new plans are now before Greenwich Council to build nine flats here.
It’s a shame to see it go – it’d seen better days but as a building it could be a great asset to the community. The local estates have to use meeting rooms and community facilities that are like cupboards – here, the pub is bright and airy, and the days of smoky bars are long gone. Moving some of these into the building might encourage people from the estates and the rest of us to mix a bit – there’s a real social divide here, with the estates (literally) looking inwards and the rest of us just seeing blocks of flats. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have thought about trying to keep it going, and it looks like it’ll go. In a week when beer duty’s gone up yet again, helping push more pubs to the wall, it’s worth remembering places like The Valley – and trying to think of ways of keeping them afloat.
A few days ago, an old colleague posted on Twitter that an old Tube map had been uncovered at White City station. All kinds of odd things popped up during upgrade works there, including fragments of decades-old ads, a promo for the 1983 Capital Radio Jazz Festival, and posters imploring Tube users to buy cheap day returns – which haven’t been available for about 25 years.
I peered at the attached picture and tapped back – “the saddest thing is that I can date that” – because a quick glance showed it to be a Travelcard zones map from the early 1990s, before rail privatisation and the sneaky introduction of zone 6. Yes, I am a geek, but at least it means I rarely get lost.
How could I tell? Well, the lack of zone 6 was a clue, and while I couldn’t tell if Aldwych station was still there, a quick glance up at the North London Line showed it to be almost entirely in one zone, passing smoothly through zone 2. Just like the introduction of a sixth zone, rail privatisation brought about another sneaky, dishonest way of increasing fares when the fledgling Silverlink (then called North London Railways) plonked Hampstead Heath station in zone 3, as a quick and easy way of raising fares. When Transport for London-backed London Overground took over the line in 2007, the little kink in the fares map was taken out. Thank heavens those days are over, I thought.
Except they’re not. When the all-new East London Line opens next year, no longer part of the Tube but part of the grown-up mainline network, there’s going to be a chiselling little change to the map. And it’ll cost passengers a fortune. The old East London Tube line had Shoreditch station in zone 2. The new East London mainline route will have its replacement, Shoreditch High Street, in Zone 1. Effectively, it’ll be a toll charge on the extension that’ll hit passengers coming from, or to, south London – at current rates, this means a ticket from New Cross to Hoxton would cost up to £2.20, instead of £1.10 on the current arrangements. (Outside the rush hour, the fare would be £1.60.) Hampstead Heath to Hoxton, meanwhile, would remain at £1.10. It’s a particularly sneaky addition seeing as Zone 1 north of the river doesn’t extend beyond the Circle Line, and it’s not as if you can hop on another line from Shoreditch High Street.
The charge – not previously revealed to the public – is part of an agreement between the government and Transport for London to fund a further extension of the East London Line to Clapham Junction, which has also seen the secretive scrappng of plans to keep trains running between Victoria and Clapham High Street when the new line opens. The plans were revealed by usually-supine watchdog London Travelwatch.
It just shows really that under this current government and this current mayor, public transport just isn’t safe – and while car drivers are pandered to, train users are going to be asked to take yet another hit. We really are back in the early 1990s, days of cutbacks and sneaky fare rises. These are depressing times.
It’s almost over. Next week, life will get back to normal. Yes, the A2 going up Blackheath Hill is due to be open again for traffic on Monday, with Transport for London aiming to get work finished by Sunday’s London marathon. Sing hallejulah!
It’s fair to say that the past few weeks have not been pleasant while Transport for London has rebuilt the road. Passing through on Wednesday, it looked like there was a bit of work still to do, but at least the ugly barriers in the middle of the road are being slowly removed. If you’ve been trying to get around Greenwich, Blackheath, Lewisham or Deptford, it’s been agony. Greenwich has been, more or less, gridlocked throughout, traffic has crawled through Blackheath Village while the tailbacks have stretched to New Cross and beyond. And bus schedules have been ripped up because of it – with the main 53 service forced into a lengthy diversion through Greenwich, annoyingly without stopping at any bus stops.
Actually, that’s not strictly true – I got on one in the early hours of Sunday and it kept stopping. Bearing in mind they’d sailed past me every time I’d tried to get one before, was this just a night bus thing? I e-mailed Transport for London to ask, and no, it wasn’t – “I can confirm that, while on this temporary diversion, route 53 buses are scheduled to stop at all bus stops along this route. It is very disappointing to note that this procedure has not been followed on occasions, and I would like to offer my sincere apologies for the inconvenience caused”. I wish I’d chased them up on this earlier, now.
But one thing struck me about this closure – drivers simply refused to adapt to losing the A2. For much of 2002, the road was closed because of subsidence. The first month was painful, and while Greenwich was slow-going throughout, people seemed to take on board the message that they’d have to find another route, or another means of travelling.
This time around, things have been different – the most telling sign being by Greenwich Park, which only allows through traffic between 4pm and 7pm each evening. From 3.45pm, great queues of cars have built up in Greenwich town centre as drivers try to skip the roadworks by going through the park. Is it really worth all that effort and frustration? Is it just a bloody-minded “screw you” because the road is closed for humdrum roadworks and not a spectacular collapse? Or are people just too wedded to the comfort of their cars? I feel sorry for people who have to drive for a living – the ban on trade vehicles in Greenwich Park hasn’t helped them, but has helped people happy to clog up roads because it’s not sitting next to nasty human beings on buses or trains. Some people, I fear, just don’t help themselves.
But we’re in a society where the car is still king – Boris Johnson got elected partly as a backlash to Ken Livingstone’s public-transport-prioritising, drivers are being prodded to buy new cars in the budget (instead of, say, joining car clubs) and Greenwich Council wanted to see the park opened up all day for all motorists, which the Royal Parks Agency wisely said no to. This sunny week in the park wouldn’t have been much fun with a permanent jam snaking through it.
I don’t drive – I did lessons for a bit when I was younger, but it took far too long for me to get confident behind the wheel and I gave the lessons up. I don’t think my life has suffered by not driving, my bank balance certainly hasn’t, and so the closure hasn’t affected me too much because I’m happy to to walk or jump on a train. That’s my choice. I wish more people did the same, but I know people need encouragement and better, cheaper public transport. But the effects of Blackheath Hill’s closure showed just how far away we are from that, and from having the courage to take the issue on in a sensible, thought-out way. And the side-effects of that will be with us longer than any delay from a traffic jam.